Down a dusty hill from Kigali's coffee offices, inside a cavernous warehouse emblazoned with faded Red Crosses, past rows and rows of fertilizer bags stacked two stories high and printed with ConAgra USA, and through an unmarked doorway at the end is where you’ll find the coffee clinic. Should your beans be defective, diseased, or in need of transformation, this is where you come.
When I arrived yesterday at 8:30am, Leticia was already consulting Antoine Urimubemshi, director of the Muyongwe coffee cooperative on his recently sampled beans. Symptom: lack of body in mouth feel. Diagnosis: green coffee beans exposed to too much afternoon sun on the drying racks. “These beans were good, very good,” says Leticia. “They are sweet, citrus… but they lack body. It’s because of the drying process.” She sends Antoine out with a list of all of the day-lots harvested in April and May and processed at the Muyongwe washing station, and a corresponding list of scores. Explaining to me after he leaves that “if the beans aren’t dry enough, they can be sent back. If they are too dry, it’s too late… There is no tool to measure moisture content,” Leticia says with a hint of remorse. “The farmers, they just taste the beans!”
Last year, the Muyongwe washing station claimed the number one coffee in Rwanda’s Golden Cup competition, a national award ceremony and auction. During this year’s upcoming Cup of Excellence, an internationally-recognized domestic event showcasing the crème de la crème of Rwandan coffee, Muyongwe is hoping to win big again and get scooped up at the international buying auction for upwards of $25 per pound. But fix their drying problem they must.
There is no dictionary definition for ‘cupping’ that references coffee even though those in the business drop the word to mean ‘coffee tasting’ with simple regularity. Here at coffee’s source, in-country cupping is more than a matter of gustatory effete. Rwanda’s 30 cuppers are highly trained coffee professionals, many of whom work five days a week at one of four national cupping laboratories. Like Leticia, they are the coffee doctors, offering advice to washing station owners or cooperative directors who come seeking quality quantification and tips on how to improve their beans. They are also the referees, as Leticia said, “like in football,” providing a crucial link between processing and exportation and ultimately, between producers and consumers (or as one unruly dairyman once corrected me, between “farmers and citizens!”).
“If you don’t know, if you don’t cup,” explained Leticia, “you can’t improve. You can’t change the processing,” referring to the fact that few farmers or washing station owners taste their own coffee. Without tasting, there is no way of knowing a coffee’s value; without knowing the value, quality improvement and the increased income it brings with it, is meaningless. Flavor becomes quantifiable under the cuppers’ noses, and on their taste buds. While not all coffee undergoes such scrutiny as it does in this coffee clinic, this quantifiable flavor is worth paying attention to when you're tasting the second-most valuable traded commodity in the world. Oil is the first.
Leticia, and her boyfriend Abdul, a long-time cupper who started his own cupping consulting business, seemed incredulous that some of the washing station owners have yet to really believe in cupping. “They have to know the value of the cuppers,” Leticia said vigorously with Abdul nodding at her side, “because we make the value.” All coffee is given a grade based on size and density when it leaves the washing stations of A1, A2, or A3. A1 is the most homogeneous in size and has the greatest density (those beans sunk in water tanks). Any coffee buyer looking to get their hands on some decent beans won't consider anything but A1 (Starbucks is in this category as well); the rest is generally fed into blends made by the largest coffee conglomerates like Nestle and Proctor & Gamble for your gas station variety. But among the A1 beans, the producing-country cuppers determine scores out of a 100-point system based on cleanliness, sweetness, acidity, mouth feel, flavor, after taste, and balance. A total score of 80 and above is good, you'd probably taste those and think they taste like, well, a fine cuppa joe. Above 86 is what the smaller roasting companies are after; they will usually highlight these coffees through origin-based labeling. Above 90 is what the cuppers, and buyers, consider exceptionaire, full of unique characteristics and certainly worth a significant price. Whether or not you and me can detect a difference between an 86 and a 92 is a matter for later.
It occurs to me some time before we’ve even begun tasting (cupping, I mean) coffee this week that there is so much room for error between when the coffee cherry is harvested and the time it hits the palate. Though similarities to wine are easily drawn, wine is basically complete when it goes into the bottle. Perhaps every now and again a bottle spoils through poor storage, but when the wine leaves the winemaker’s (or more realistically, the cellar manager’s) hands it’s more or less a finished product, left only then to the hands of time for aging. With coffee, by contrast, there are so many more hands to pass through, and no guarantees can be made about quality until it’s poured into the cup. Even after the beans leave the washing station, myriad ways to sort, grade, roast, and brew can bring a coffee bean’s latent flavors and aromas (imagine honey, chocolate and citrus) to life. Or, something can go terribly wrong and cupping will uncover scents and tastes of burnt popcorn, medicinal tar, or the most dreaded, raw potato.
I can’t think of another fruit, besides the olive, that requires so much human intervention to make it palatable. Up close, the papery skin surrounding the green coffee bean, also known as parchment, slips off like a cicada’s shell, the kind you might find still clinging to a tree trunk but devoid of its inhabitant. The green bean inside is a vaguely translucent grayish-green, a rustic and dwarfed version of its previous life as a bright red, smooth cherry. A tiny seam down the middle contains a bronzy paper remnant of the parchment that remains in tact through roasting; ground, it emerges as the little white specks sometimes visible if the grounds are left coarse. I can’t crack the little pea of a bean with my nail, or my teeth. It doesn’t have much of a flavor when I suck on a few, but a pile of green beans does give off a fragrance that somewhat resembles corn. The real transformation, the alchemy into coffee, occurs during roasting.