Thit thit thit…
“…ruby red grapefruit…”
“More of a pomelo actually.”
“Yes, but pithier. It’s got pith. Very pithy.”
“Like a bruleed pith though.”
“What do you taste, Alex?”
“Fuck,” Alex thought to himself. He hated this part of the day. It’s not that he didn’t like cupping. On the contrary, it was his favorite part of working in the coffee industry, and he was actually pretty good at it. Under normal circumstances. But not around these assholes and their free-association tasting notes. What does a lime blossom even taste like anyway?
Around them, he would freeze up. Maybe it was that Alex never felt like he was part of the group. They didn’t think he was “in” coffee, not like them. He just put coffee in bags to be sent out for “real” coffee professionals to use. He was only invited to the daily cupping as a sort of constant against which everyone else could gauge how developed their palates had become. Or at least that’s how Alex read the situation, and perhaps subconsciously, that’s the box he pinned himself into. For all the varieties of apple or specific herbaceous notes he could confidently find during a more casual cupping setting, here his tongue may as well have been coated in wax.
“Uhhhh… stone fruit?” Alex said.
“I don’t know, I’m not really tasting the tartaric acid. Citric definitely, but I can’t find the tartaric.”
“I could see it getting more malic as it cools. Maybe that’s what you’re getting.”
“Yeah, that must be it,” Alex resigned, coalescing meekly yet again to the free-range, avocado blossom hive mind.
And just like every other day, Alex would finish out the cupping in silence while the others continued their three-dimensional chess flavor profiles. And as always, no one would ask his opinion again for the rest of the day.
After these daily traumas, Alex couldn’t wait to get back to bagging. Yes, the job was mindlessly repetitive, but he loved being part of coffee, if only in a not-flavor-dependent way. Sure, he'd rather be a barista champion or a green coffee buyer, but at least bagging got him in the door to the coffee world. Plus, it gave him a chance to actually think about the coffees he had just cupped, though that usually entailed reliving his newest hell. “Stone fruit? You didn’t taste stone fruit,” Alex said to himself.
A new order had just come in. A single 12-ounce bag for someone named Endora Derwood of the very coffee Alex was just cupping. I didn’t know it was on the offer sheet already, he thought. Maybe it’s some sort of friends and family preview; the name doesn’t ring any bells, though. The address was on his way home and everyone had left for the night—another couple hours lost in thought—so Alex figured he would just drop off the delivery on his way home. Nothing wrong with getting a few brownie points for exceptional customer service. He filled a bag and headed out the door toward the home of Ms. Derwood.
As Alex’s beat up Suburu pulls up to the non-descript Derwood home, he can’t help but wonder why he’s never seen it before; though he’s made this same drive twice a day for the past two years, he’s never seen this house before in his life. “But what WOULD I notice before I’ve had my morning coffee, right?” he said out loud to himself. His dad would love that joke.
“Coffee delivery for Ms. Endora Derwood,” Alex said to no one in particular. It wasn’t until now he realized how bizarre it was to make a delivery at this hour and felt compelled to announce his intentions to the universe.
The door opens to reveal a woman, presumably Endora Derwood, greeting Alex with a smile.
“Ms. Derwood? You just ordered some coffee and I thought I would bring it by. It was on my way home.” Alex was now completely aware of how odd this situation might seem.
“Now that’s customer service. Kudos to you!” she said. Alex felt relieved. He was unable to pinpoint her age; She was dressed in flowy, hippy garb, but Alex couldn’t tell if it was some sort of Coachella-boho-chic thing or if Ms. Derwood hadn’t changed clothes since she was at Woodstock.
“So what does this coffee taste like?” she asked.
“Ummm… bruleed pomelo pith?” he said meekly.
“Now just what in the hell does that mean?” She may have looked like a hippy, but Ms. Derwood was a straight shooter.
“To be honest, Ms. Derwood, I have no idea. That’s just what everyone said at the cupping table today and they seemed pretty confident.”
“Well, what did you taste? You were there too, right? And please, call me Endora.”
“I… I don’t know. I kinda froze up.”
“That just won’t do. I think I have something that will help you. Would you like to try?”
It was getting late, but “what the hell?” Alex thought. This was the sort of low-pressure situation where maybe he could actually pick out the flavors.
“That sounds great Ms. Der… Endora.”
“Oh wonderful. Come have a seat and I’ll brew some up right away.”
Her setup was nice: decent enough home grinder, cupping bowls, actual cupping spoons.
“Here,” she said. “Use this one, it’s very special.” It was unlike any cupping spoon he has seen before, shimmery and variegated, but not multi-colored; more like every color at once. In the concavity of the spoon, two squares offset to make an eight-pointed star.
