Bird Rock owner Chuck Patton examines a coffee’s aroma during a cupping.
5627 La Jolla Boulevard, San Diego
This January, Bird Rock Coffee Roasters received a Good Food Award, which recognizes environmentally responsible practices in the artisan foods sector, in addition to quality. Two hundred judges blind-tasted a couple thousand entrants across 13 categories, including beer, cheese, charcuterie, and spirits. Bird Rock was honored along with 16 other coffee producers from around the nation, earning the accolade with a rare Geisha varietal sourced from La Esmeralda estate in Panama.
The Geisha is among the world’s priciest beans. Coffee trades on the commodities market for $1.40 per pound, green. La Esmeralda’s top Geishas can go for $80 and much higher at auction. Bird Rock owner Chuck Patton paid a relatively modest $50 a pound for the award-winning bean, which means a single cup of prepared Geisha coffee goes for $11 in his shop.
It’s an extreme example reserved for special occasions, but even on normal days Bird Rock pays between two or three times the market rate for its coffee. So, Patton has to be certain his coffee’s quality stays high enough to justify the price his customers are willing to pay. That means he has to be good at cupping.
Cupping refers to a specific tasting process coffee roasters use to assess beans prior to buying them. Beans are roasted lightly, so no smoke or char flavors are added. The fresh, coarsely ground beans are added to a cup and sniffed deeply to get a first sense of aroma. After four minutes steeping in hot water, a spoon is used to crack open the crust that forms at the top of the concentrated brew for another sniff. Finally, small spoonfuls are slurped to examine its flavors. Slurping allows the coffee to cool so some of the deeper, sweeter flavors reveal themselves.
“If there’s anything wrong with the coffee, I’m going to identify it here,” Patton explains during a cupping at Bird Rock’s Morena District roastery. We sampled only three coffees, and I struggled to remember the flavors of one as I tried the next.
On a purchasing trip, Patton might cup 100 different beans a day, harvested from nearby farms, or different plots on the same farm. The beans at any specific origin taste roughly the same, so he’s got to focus his palate to detect minor flaws and seek out highlights. He says, “There’s going to be one or two that are going to be noticeably sweeter, noticeably brighter, and noticeably more complex. That’s what I’m looking for.”
Cupping becomes an important process when it comes to roasting the beans as well. Patton meets with Bird Rock head roaster Heather Brisson and a trusted team of tasters to sample incoming coffees. The notes they take while cupping will determine that coffee’s roast profile and will contribute to the tasting notes customers read on Bird Rock’s coffee menu.
In the case of the winning Geisha, from La Esmeralda’s Lino lot, these notes described “jasmine, honey, dried raspberries, cream and lavender with a velvety texture.”