Looking down at the table full of cupping bowls, befuddled, Craig rolled the spoonful of coffee around his tongue. Usually he was able to rattle off at least a handful of vivid taste descriptors for any coffee put in front of him. Indeed, he was known through the industry as being a particularly gifted cupper, posessor of an unmatched palate. Now he was speechless, spoon in hand, utterly stumped at the cupping table.
He went for another spoonful hoping that one more slurp might spark something.
Nope. Still no clue.
Which was not to say there was nothing there. The coffees on this table were absolutely bursting with aroma, a bountiful bouquet of sensory perceptions, leading to little fireworks of flavor exploding in his mouth. All of it was painfully familiar, yet Craig was unable to identify a single note.
The invite to this private cupping had been equal parts unusual and boastful. “MORTAL COFFEE CUPPING” the email subject read. “Join us for an exclusive evening featuring rare fermented coffees and cutting-edge experimental processes. For the first time ever we are offering coffees grown and processed in the United States using never-before-seen techniques.”
It had landed in Craig’s inbox by mistake; he had no clue who Seth Greystone was, or why he would be BCC’d to another person’s invite, but the coffee market was so competitive these days, Craig figured he couldn’t miss a chance to try something rare and exciting.
The event’s location was a secluded warehouse on the edge of town. He didn’t recognize a single person in the room, which itself was unusual—typically it was the same faces at these events. Luckily, the gathering was large enough for Craig to blend in amongst the crowd of strangers without being noticed, or outed by this Greystone fellow as an imposter. He took another sip.
A series of images flooded his senses: scorching sands, beach towels, and ocean waves. The sensations were so real that Craig felt the overwhelming heat of the sun against his skin. During this profound moment, he looked up to share his amazement with the rest of the crowd. Yet the other cuppers didn’t seem too blown away by the coffees in front of them. Aside from their subtle nods of approval, they casually slurped away while jotting down descriptors in their little notebooks.
Next to each cup was a printed information card, turned face down, temporarily obscured from the cuppers. Soon a little bell rang, and the evening’s host—a pale little man with piercing eyes and goatee, draped in a dark black leather cloak—asked for feedback on the lots so far.
“Very smokey.” One attendee said.
“Charred sweetness.” Added another.
“Personally, I got a hint of roasted innards.”
“Oh absolutely,” said another guest excitedly. “Flambéed guts all day.”
“Innards? More like burnt extremities.”
This had to be a joke. Craig decided to join in the fun. He heard himself saying: “I find it has a sort of brain stem chalkiness.”
The entire room went silent, staring at Craig in disbelief. Had he taken the joke too far? The prolonged awkwardness was broken when the host spoke up from behind his cloak.
“Honestly? I don’t get anything cerebral in this cup at all.”
“Yeah,” another cupper chimed in, “Brains are never used for roasts this light.”
The rest of the room began to chatter amongst itself about brain processed coffees—”Is grey matter the new Gesha? Have you had this Ammon’s Horn blend?”—while the little man in the dark cloak silenced the room.
“Excuse me,” the man said, raising his voice. “But you there, with the incorrect tasting note—who invited you to this event?”
Craig froze. It was all a mistake, you see. He found himself beginning to grope for the words, making his way towards a confession, when someone else across the table interjected: “I did. Everybody, this is Seth Greystone. We’ve been chatting online for months and I’ve learned a lot from him. He has some impeccable insights.”
Craig was still frozen, but he felt his chin moving up and down all the same in a nervous nod.
“Very well,” said the host, “but we’re not looking for impeccable insights, Terry. We’re looking for impeccable tastes. I’m sure you’ll do better over the next round.”
Soon another batch of cupping bowls were placed before them, each with its own attendant info card, turned face down for now. The room grew even more excited. “This is the same variety as the first batch,” the host announced, “but with an experimental process never before seen by man.”
Slurping commenced and once again, Craig knew he knew the flavors, but couldn’t put a name to them. He slurped again when unexplained images of puzzles, ice-cream headaches, and studying late at night flooded his mind. Before he could try to rationalize it, the host invited opinions.
