Coffee Is The New Wine. Here's How You Taste It

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The "know your farmer" concept may soon apply to the folks growing your coffee, too.

Increasingly, specialty roasters are working directly with coffee growers around the world to produce coffees as varied in taste as wines. And how are roasters teaching their clientele to appreciate the subtle characteristics of brews? By bringing an age-old tasting ritual once limited to coffee insiders to the coffee-sipping masses.

When we wanted to get in on "cupping" trend, we headed to Artifact Coffee, a funky new cafe in Baltimore. It was started by Spike Gjerde of Baltimore's Woodberry Kitchen, who is doing with coffee what he's doing with food in his restaurants: sourcing it from small-scale farmers who are committed to sustainability and quality.

If you listen to my story on All Things Considered, you'll hear that Artifact is serving CounterCulture Coffee. This trend-setting, North-Carolina-based roaster has forged relationships with coffee growers all over the world. For instance, it's working with Jorge and Javier Recinos, fourth-generation farmers who run one of the first organic coffee farms in Guatemala.

Peter Giuliano of CounterCulture says creating that one-on-one relationship with growers has led to better coffee. The Recinos brothers had been selling their beans in bulk, but Giuliano worked with them to differentiate the best beans.

"We came in and said, 'No, no, no, we want to separate the coffee and pay more for the better stuff,' " he says.

He says his customers are clamoring for the premium stuff wherever it's served. Like Intelligentsia, another specialty roaster with a similar approach, CounterCulture sells its coffees both online and wholesale to coffee shops. From Atlanta — where chefs Hugh Acheson and Ryan Smith of Empire State South are introducing customers to CounterCulture's specialty coffee — to Des Moines, where the Mars Café serves up Intelligentsia's brews, the new wave of coffee is spreading.

Which brings us back to cuppings, where baristas try to help newbies discern the subtle flavors and characteristics of various coffees.

"Baristas are like the sommeliers of their industry," explains Artifact Coffee's Gjerde. And he says he thinks more coffee drinkers will start to "appreciate coffee for its individual characteristics, as we do wine."

This artisanal approach is changing the way people think about coffee — "from this anonymous commodity to something that's personal, direct and special," says CounterCulture's Giuliano. In a new venture with the Specialty Coffee Association, Giuliano says he's planning a symposium that he describes as his industry's equivalent of the Aspen Ideas Festival.

So, if you'd like to be a connoisseur of coffee, start studying the roasting bags. Increasingly, there's as much information as you'd find on a wine label.

The most recent bag I bought, freshly roasted Stumptown coffee, came with a little tasting card. Online, I can see the exact coordinates of the location of the farm it came from, as well as the elevation (as I explain in my radio story, altitude influences taste), and the varietal of coffee. Happy sipping.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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