Thanks to the proliferation of specialty coffee shops in New York over the past 10 years — particularly transplants like Gimme! Coffee, Blue Bottle, Stumptown, Toby’s Estate, and Counter Culture — what was once a relatively quick, less-than-$3 transaction has become increasingly complex (and delicious). Buying a cup of coffee might now include selecting one of myriad brewing methods, having your coffee run through a multitude of contraptions, witnessing theatrical presentations, perusing lists of beans organized by country of origin, and of course, spending more money for the final cup. It’s become a little more like looking at a wine or craft beer list, and for many, it’s a bit intimidating. However, you can start to make sense of it all when you have a few extra minutes in the café to ask questions. Or, even better, set aside 45 minutes for a cupping.
Cupping is a standardized process of evaluating the taste and aroma of brewed coffee to select and maintain quality of roasted coffee beans. It is primarily used by coffee buyers and roasters, but some cafes do it to select the beans they wish to offer customers, which also allows the baristas to better inform customers of what flavors and textures they can anticipate in their drink. But even for an amateur, the process is the best way to learn the differences among coffees before accessorizing with milk and sugar. And unless you order an espresso-based drink, by the way, try drinking drip coffee black, the way it’s meant to be. You don’t add soy milk and Splenda to wine, right?
If you’ve been to a wine tasting, you’ve had a somewhat similar experience, though cupping has more regimented steps. And as with wine tasting, you don’t need to be a coffee geek to partake.
There are generally three stages in the cupping experience: Smelling the grinds, smelling the brewed coffee from those grinds, and tasting the brewed coffee using spoons. In some instances, you may be provided with a pre-printed form to record impressions; good baristas should open up a dialogue between staff and tasters to discuss the samples.
You can do this for free (or at a reasonable cost) in Manhattan and Brooklyn on weekdays and weekends. Some cafés offer public cuppings onsite; Joe Coffee and roaster Counter Culture have opened training centers. In either case, the experience is well worth the time. Cuppings are a kind of coffee social, chaperoned by knowledgeable baristas who are willing to listen to any description, no matter how outlandish, with a straight face. (Last week I tasted nori in a Congo coffee and was awarded a gold star for peculiarity. Someone else recognized salted plums in the same cup.)
The experience can be frustrating. Some attendees may cite that a sample evokes “floral, jasmine, and blueberry” while you may be thinking “it smells like hot coffee.” Here’s where starting with simple observations on body, finish, and acidity (brightness, not whether you feel heartburn) can help you differentiate between samples and gain an appreciation of regional tendencies.
Counter Culture’s newly opened training center in SoHo is particularly impressive, with its large space, vaulted ceiling, blonde wood bleacher seating, and direct access from Broome Street.
Joe New York, multiple locations
Joe Coffee opened its first café in the West Village in what is still one of the most charming spots in the city, and it’s since expanded to eight cafés in Manhattan and two in Philadelphia. Two years ago, the team opened Joe Coffee’s Proshop, and this year, it began exclusively roasting its beans in Red Hook. Upcoming cuppings, usually Fridays or Saturdays every three to four weeks, are listed on the website under the classes section. They cost $25 and require sign-ups.
Stumptown, 30 West 8th Street, 347-414-7802
Stumptown started in Portland, Oregon in 1999; expanded to Seattle and Los Angeles; and eventually opened a roasting operation in Red Hook as well as a café next door to the Ace Hotel (where the cool kids lounge on couches all day drinking caps, illuminated by the blue glow emanating from their Macs). The newest Stumptown café is on West 8th Street in Greenwich Village, and it hosts a number of activities in the backroom brew bar, including free cuppings at 2 p.m. on Mondays.
Think Coffee, 73 Eighth Avenue
Think Coffee is one of two cafés on this list that were founded in NYC (Joe is the other). Launched by a former lawyer in 2006, Think’s emphasis was on living up to fair trade and sustainable ideals. The company gives 10 percent of after-tax profits to local charities and often sources its coffee directly from growers rather than relying on roasters. Think has six cafes in Manhattan; the West Village location has free cuppings at 2 p.m. on Fridays as well as various experiments and free tastings throughout the week.
Counter Culture, 376 Broome Street, 917-202-8103
Founded in Durham, North Carolina, this coffee roaster and wholesaler just opened a training center in Soho, one of seven facilities around the country. The center does not offer beans for retail nor serve as a café, but those who attend its free public cuppings on Fridays at 10 a.m. are encouraged to hang around and enjoy a proper cup of the same beans using a variety of brewing methods (last week the team made Chemex and Kalita Wave brews).
Gimme! Coffee, 107 Roebling Street, 718-388-4595
Founded in Ithaca in 2000, Gimme! was one of the first specialty coffeehouses to arrive in NYC, opening in Williamsburg in 2003. Expanding modestly to three locations in the city, this company places great emphasis on an open and collaborative supply chain as well as on community activism, which reflects its business goal of “balancing nature, people, and profits.” Gimme! Coffee occasionally holds free cuppings at its 107 Roebling street location.
Toby’s Estate, 125 North 6th Street, 347-457-6160
Toby’s Estate is an Australian import (it hails from Sydney) that opened a very popular and often crowded café, which also houses roasting operations, in early 2012; Manhattan got the second NYC outpost at 160 Fifth Avenue, where the coffee shop is part of a Club Monaco. The Williamsburg café offers $5 cuppings on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. in its back lab; space is limited to five attendees (pre-bookings required).
Blue Bottle, 160 Berry Street, 718-387-4160
Blue Bottle, founded in the Bay Area in 2005, is known for preparing individual cups to-order; it’s also one of the few coffee-mongers in the city to offer siphon coffee (head to the Chelsea location). The company expanded to New York in 2010 with a location on 160 Berry Street, where it opened a café and local roasting facility that conducts free cuppings on Thursdays at noon. Its three other locations in NYC — the High Line (spring and summer), across the street from Chelsea Market, and Rockefeller Center — will be joined by a fifth location at 85 Dean Street in Brooklyn, which should open in 2014.