Coffee cupping at Market Lane café in Melbourne had been recommended to us by a guide on one of the market tours we did. Melburnians are obsessed with their coffee and cafés and see Melbourne as a global coffee-making capital. Does Melbourne make the world’s best coffee? We weren’t convinced after some disappointing coffees at well-regarded cafés, but we were willing to be persuaded.
The best coffee we’d had was at Market Lane’s café opposite Queen Victoria Market, so we thought their coffee cupping held at their Prahran Market café was a chance to learn more and better understand Melbourne’s passion for coffee.
A coffee cupping is a coffee tasting. Coffee producers, roasters and cafés all do cuppings. Cafés do cuppings behind the scenes to taste and evaluate new coffees or coffees they’re considering purchasing from roasteries. Coffee cupping isn’t new. It’s been an industry standard across the world for tasting coffee for almost as long as coffee has been an industry. What’s new is the fact that this behind-the-scenes process has been brought front of house and is being offered to customers to experience.
“Cupping is just a way for us to assess the coffee we buy in its purest form,” explains Jason Scheltus, Market Lane’s roaster and co-founder with Fleur Studd. “It’s a way for us to judge how well the coffee was processed and how clean the picked berries were. There are different things that affect the coffee’s taste, the type of coffee plant, where it was ground, processing, and roasting.”
We’re in a room at the back of the café beside a high wooden table which Jenni Bryant, Market Lane’s head of education, has set up for the cupping.
“We need to make sure that every coffee is treated exactly the same,” says Jenni, who is boiling the water to be added to the freshly ground coffee. There’s a row of six cupping bowls containing coffee grinds, and beside each cup a small tray of beans that is numbered (it’s a blind cupping), along with bowls of water.
Jenni and Jason explain the evaluation process and forms typically used in cuppings. Factors assessed include roast (colour), aroma (of dry grinds, wet crust and break), defects, clean cup, sweetness, acidity, mouthfeel, flavour, after-taste, and balance. The best coffee should be the sweetest and cleanest, with the best balance.
The first stage is a visual analysis, where we look at the colour and size of the beans. Then we assess the dry coffee aroma, picking up each cup, agitating it, and hitting the cup on its side to open up the coffee before inhaling it.
After that, Jenni adds 180 grams of hot water to the 12 grams of coffee in each cup, filling them to the rim. We leave them for five minutes to brew before beginning the assessment of the wet aroma and flavours.
For the next stage, we use a soup-size cupping spoon to break the crust of coffee grinds that have formed on the coffee and clean the ‘chaff’ off, as the crust coffee is called, before inhaling again. We make sure we dip each spoon into the hot water before dipping it into a different cup.
Lastly, we undertake a complicated little technique I couldn’t quite get the hang of, despite Jenni’s best attempts to demonstrate. Terence, of course, catches on quickly, but it will take more than one cupping session for me to ignore everything my family ever taught me about good manners. Yes, for the final stage we’re required to slurp! And slurp loudly.
We skim the spoon very lightly across the surface, slurping the coffee while simultaneously breathing in to aerate the coffee in our mouths. At the same time we need to inhale. And then we spit. It’s tricky to get the hang of. This time, we’re analysing for sweetness, mouthfeel, acidity, and after-taste.
We do this for each cup, dipping our spoons into the water between tastings. Then, we go another round again. I don’t get a great deal from the first round but as the water begins to cool I discern more flavours coming through and begin to appreciate the complexity of characteristics of each coffee.
I struggle to identify the different flavours, though, as I don’t have the vocabulary for coffee that I do for wine or spirits. One coffee tastes fruitier than others, but I can’t yet discern whether it’s apricot or peach in the way I might detect melon or pineapple in a chardonnay.
I do know what I like and don’t like, however, and much to my surprise, despite being a coffee lover, I don’t like much of what I taste. I put this down to the consistency of the tasting coffee, which is considerably weaker than this espresso fan would normally drink her coffee: short, strong and syrupy. There’s one coffee that excites me, which is spicier, fruitier and more perfumed than the others. Sadly, this is the only coffee Jason and Jennie can’t identify, although they guess it’s a special single origin from lower Ethiopia.