“I can’t use your spoon,” Alex said. “It’s too nice.”
“Don’t you mind that. I have others.”
Alex agreed—it was pretty cool looking after all—and dipped the spoon into the slurry (now reaching the ideal tasting temperature).
“Tangerine. Shit. It’s tangerine!” Alex exclaimed. Not toasted, not the rind, not poached in 25-year-old brandy, simply the juicy part of the fruit that normal-talking humans associate with the word “tangerine.”
“Why yes, I believe you’re right, Alex. Try again. What else do you taste?”
“…lavender, caramel, and just a touch of grassiness.” With each sip, the flavors came more into focus. Probably shouldn’t have told the customer the coffee was grassy, though.
“Right again. You’ve got quite the palate.”
“If only that were true when we cupped at work.”
“Well, why don’t you take that spoon with you? Just promise you’ll bring it back tomorrow.”
He hesitated. “I couldn’t do that, it's too nice. Thank you though.”
“I insist. It's no trouble at all.”
Alex thought for a second. It’s just a spoon, right? But maybe it would bring him good luck. The flavors DID seem so clear when he was using it.
“If you really don’t mind, then I guess I could take it for luck.”
“Just remember, you must bring it back tomorrow.”
“I promise. Thanks Ms. Derwood!” Alex said as he turned and headed for the door.
“It’s my pleasure,” Enodra said, a Cheshire grin beginning to peak out of the corner of her mouth.
The next day, Alex couldn’t wait to get to the cupping table, lucky charm in hand. He practically floated into the room.
“We’re going to do something a little different today,” Alex’s boss said. “We’ve set up a triangulation cupping for you all. The winner will represent us at the US Cup Tasters Championship this year.”
The room grew excited, except for Alex. The old “it’s tangerine, you dum-dums” trick isn’t gonna work now. Back to being the bag packing punching bag.
Nonetheless, Alex decided to participate. Who knows, maybe he'd get lucky. As the rest of the team is hrrrmmm’ing and oooo’ing their way through the row of triplet cups, jotting down their answers as they go, Alex, the last person to go, begins with the first set.
“I think there’s been a mistake,” Alex stated. “These coffees taste nothing alike.”
“There’s no mistake. Just pick out the one that’s different,” Alex’s boss said.
“Don’t worry, it gets a lot harder,” his coworker stated, certain as they all were that Alex had no idea what he was talking about.
Himself uncertain about the obvious differences, Alex jots down his answer and moves to the next set of bowls.
Zzzzzheeet… zzzzzheeet… zzzzzheeet…
Ok, these are definitely different, Alex thought to himself. Don't say anything. Just write it down and move on.
With each passing cup, the flavors became clearer and clearer. Each sip evoked a unique image in his mind, in full color, that he could rotate in three-dimensional space. It’s like he could jump into that scene himself and poke around to find what was out of place. Alex blew through sets three, four, and five. He began skipping past his coworkers in the line, so enamored with the contrasts of flavor country that he didn’t even realize they were there.
“Done!” Alex stated.
“You sure you don’t want to give it another pass?” his boss asked.
“Nope, I'm pretty sure these are right.”
“Let’s just check and see.” Alex’s boss takes his score sheet, scribbling little marks as he scrolls down the page. His brows furrow slightly. “It appears that Alex has set the bar pretty high. He didn’t miss a single one.”
As the rest of the group continued to work through the sets and turn in their answers, Alex beamed. You could have turned off the power and illuminated the whole room with his smile alone.
Second place missed three.
“Well, Alex, looks like you’re going to Cup Tasters,” his boss said.
Alex couldn’t believe it. He finally bested his coworkers/secret enemies and it was all thanks to the spoon.
Oh no, the spoon. He is supposed to give it back to Ms. Derwood tonight. If I get last place at Cup Tasters, it’ll be worse than if I never went at all… Maybe I’ll just hold onto it until Ms. Derwood messages us about it. She knows how to reach me. What could possibly be the harm?
The spoon, so beautiful, so unlike any other spoon, seemed to almost vibrate.
Ms. Derwood never did get in touch about it. Month and months went by as Alex prepared for Cup Tasters with his secret weapon, without a single message from the hippy-dippy woman in the secret house on his route home. In that entire time, Alex never missed a cup. He picked them out faster. Nothing his coworkers threw at him—not a single errant bean, not a half a degree difference in water temperature, nothing—could fool him. The images these coffees painted in his head were just too crisp. Winning almost felt perfunctory at this point.
