PORT ALLEN — Every day, a handful of Community Coffee officials gather at a small, round table on the second floor of the company's roasting facility.
And every day they participate in a meticulously planned tasting ritual called cupping. On Tuesdays, members of the family that owns the 100-year-old company join the tasters.
It's in these sessions that coffee beans that might one day end up on breakfast tables nationwide get an audition.
“We’re very careful because this table represents an awful lot of money,” said Donna Saurage, a third-generation owner. “A huge investment.”
Community buys coffee from South and Central America, Africa and Indonesia.
When the beans are ready to ship, coffee producers air-deliver a sample to the company for a tasting. Community tests another sample once the beans have arrived in port to see if anything happened in transit. If either sample doesn’t pass muster, the company can reject the sale.
So there’s nothing casual about these cups of coffee.
“Norman wouldn’t even eat breakfast on cupping day because he felt anything like syrup or juice would affect it,” said Saurage, referring to her husband, who died in 2014. “He would not eat breakfast until after he’d cupped.”
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On this day, five trays of roasted beans from Brazil, Peru, Columbia, Honduras and Burundi are on the table where Saurage is joined by her son, Matt Saurage, the company’s board chairman; Mark Howell, associate director of green coffee and tea; Myrna Rombado, green coffee buyer; and Amy Cimo, digital marketing brand manager.
Next to each tray are five cups with exactly 7 ounces of coffee ground from those adjacent beans. Each person sits in front of a different country’s beans.
Moments after hot water is poured into each cup, the cupping begins — but not with the taste buds. Stirring the brew to break up the floating coffee grounds, they lean close and sniff the aroma from each cup.
Then comes the tasting. From a specially designed cupping spoon, they slurp coffee. It’s not a slow slurp, the way one might drink hot soup. It's a quick action.
“You want to create a vapor that your nasal cleft is picking up the different flavor attributes as well,” Howell explained. “You’ve got the aroma. That gives you a little better impression. Wine-tasters will do this.”
After smelling and tasting each cup, they spit out the coffee into a stainless mug. Then they make notes and rate the brew's aroma, body, acidity, flavor and aftertaste.
Like wine, coffees have nuances — fruits, nuts, spices.
Brazilian beans tend to have a big-bodied flavor with sweet, chocolaty overtones, Howell said, while coffees from Peru, Colombia and Central America have an acidic brightness.
When everyone is finished with the cups in front of them, the tabletop is turned, and it's on to the next sample, repeating the process until everyone has tested all of them.
Why five cups of each group of beans? To increase the chances of finding a stray bad bean that may indicate a problem, Matt Saurage said.
“People cup the same way all over the world,” Rombado said. “There is an art and a science to it. Everybody has their own childhood memories of smells and tastes, and it’s all about identifying how you describe it and connecting with other cuppers at your table.”
Howell and Rombado are two of eight Community employees who have received formal training and certification as cuppers. Other employees and Saurage family members also participate.
“We bring the grandkids here, and they join us in cupping, different ones of them at different times,” Donna Saurage said. “And they love the slurping.”
In the end, no one group of beans is used by itself in the finished products.
Beans are mixed with others to create more than three dozen blends Community sells.
Matt Saurage likens cupping to a chef tasting the produce before accepting it into the kitchen. The difference is the size of Community Coffee’s kitchen.
“This sample tray here might represent a single container of coffee, which is 42,000 pounds, or it may be samples drawn from multiple containers of a single coffee shipment that could be a quarter of a million pounds,” he said. “Leaving this table, if we approve No. 3, then that coffee is going to go into production, and past this point, we can’t stop it. If we make a mistake here, it will affect 40,000 to 100,000 pounds of packed coffee going out to the market.
"This," he said, "is the most critical step of the quality control before we bring it into this plant.”