There's coffee, and then there's coffee. I'm what you'd call a casual drinker, one who will occasionally chug half a pot of jet-black, microwave-reheated slurry just to turn my brain on after a long night.
That sort of zombie-like consumption is clearly not what Counter Culture Coffee (CCC) is about. The Durham, N.C.-based coffee company opened its 10th training center on July 24 at 85 1/2 Spring St., the former home of the très-chic Fuzzco design office, and it's obvious from the moment you step inside the glass-paned foyer and behold the gleaming science lab of brewing implements that these people are serious about their coffee.
The Charleston training center doesn't sell coffee. Rather, they offer classes and certifications for baristas and serious coffee drinkers, and they also offer a weekly event that's a bit more accessible to laymen: Tasting@Ten, a free coffee tasting session every Friday at 10 a.m.
It's a few Fridays since the grand opening, and I've been invited to a 10 a.m. session to take a crash course in brew basics. Earlier in the morning, I met a source for an interview at Brown's Court Bakery, which happens to serve Counter Culture Coffee, and I made a point to take some culinary-sounding notes about Finca El Puente, the Honduran coffee they have on tap today. The best I could come up with was "rich," "complicated," and "maybe a little fruity?" It was damn good coffee, I can tell you that much.
I arrive at the CCC training center a little early and try my description out on Jared Sinclair and Derrick Smith, the two bearded, affable, eminently helpful Counter Culture employees who greet me from behind the espresso bar.
"What you had earlier, it's in some ways a very standard Central-South American coffee," Sinclair says. "It's sweet, it's got a little bit of fruit, but it's a pulpy kind of plummy, peachy fruit — fleshy fruit." I nod in eager agreement. I totally tasted that.
Sinclair informs me that we'll be trying two coffees today from Yirgachefe, a district of Ethiopia that's perhaps best known in the West for its namesake beans. He says, "The two coffees we're going to taste today are going to be a very different experience from that Puente you had earlier."
"Like, on an extreme level," Smith interjects.
"About as far away as two styles of coffee can get," Sinclair says, nodding. "Ethiopian coffees are typically very floral, very citric, very light. It's the lambic of coffees."
I tell Sinclair that I tend to prefer darker coffees, like Charleston Coffee Roasters' Organic Signature Blend or Caribou Coffee's Lacuna Blend, both of which use beans from multiple sources and are roasted extra-dark. I like my coffee to taste like wood.
Sinclair and Smith aren't the types to sneer, but I gather through the course of our conversation that my taste is behind the times. For one thing, single-origin coffee is a big deal in gourmet coffee circles right now, ensuring that you're tasting one type of bean and not a homogenized blend of whatever was available from disparate regions. For another thing, Sinclair says, the trend is toward lighter and lighter roasts, allowing the coffee beans to speak for themselves and not be covered up by a lot of burnt flavors. The two coffees we'll be trying today, Idido and Haru, are exemplars of both the single-origin and light-roasted schools of thought.
"These are very, very light, almost aggressively light coffees," Sinclair says. Still, he adds, "In the wider industry of coffees, they're not extraordinarily light."
A few serious coffee drinkers have filtered into the training center now, and we're ready to begin. The technical term for what we're about to do is "cupping," a process that has a lot more steps than simply drinking a fresh cup of coffee.
"Cupping is just a very formalized way of tasting coffee," Sinclair says. "It's sort of like when you have a glass of wine: You smell it before you taste it."
Sinclair starts us off by setting out a row of cups containing dry grounds and instructs us each to jostle a cup around and take a whiff. "When you do sniff, do a bunch of little tiny sniffs like a dog," Smith adds.
I step back and forth between the two coffees smelling them like a dog, and all I'm getting is a general tea-like scent from both. Grasping for something intelligent to say, I turn to Diego Castro, who's in charge of coffee selection at Collective Coffee shop in Mt. Pleasant, and confess that they smell identical to me.
"This one is just so much more vibrant than Haru, it's crazy," Castro says, pointing to the Idido. Next, Sinclair pours hot water over the grounds and tells us to smell again. Embarrassed by my ignorance, I turn to Castro, and he throws me a line.
"I'm getting some rooibos on that guy [Idido], and that's [Haru] like a straight black tea with a more floral note," Castro says. I take another sniff, and he's right (of course he's right). Idido does smell more like a rooibos tea. This morning might be the closest I ever come to discerning what my oenophile friends mean when they talk about terroir, the unique flavor imparted by geography and climate.
After the hot-water sniffing, we wait about a minute-and-a-half until a crust of coffee grounds has formed at the top of each cup. I love how Sinclair describes the next step as he hands us our crust-breaking spoons: "We're going to put our faces directly over it, and we're going to push just the surface, we're going to break that crust." This is some next-level gourmet sniffing going on right here.
I break the crust and smell, basically, hot water and some extremely mild coffee. Everyone around me is detecting fruity notes, but I'm clueless again.
Finally, we drink the coffee. But you can't just drink it; Sinclair instructs us to slurp it as loudly as possible off of a spoon. "It can be a little daunting at first, but the thing to do is just — PHHHRRRRRRUUUPP! — the louder it is, the more professional you seem," Sinclair says.
The idea is to splatter the coffee all over the inside of my mouth, aerating it and ensuring all of my flavor receptors get to try it out. I am then instructed to exhale through my nose, allowing my retronasal cavity to get one last whiff.
I could tell you I tasted notes of lemongrass in the Haru and melon in the Idido, but that would be a lie. I tasted tea, basically. Smooth, rich, delicious tea, but tea nonetheless. On a second sip, after hearing the suggestions from the people around me, I did get a bit of a fruity flavor from the Idido. Both seemed like excellent, complex cups of joe, but maybe my taste buds have been scorched by all that black-tar sludge I make in my Mr. Coffee.
At the very least, I can appreciate what I've experienced here today. These are some world-class coffees, and for a moment, I marvel at the fact that the flavors I experienced are unique to a certain Ethiopian district, a certain valley, maybe even a certain farm. Walking back to my car, I meditate on the endless variety of the natural world and the ways we've managed to harness it. What a joy.