If you’ve ever been to my hometown, I’m sure you couldn’t help but notice that cafés are institutions at the center of social life, serving as neighbourhood hubs for Parisians to rendez-vous, leisurely read a book, or sip tiny espressos and demis while engaging in their favourite pass time: people-watching. Café culture is a little different in D.C., which boasts 77 Starbucks, but I’ve been encouraged by the recent openings of a number of independent coffee shops: Chinatown Coffee Co., Peregrine Expresso, Mid City Caffe and, more recently, Big Chair Coffee in Anacostia.
The appearance of these independent coffee shops sheds light on the gentrification of the neighbourhoods where they pop up, so it’s not surprising to see them attract a crowd of young hipsters and yuppies. Not satisfied with being just wine or beer connoisseurs, they can now add Coffee Enthusiast to their resumé and attend cuppings or coffee tastings. I rencently attended one at Mid City Caffe.
Mid City Caffe serves drinks made with beans from North Carolina roaster Counter Culture Coffee, using either the french press or pour over brewing method. They also serve espresso drinks (including one with delicious homemade Nutella) as well as pastries and (this just in!!) macarons from Jacques Poulain’s Cacao. Once a month, Mid City Caffe invites friends and customers for a tasting to help them settle on their next house coffee.
Cuppings are very similar to wine tasting, except you get a caffeine high instead of a sulfite buzz. There are a few specific steps involved in a cupping but before I carry on, I should issue a quick disclaimer: if you’re not into hipsters who take themselves too seriously or slurping coffee from the same glass (and in some cases the same spoon) as perfect strangers, this type of tasting may not be for you. Typically, 3-5 coffees are sampled during a cupping and the first step involves sniffing freshly ground coffee to evaluate its aroma. The organizers usually provide you with a tasting note sheet where you write down what you smell, which may include chocolate, citrus or earthy. You are encouraged to use your senses and imagination to come up with your perception of the aroma. There is a “no rules” vibe encouraged by the bean expert. In the second and third step, boiling water is poured into each glass and after four minutes, the coffee will have developed a solid “crust” at the top. This time, you can evaluate the “wet” characteristics of the coffee first by smelling the crust then (step 3) by using a spoon to push back the crust from the edge of the cup and deeply inhale the aroma by placing your nose as close to the cup as possible. For the final step, the crust is removed and – this is where germaphobes might start having issues as there are usually not nearly enough glasses per tasters – slurp the liquid to evaluate the flavour and body of each type of coffee.
The wheel of flavours and aromas
During the cupping I attended, we sampled three different beans from 3 different regions of the world. The lighter sample came from La Golondrina from Colombia and was the least favourite amongst the tasters. The second, which was my personal favourite, originated from Teka, Burundi, an African country which is experiencing a rebirth of its coffee industry following recent market reform. The cupper’s choice was the final offering, a Gayo from Sumatra, Indonesia, which will be featured as Mid City Caffe‘s house coffee for the next few weeks.
If you’re curious to see how well you can evaluate a coffee’s fragrance, aroma, flavour and brightness or just looking for something different to do, Counter Culture’s DC training center, located in Adams Morgan, offers a weekly cupping at 10am every Friday. You can also fan Mid City Caffe on Facebook or follow them on twitter to find out when their next cupping will take place. Or if slurping with strangers isn’t your thing, you can always engage in that very-parisian activity of people-watching the hipsters heading to their cupping while sipping a small espresso and eating a macaron just down the street at ACKC.