“Extremely vital,” Terry said redeeming himself to general agreement.
“Definitely the creamy texture of cortex.”
“Yeah, I’m getting notes of parietal lobe on this one. What do you think Seth?”
With the continued grotesque taste descriptors flying about, Craig forgot that he was pretending to be somebody else.
“Seth?” They were all looking at him now.
He said the first thing that came into his brain, the very best note he could muster, fusing whimsy and linguistic verve with the application of flavor experience to the very best of his capabilities: “I think it tastes like dreaming.”
“How marvelous!” clapped the host in delight. The room was delighted; wide smiles broke out in approval all around him. “I think that’s a wonderful description. One of the finest tasting notes I’ve ever heard. You don’t know how right you are!” Then, with a flourish, the man in the cape walked around the table, flipping over information cards and chattering as he went.
“You see, these coffees have been prepared using Mortal Coffee’s revolutionary new approach to coffee processing. We’ve developed a unique organic method, inspired in equal parts by the techniques of ‘barrel aging’ and Kopi luwak. There’s nothing else quite like it.”
“Typically we are limited on what we can do on the processing side of things, because coffee cherries are processed on the other side of the planet by coffee producers. But not with these lots. We control the entire process here, which means the only limitation is our imagination, and what the market will spend.”
Half the cards were turned over now. Craig could see on them drawings of brains, innards, and human flesh.
“As you probably already guessed, the first cups were produced using the flayed scorching process. This technique is particularly useful to bring out the round, satisfyingly earthy components of coffees that would traditionally score in the mid to low 80s.”
Craig felt a little vomit rise up in his stomach.
“Meanwhile the second batch, and we are particularly proud of this, makes use of fresh prefrontal cortexes, stuffed with pulped cherries, before being sealed up in Kentucky bourbon barrels. We feel this helps develop a profound density of flavor in the finished cup, and evokes a sort of dreaminess that our new friend here so perfectly described.”
They went along the table cup-by-cup, while each of Mortal Coffee’s horrific processes were revealed: Hepatic Fermentation, Pulmonary Pulping, Intestinal Hulling, Lymphatic Saturation…
While the room’s conversation turned to marketing strategies and projected price-per-pound expectations at the upcoming private auction, Craig struggled to maintain his composure. Just play cool. Just stay silent until you can get out of here. He found himself nodding in agreement to every descriptor mentioned—he’d certainly done this before at other cuppings, so this one should be no different.
Craig breathed a sigh of relief when the host announced the final cup of the evening. He only needed to fake his way through one more vile coffee.
“Now, this is one that we’re all very excited about at Mortal Coffee. For a while now, the industry has been buzzing—especially our colleagues from the United Kingdom—about Gustatory Transference.” The crowd gasped. “This is the great white whale in our field of processing experiments: using the circumvallate papillae of the human tongue pulled from the dorsal surface to ferment coffee cherries, the very palate itself repurposed as a means of concentrating flavor.”
That did it. Craig felt a gag reflex rising in his esophagus. It was simply too disgusting. He couldn’t possibly cup this coffee fermented in human tongue. The room started to spin… and then he heard it—*ding*—the unmistakeable chime of a text message.
“Terry, I thought we said no phones during cupping.” The host scolded.
“Sorry.” Terry stared confusedly at his screen.
“Terry, put the phone away.”
“But it’s a message from Seth Greystone.” All eyes were on Craig immediately. An oilslick of fear ran down the back of his throat.
Terry continued, “He couldn’t make it tonight. But he asked me to bid for him on the lymph node lot.”
The stares became more intense. Craig’s heart galloped. You need to run.
Then with utmost politeness, the host stepped forward, “It’s okay, please don’t leave.” He looked deep into Craig’s eyes as the rest of the room shifted around him, figures on either side, blocking the doorways, boxing him in.
“After all, you came up with the tasting note of the night. What a gifted palate you have. Such a lovely tongue…”
Keith White is an American coffee professional. This is Keith White’s first feature for Sprudge.