Sunday, December 06, 2009

project hampden: project cupping

The cupping begins!

It's been over two months since we started on this journey of the barista for our project hampden crew. In the process, we've cupped lots of coffees, learned and proofed brewing methods and visited cows and other coffee places. In training new baristas, I've never taken the route we've taken. For our crew of baristas, I've been doing my best to train the best rounded baristas that I possibly can - and I still wish I had more time.

A by product of tasting and learning about coffees is the formation of preferences. It's simply not possible to taste some of the best coffees available and not become tainted by it. As our time together has progressed, I've been hearing more and more reports on how increasingly difficult it is for them to find coffee that they can enjoy outside of our little world. It is a hazard of our business.

As such, I almost never drink coffee outside of The Spro or my own home. I only drink coffee at select places that I know take the time to do it right. Sadly, most places brew poor examples of coffee. For most people, it's not too noticeable, but when you're drinking some truly spectacular coffees, the difference is starkly apparent.

So, after two months of subjecting my crew to truly amazing coffees, as well as a number of horrific coffees, it's now time for them to take the big step: the evaluation and selection of coffees for the opening of project hampden.

I've always felt strongly that our baristas should be passionate about the coffees we serve because it's far too often that I see baristas (yes, in the Third Wave) that merely recite verbatim the description provided by their roaster. Perhaps that description is accurate but, in our experience, it's not always so. The vision that I have for project hampden is that our team of baristas will evaluate and vet out the coffees for which we feel most strongly.

Jenny crunches the numbers.

I'm lucky to have great roaster partners to work with. Friends in the business who are willing to join me and our crew on this exploration/aberration of the coffee industry. The practice of using multiple roasters is still relatively unheard of in our business and certainly the few places that have done this have not executed to the extent that we are planning to execute.

For project hampden, our primary roasters will be:

- Hines Origins Organic Coffee, Vancouver, BC
- Counter Culture Coffee, Durham, NC
- Stumptown Coffee Roasters, NYC
- Barefoot Coffee Roasters, Santa Clara, CA
- Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, Chicago, IL
- Ecco Caffe, Santa Rosa, CA

All of whom are friends and companies whom I believe are sourcing, roasting and producing some of the best coffees in North America.

Our cupping protocols follow along the industry standard but our cupping forms mimic those developed by Counter Culture Coffee for their informal cuppings. In the evaluation of the coffees, I wanted more notes on the flavors, aromas and characters of the coffee rather than the numerical scores given in either the SCAA or CoE cupping forms. I wanted more "gut" feeling about the coffees than the clinical numbers of formal cupping sessions.

Writing their evaluations.

This past weekend, we cupped twenty-five different coffees from a variety of roasters, both named suppliers and outside sources. The results were both surprising and not so surprising.

A new feature to our cupping form was the additional of a numerical score for each coffee. The point scale ranged from 1 to 10, with ten being the highest. Again, this numerical score was completely subjective. Did the barista like the coffee or not? Loved it or hated it? The numerical score would be the easiest way to gage likability by our staff and readily tell me which coffees to target.

Certainly an argument can be made against this system of grading- what are the criteria? None. What does a "5" mean? Whatever that barista deemed it to mean. It's not "fair"! True, it's not fair. But neither is the likes of any customer. It's not meant to be a "fair" grade. It's meant to tell me which coffees our baristas feel most passionate about. Which coffees will they champion? Which coffees will they sell the most? It's human nature to push something you like. Why not fill our selections with coffees our baristas like?

More smelling and cupping.

Of course, that's not to say that the selection of coffees for project hampden is completely egalitarian. project hampden is about my vision and what I want to project upon the world, so if a coffee doesn't meet my standard, it won't make it - even if everyone on staff gave it a "10". Conversely, if there's a coffee that I'm particularly interested in highlighting, it will be there.

But for now, our crew is cupping, evaluating and determining the coffees that will be there the day we open.


Brian said...

Jay, I'm a little offended at this: "All of whom are friends and companies whom I believe are sourcing, roasting and producing some of the best coffees in North America."
Obviously, I don't have the resources that a lot of the bigger guys have, but you've never given us a chance. Truth be told, you don't really know who is producing the best coffees in North America. I'm not going to say my coffee is the best. But I think it deserves consideration. Or maybe it doesn't deserve consideration. But we don't really know, do we?
Is this because you don't like my podcast? :)

onocoffee said...


I don't think there's anything for you to be offended by. I do believe that the companies listed here are producing some of the best coffees in North America.

That said, do I think these companies are, collectively, producing ALL of the best coffees in North America - certainly not. I've experienced truly amazing coffees from companies outside of the ones we're starting off with.

Does this also mean that project hampden will be limited to ONLY the aforementioned six roasters? Absolutely not. Spro Coffee and project hampden have great relationships with our roasters with the common understanding that our company will be featuring wonderful coffees from all over the world.

It is our intention to give everyone "a chance" - and, most importantly to me, an even and blind evaluation of the coffees. No favoritism, no prejudices - just the coffee on the table.

The trouble is that we too are a small company and we're gearing up for the unknown. No coffee joint that I know of has ever taken the approach that project hampden will be taking. Seven brew methods for any coffee the customer desires - all brewed by the cup, to order. We're not even doing batch brews to "handle the rush." A la minute only.

So, new processes, new shop and no real indication of the volume we can expect. Should we order 20 pounds of each coffee? 40 pounds? Good Lord, we might only need two pounds... That would be bad.

Part of it is respect. Respect for our roasters who truly are going "off book" with us on our plan. project hampden is about stepping away from the traditional model of exclusivity, giving us the unique opportunity to offer our customers a wide range of coffees never offered before. One of the prospects I'm most excited about is the possibility of showcasing the same lot of coffee roasted by different roasters, allowing us to see how each roaster interprets the same coffee. I think it will be fascinating.

As far as Double Shot "deserving" consideration - I think "deserving" is a bit reaching. Truth is, we welcome all coffees and roasters to our table. In fact, I had been reading your blog and was intrigued by your El Boton offering. Great and interesting coffees come from all sorts of sources.

Quite simply, we're just starting off, space is limited and we have really no idea what volume we will be facing in January when project hampden finally opens. But what I can guarantee is that our cupping table is always open, the coffees will be tasted blind, we will be very open in our evaluation and all of our notes will be available for review on our cupping website.