One of the guys behind Foodpocalypse brought coffee beans from six different roasters in Kansas City back to Lincoln, and the other day Tom, the roaster at Cultiva, led a cupping—or tasting—of them. I tagged along and did not even attempt to appear knowledgable, which might be one reason why I learned so much, not just about how coffee is produced and how to recognize different characteristics of the beans but also more generally about coffee culture in Lincoln and the broader Midwest (hint: it all has to do with ports and warehousing).

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Tom carefully weighed 8.6 grams of each coffee, ground the beans (cleaning the grinder each time with beans from the next coffee to go in the hopper) and put them in little glass cups for us to smell and literally take note of. Then he poured in almost-boiling water till the grounds hovered over the rim and let the coffee steep for 4 minutes to make “a fairly weakish brew.” At that point we each took another smell by breaking the “crust” of grounds at the surface with soup spoons. Whiffs and notes taken, he used two spoons to quickly and expertly scoop every single last bit of coffee grounds from the surface so we could dive in to the brew itself with our own spoons.

I’ll leave the finer points of the tasting to Shellhass, as my tasting notes consist mostly of phrases like “smoke? what?” and “??” I found it a bit difficult to overcome the weakish brew aspect; it was hard for me, lacking any experience, to extrapolate what a stronger, more typical everyday brew would yield from each bean. That said, it was fascinating to taste so many different coffees in a row, and to try to tease out their characters as the coffee rolled around in my mouth. I was put in mind of two unrelated things two unrelated people told me ages ago: My husband, long before we were married or even together, said that he doesn’t care what coffee we used in the house as long as we mixed up the selection a bit because “the difference is all.” I hadn’t remembered that, and hereby vow to seek out a little more of that difference, within reason and budget. I also remembered a big dinner I had with a bunch of wine-industry people in New York a long time ago (again I was just tagging along for the ride). A smart wine guy told me something that made a lot of sense to me: If your only mental language for appreciating a wine involves comparing it to another flavor, that little thrill you get when you “recognize” something familiar (By god, it’s vanilla!) might easily be mistaken for enjoyment of the wine itself. To really enjoy a wine—or, I suppose, a good coffee—it helps to be able to understand where the different aspects come from and how they can be balanced or thrown off balance in various ways to achieve varying effects. I’m not nearly at a point where I can do that yet, but afternoons like this one at Cultiva could be a start in that direction.

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