By Rhew Deigl
Ariel bursts through the café door, interrupting my attempt to ask the gardener Ernesto how to say “witches” in his native Ngöbere language. “Rhew, Wilford te llama,” Ariel says. Wilford is calling. I start running across the mill. Women in brightly-colored nagua dresses chuckle at me as I blow past the sorting table. I take the stairs two at a time, throwing open the lab door to the roar of boiling kettles. “Rhew!” yells Wilford, seated at the head of the small folding table. “Agua!” It is time to cup, and I am late.
Four visitors surround the white cupping table. They are: the Barista Champion of Finland, dressed head to toe in black; his girlfriend; Stefan Müller, owner of the neighboring Finca Don Benjie; and Carlos, a Colombian coffee distributer. Each lifts a small bowl of dry, ground coffee to his nose before stepping back to give the fragrance a score from 6.00 to 10.00. They rotate around the table, smelling three bowls of each of the ten coffees set out for today’s cupping. Wilford and Wilford, Jr. have already done the same at their separate table. For my tardiness, I will only have time for one trip around the table; I usually take two because, as Wilford says, if I could correctly evaluate every coffee on the first pass, I would win a Nobel Prize.
Cupping is a time-sensitive operation, so I move quickly. The first sample has an indistinct, uninspiring fragrance. I mark a 7.75 on my score sheet. The second is not only uninspiring but also slightly unpleasant. 7.50.
The problem with words like “good” or “unpleasant” is that these words speak to my opinion, and are useless in a serious evaluation. The numbers mean something entirely different. The “worst” coffees we taste on a weekly basis scores around 87.75 and can sell for upwards of $20/lb. in the United States, so when I say unpleasant, it really means, “just great, not earth-shattering.” This is why we use numbers. An 88 is an 88 whether you’re too much of a snob to drink it or not.
There’s only one outstanding fragrance at the table, Sample Five, which I give an 8.50. Then, the bus-boys and I take near-boiling water and fill the 60 bowls, starting the stopwatch as soon as we begin pouring. “All the way to the top,” Wilford reminds me.
After three minutes, Wilford dips his gold cupping spoon into the first bowl, stirring it gently and inhaling the aroma. This is known as “breaking the crust,” and the burst of aroma it creates is crucial in scoring a coffee. Once every bowl has been broken, we bus-boys use spoons to skim off the floating grounds, creating a clean tasting surface. While we wait for the coffee to cool, I chat with the Barista Champion of Finland, whose name is Kappo. He turns out to be a very cool guy.
Once the stopwatch hits nine minutes, I start tasting. I dip mine into the first bowl, and bringing it to my lips I violently slurp the coffee. This spreads aerosolized coffee evenly across the palate and produces a noise similar to yanking on Velcro. It is my signature slurp, in which I take great pride. Each of the eight professional cuppers has his own distinct slurp; Wilford, Jr.’s and Ovaldino’s sound more like zippers zipping, while Sirilo’s has the characteristic rumble-and-whoosh of a passing eighteen-wheeler. The arrhythmic slurping of all thirteen people in the room reminds me of a disoriented swarm of bees.
I circle the table five times to evaluate the coffees’ flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, and overall quality. This can be challenging since I can’t score on a scale of how much I enjoy a certain characteristic. I would be dead wrong, uncalibrated. Some (fragile) people support the “you like what you like” mindset. Wilford does not. “If you don’t like a good coffee, too bad for you, man.” In his eyes, the cupper is an instrument of measurement rather than a critic; properly trained and calibrated, he should be no more subjective than a thermometer.
But who determines what sort of acidity wins an 8.50 and which an 8.25? Who defines what’s “good”? For me, it’s Wilford and the other professional cuppers, who jeer me whenever I give an off-the-mark score. I learned quickly. Who defines “good coffee” for Wilford? The Specialty Coffee Association of Panama provides him and the other national judges with calibration exercises, but to win at the Best of Panama competition—the annual dream of every Panamanian coffee producer—you have to present a coffee that hasn’t been calibrated for. It has to be unexpected, unique, and stunning. The best coffees expand the definition of quality and set new benchmarks. It is the producer’s job first to find such opportunities and then to grow, harvest, and process coffees that exploit them. It takes brilliance to succeed.
Everyone has finished his evaluations, so Wilford calls for scores. The first four samples are good, but nothing life-changing. But Wilford breaks the routine for the fifth sample, looking at me from across the table. “Gringo, what’d you give number five?” When he asks me first, it’s my signal that I should have detected something very notable in the sample, and he’s making sure that I don’t have a chance to copy the professionals. Fortunately, he hasn’t caught me sleeping this time. Sample Five was sweet, balanced, persistently floral in flavor, a brilliantly delicious Geisha Washed, grown 300 meters uphill from the lab. It wins a 91 from me and no less than a 90.50 from the other cuppers. Wilford smiles. The American’s getting the hang of it.