Volunteers test java taste buds at Counter Culture challenge
“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons…”
--T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Rachel McGorman, Simon McGorman and Gray Benson, spoons in hand, taste four different groupings of coffee, working against the clock, trying to determine which cup in each grouping is of a different bean variety. “Take note of their styles,” Lem Butler of Counter Culture Coffee tells the visitors and other contestants who are watching the first round of the Cup Tasters Challenge, held Thursday at Counter Culture’s Training Center.
Butler notes how Rachel McGorman dips her spoon into a glass of water to distinguish between coffee samples, whereas Simon McGorman drinks from a glass of water between tastings as a palate cleanser. Simon wins the round, the first of six at this challenge.
Thursday’s taste challenge was the third that Counter Culture has sponsored. Anyone can sign up to participate in the challenges, and 17 people, everyone from baristas to coffee aficionados to first-time tasters, signed up at the Durham training center. Durham competed against participants in seven of the company’s other regional training centers – Asheville, New York, Washington, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Boston. The top three winners at each training center who picked the correct coffee in the shortest amount of time got prizes. (Participants could take up to 4 minutes, but few took that much time.) Each center was also eligible to win the golden belt, based on the average scores of the top five tasters at each training center. Boston won the trophy in March. Asheville won the trophy Thursday.
Krystal Jackson of Asheville's High Five Coffee Bar was the individual winner among all eight training centers. She got all four taste tests correct in 52.5 seconds, according to Counter Culture’s Facebook page.
The competition is part of Counter Culture’s educational outreach. The company offers steward and barista certifications, and it holds free, public tastings every Friday morning at all eight training centers. The competition also is fun, and a moment of earthly paradise for anyone who loves coffee, at whatever level.
“Anyone who has a great ability of tasting will do well,” said Butler, who works in wholesale customer support and who emceed last week’s challenge. “It’s all about taste.” The challenge also is “a fun way to get people who love coffee involved,” said Jonathan Bonchak, who handles Counter Culture’s wholesale sales, and who also is Southeast Regional Brewers Cup Champion.
Tim Jones, a barista at Jubala Village Coffee in Raleigh, won first place at Counter Culture on Thursday, choosing three out of four cups correctly in 1 minute, 27 seconds. He has Counter Culture’s barista certification, and likes to “understand the coffee so I can help the customer enjoy it better.” Between rounds, Butler would ask coffee questions, and hand out free coffee to anyone who gave the correct answer. Jones answered the first question about the parent origins of the hybrid pacamara coffee plant. Simon and Rachel McGorman were repeat challenge tasters, who also attend many of the Friday tastings. Simon answered another question about the best temperature range for brewing coffee (between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit).
The differences in the coffee varieties are very subtle, and having expertise in coffee is no guarantee of winning.
“I’ve never done this before,” said Jenna Cameron, who took second place, choosing three out of four in 1 minute, 48 seconds. Asked her secret, Cameron said she judges by the acidity of the brew, “looking for bitter and sour notes,” Her boyfriend Garret Porter said the color and body of the coffee also offers a clue.
A.J. Viola took third place, choosing two out of four at 1 minute, 9 seconds. Kyle Ramage took fourth place, and Simon McGowan, fifth.
TO LEARN MORE
For more information about future tastings, visit counterculturecoffee.com.