Jenni reveals the names of the coffees we’ve blind-tasted, providing detailed information cards for each coffee and she and Jason share their own tasting notes. Among the six we tried, we tasted Estrella, a floral coffee with soft acidity and notes of chocolate, honey and apricot, produced using organic methods by Juan Ticona and Cristobal Calani, two neighbours in the small settlement of Colonia Juan 8 Estrellas in Bolivia.
We tried Musasa, which had a buttery mouthfeel with notes of cherry, peach and tropical fruits, produced by the Dukunde Kawa Musasa Cooperative in the rugged northwest of Rwanda. And we tasted Solum, a heavy bodied espresso bean with a cherry sweetness and notes of pecan and cocoa, produced in Brazil’s Bahia state by agronomist Claudionor Dutro Neto on a farm he’s worked for 16 years.
I love the information cards, printed on recycled paper. They not only describe the coffee and beans, but how they’re grown and harvested, the soil they’re grown in, the location of the farms, and the farm owners. They also list the coffee price, which Jason explains is different for each coffee, reflecting the price Market Lane pays, so that people begin to understand how things work.
It’s the sort of detailed story we’re used to getting about wines and it’s exciting to learn café owners care enough about their coffee and coffee producers to provide this level of detail to customers.
The lovely Fleur Studd, who I’d connected with via email, joins us in the cupping room. It was Fleur who established Melbourne Coffee Merchants and Market Lane cafés, after following the wise advice of her dad who said if she was going to work so hard, to do something she really loves.
Fleur was working at Monmouth Coffee in London, learning everything she could about coffee, when in 2008 she befriended fellow Melburnian Jason, who was in London training to be a coffee roaster. They both met American-born Jenni, also working in coffee. After returning to Australia to set up Melbourne Coffee Merchants, with the aim of sourcing and importing green coffee, Fleur bumped into Jason and invited him to partner with her to open Market Lane.
The pair have travelled to coffee producing countries to meet producers and visit farms. Their aim is 100% traceability, meaning they want to know exactly where their beans have come from and who grows them, and they celebrate their provenance by sharing the stories of the coffee’s origin and the people who grew it.
Fleur articulated their reasoning passionately in a post from 2009 on the Market Lane blog: “From the moment I began my journey in the coffee world, I have been busting to go to origin. You can read volumes and watch footage from others – but it is not until you actually taste your first coffee cherry, feel the sticky musilage that covers the bean, see the processing in action, smell the deliciously rich jasmine aroma from the flowering coffee plant, hear the farmers tell their story, and intimately experience a country that you can even really start to appreciate and understand what is involved in getting a single bean to cup.”
Those note cards go some way in communicating what’s involved, as do the stories of Fleur and Jason’s trips to Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, and Brazil on the Market Lane blog. But actions, as always, speak louder than words. Fleur and Jason buy and roast small batches of coffee to ensure they have the best quality coffee, they only use coffee that is in season and offer ‘Seasonal Espressos’, they roast to order to ensure they’re serving the freshest coffee, and they cup daily to make sure the coffee tastes fantastic.
And it does taste fantastic. We return to Market Lane a week later for a couple of quick espressos after shopping at Prahran market, and it is still some of the best coffee we’ve tried in Melbourne.
What I would have liked to have done at the end of the cupping is a comparative espresso tasting. For coffee-lovers, cupping is a way to compare coffees and, as you begin to discern different flavour profiles, a way to develop your palate – in the same way we learn to identify different wine grapes, styles and blends. The difference with wine tasting is that we drink what has come out of the bottle, rarely what’s come out of the tank.
Coffee cuppings are terrific experiences if you love coffee, especially in such a coffee-fueled destination as Melbourne. I’ll certainly get along to some cuppings again. After I figure out how to simultaneously spoon, slurp, sniff, and aerate!
Market Lane holds its public coffee cuppings four times a week, from Thursday to Sunday from 10-11am and they’re free. Anyone can attend, whether they’re veteran cuppers or first-timers. If you’re in Melbourne on a short stay or with a group of family or friends, email ahead of time: email@example.com. Market Lane also sells brilliant coffee gifts, such as the Jet Set Starter Kit “for the mobile coffee lover” that includes everything you need to create great coffee on the road.
163 Commercial Road
Entrance on Elizabeth Street
South Yarra, Melbourne
03 9804 7434