Years ago, coffee was coffee. There were a few basic options: decaf or regular, hot or iced. But the act of drinking java, let alone the incredible process behind making it, changed drastically for Tarrytown customers when Coffee Labs Roasters opened in 2002. Labs owner Mike Love travels the world to bring home the highest quality, most flavorful beans. He estimates that he visits eight to 10 countries per year in his quest.
Arriving at the Main Street storefront after-hours was a treat. The doors were locked, and instead of dozens of customers feverishly working on their laptops, the tables were pulled together and covered with perfect rows of fruits, berries, chocolates, and nuts, all of which would play a roll in our impending coffee-cupping session.
For the uninitiated, coffee cupping is a tasting technique to help evaluate aroma and flavor profile. Similar to a wine or beer tasting, Love and his employees take the endeavor very seriously. Several employees, some new and some old, were on hand to help guide me through my first experience.
With guidance from barista/trainer Carolyn Hood, we first sampled the nuts, ranging from creamy cashews to walnuts’ dry, lingering taste. Then came the chocolates and their sweet rainbow of flavors. White chocolate provided a burst of sweetness, while the semi sweet, dark, and baker’s varieties gave off more robust, richer notes. A similar spectrum of fruits and berries followed, with 21 flavors taken in all told.
An hour in, and there was still no coffee served. I was beginning to wonder if we were in the right spot. It was at that moment that head barista Jefferson Lundeen-Goldschlag cued the staff. The chocolates, fruits, berries, and nuts were removed, and two coffee cups were placed down. We smelled the dry coffee and noticed it was strong, pungent, and hard to define. Lundeen-Goldschlag then delicately added hot water, and we continued to wait, occasionally extending our necks for a whiff. Finally, we were handed spoons and instructed to slurp the coffee like a last drop of soup. We reached in and did as instructed.
My first reaction was, “Well, this tastes like delicious coffee,” but there had to be more to it than that. It was then that Jefferson asked us to reference our notes from the first portion of the night, take another slurp and re-read what we’d jotted down. It became abundantly clear that the coffee, which hailed from Rwanda, featured notes of the cashews, blackberry, dark chocolate, and grapefruit, i.e. all the things we’d sampled earlier.
This is all par for the course at Coffee Labs, as each barista has to attend at least one cupping per month, and looking around, it didn’t seem like anyone was upset about being at work at 9 pm on a Monday night. As barista Andrew Campbell explained, it’s part of the culture, and they all embrace it.
Peering across the table, I asked Nick Green, the newest member of the Coffee Labs team, what he thought of his first cupping experience. His reply summed up the night: “It’s hard to get away from, ‘This is a blueberry.’ When you do, you realize how important this is.” For guys like Lundeen-Goldschlag and Love, these flavors are second nature. For Green, there’s still plenty to learn.
Fortunately, a positive attitude and eagerness to learn are what Coffee Labs looks for when training employees. It’s often months before the new hire is ready to pull espresso shots. And when the rest of the staff thinks they’re ready, Mike Love has the final say, at which point, “We throw them back there on a busy Saturday and see how they do.” Suffice to say, I’ll never approach my morning cup (no matter what day it is) the same way again.