CHAMPAIGN – Slurp-and-spit.
That's how Mark Herriott describes the process of coffee "cupping" – a method coffee connoisseurs use to evaluate different varieties and blends.
It's something akin to wine tasting without the refinement. The deep inhalations, extended slurps and quick "ptooie" make cupping a sensory but noisy experience.
Herriott, who operates the Columbia Street Roastery in Champaign, and three employees experienced in cupping recently traveled to the Dominican Republic to help judge Dominican coffees.
They spent a week on the island, visiting coffee farms in the Cordillera mountains and devoting two days to cupping.
The trip came about when Dominican coffee growers and processors received a French development grant to help analyze their industry. Part of their mission: Identify the markets for which Dominican coffees are best suited.
Traditionally, Dominican coffee growers have sold to European and Japanese markets, and they'd like to make greater inroads into the U.S. market.
The Dominican coffee board invited 10 cupping judges from around the world to evaluate samples of Dominican-grown coffee. Delegations came from France, Italy, Holland, Norway, Japan and the United States.
Four U.S. companies took part – two coffee roasters, Columbia Street Roastery and Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee, and two coffee importers, Atlas Coffee and Zoka Coffee, both from the Seattle area.
Joining Herriott for the Jan. 28 to Feb. 4 trip were Columbia Street Roastery service director Larry Masso and roasters Chad Rakers and John Cunningham.
According to Herriott, Dominican coffees have a long way to go in terms of both consistency and taste, though the latter is a personal preference. Dominican coffees tend to be acidic, referring not to the way they sit on the stomach but to their tendency to stimulate only the front part of the mouth.
"Central American coffees tend to be acidic – a rat-a-tat-tat, like a snare drum," Herriott said.
By contrast, Sumatran coffees from Southeast Asia tend to have a lot of body "you feel in the jowls of the mouth," he said. Herriott compared Dominican coffees to racehorses that go out fast and fade and Sumatran coffees to horses that start slowly but finish strong.
Herriott said Dominican coffees differ depending on the region in which the coffee is grown, the soil type and the altitude. About 60,000 Dominican growers are involved in production, with much of the coffee being grown amid banana and mango trees.
In coffee cupping, samplers don't swallow. They audibly inhale the aroma, sip in a little, then spit it out. They try samples at different temperatures.
At the cupping in the Dominican Republic, judges were asked to categorize coffees as "commercial," "premium," "specialty" or "boutique," with the last being the most exclusive grade.
Some experienced Dominican coffee tasters rated certain Dominican coffees as "boutique" – perhaps, Herriott said, because they're more accustomed to acidic coffees. Dominicans generally like their coffee roasted dark and brewed strong.
"I don't think any Americans chose a coffee as boutique," he said, though some French tasters did.
Masso said after tasting so many cups of coffee, it was difficult to differentiate between those that were similar to each other.
"It started to get harder and harder to pick up nuances," Masso said.
But as a result of the sampling, Herriott said, "I learned what I liked."
He discovered he preferred Dominican coffee with "fruit notes," which seemed a little more similar to African coffees. He also enjoyed hearing other judges' comments about cupping.
Rakers said the Norwegians had definite opinions of which coffees they preferred, as did the Japanese.
He said he enjoyed seeing the passion the Dominicans have for their coffee.
"They treat it as a national product," he said, adding that the average Dominican consumes 3.3 pounds of coffee a year.
For all members of the Champaign delegation but Herriott, it was the first time to visit the Dominican Republic. Some had previously visited Costa Rica and Panama to work with brokers for the roastery.
Rakers said he noticed major differences between Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic in terms of development. The latter was hit by Hurricane Georges in 1998, and some effects are still evident. Some roads were impassable, and donkeys were used to transport coffee beans down from mountainous regions, he said.
"It was amazing to see how much more developed Costa Rica was, as far as the coffee farms go," he said.
Columbia Street Roastery, at 24 E. Columbia Ave., C, does not carry Dominican coffees, but Herriott said that may change in a few months. In the meantime, the roastery supplies restaurants, workplaces and individuals with 19 varieties of coffees as well as a wide assortment of custom blends.
In April, a few Dominican coffee growers are expected to visit the roastery in Champaign.
Herriott said his expenses for the Dominican trip were covered, and his company paid his employees' expenses. He said he was glad he and his colleagues could make the trip.
"It's an invaluable experience for all involved in the quality of the product to go to the source," he said.