And it was. At the national competition, Alex steamrolled the first round with a perfect 8 for 8 in just under two minutes. In the semis, he went perfect again but in just over five minutes, thanks to a cheeky “coffee break” in which the newly-confident Alex picked up one of the cupping bowls and began sipping from it as he took a casual stroll around the stage. He almost got DQ’ed for his little stunt but he was so far away above the rest of the competition, they let him off with a warning.
Then came the finals. His pièce de résistance. So as to not run afoul of the rules that he now felt a great deal of contempt towards, Alex didn’t touch a single cup, not for tasting purposes at least. Using aroma alone, he correctly identified all eight outliers, and did so in just under a minute. The packed house roared.
Alex became an overnight sensation in the coffee world. Did this kid really just win the US Cup Tasters without a single sip?! The audacity! The nerve! The sheer badassery! Yesterday, Alex was a nobody, but today, he’s the most famous person in the coffee world. Local media ate him up—he even made a national mainstream newspaper's weekend magazine cover. “Coffee’s bad boy” they called him, with cover photos of him flipping over cupping tables or spitting coffee directly at the camera, with his special spoon—his secret weapon, his actor’s secret—always hiding in plain sight.
Alex fell comfortably into the roll of the bad boy—”John McEnspro,” someone quipped on Twitter, and in truth, he loved it. He began saying things like, “tasting isn’t something you can learn. It’s either in you or it isn’t,” and “coffee probably isn’t for everyone, maybe you should give wine a shot.” He was snotty, he was ambitious, he was brash—the rock star competition barista of yesteryear, born anew with dizzying success.
In the weeks leading up to the World Cup Tasters, Alex didn’t so much “practice” as he did put on coffee tasting exhibitions. Not a day went by where a stranger didn’t recognize him and ask Alex to taste whatever coffee they were drinking. They started inviting in members of the local community: cafe regulars, reporters, the local high school varsity football squad (including the coaches and cheerleaders).
“Rose hips, pomegranate, 72% dark chocolate, and you really need to lay off the Flaming Hot Cheetos before drinking coffee.”
Alex was ready. The only thing left to figure out was exactly what outrageous stunt he was going to pull at the finals. Was he going to hand out rain ponchos to the first two rows of the crowd, the “splash zone,” and cover them with the winning coffee? He wasn’t sure yet, but he knew it was going to be wild. And he knew he was going to win at worlds.
Sitting at the airport waiting for his flight to Belo Horizonte to arrive, Alex was recognized by a group of coffee people waiting to board the same plane, who like everyone else it seemed, wanted to see the world’s most famous palate in action. And Alex was more than happy to oblige. One member of the adoring public handed Alex their cup of airport coffee as a lark. Alex pulled his prized possession from the chain around his neck—he wore the spoon like an amulet of power now, always pressed against his skin, next to his beating heart.
“Baker’s chocolate, rubber, peanuts… and baby shit?”
The group laughs, they snap a few photos with Alex for the ‘Gram, ask him to sign their cup—Alex spells the name on the cup wrong intentionally; people eat it up—and they leave, satisfied to have met the phenom and seen him in action. But something was wrong. That coffee had baker’s chocolate, rubber, and peanuts, but baby shit? Maybe that was a defect from some kind of natural process that had crept into this coffee's otherwise unremarkable provenance, but something felt wrong. He tasted that flavor when he slurped the coffee, but the flavor wasn't in the coffee. Just then he heard the crying: a newborn some 20 yards away waiting on a flight at the next terminal. The baby's mother was fussing with a diaper bag, getting ready for a change.
Then, a distinct odor of corn and oil, like bad tortilla chips. No sooner than Alex picks out the smell, a man with a greasy bag of leftovers from the shitty Airport Tex Mex spot takes a seat three rows over.
Every passing scent lingers now. He can’t turn them off. Alex’s senses have become too sharp, as though the focus on a camera had been over-adjusted; the picture in his head has gone blurry, overrun by atmospheric scents clashing against one another.
“Now boarding Group Six for Flight 823 to Belo Horizonte, Brazil…”
Shaking off his olfactory panic attack, Alex heads for his plane, hoping to leave behind this menagerie of odors turned to 11.
But the plane was worse. A “service dog” four rows back is having a love affair with its own butt. A man up in first class with athlete’s foot has just removed his shoes. Someone in the very back opens the bathroom door, releasing a perfume of blue chemicals and old urine. No less than three toddlers on this plane are at various stages of bodily fluids coming out of both ends. The pilot boards, bringing with him a smell of last night’s gin and cheap perfume. Alex can taste the armrests. All of them.
The odors, they are deafening.
Alex grows pallid and breaks into a cold sweat, the salty sweetness only adding to the onslaught. His vision tunnels and his ears only record a high-pitched silence as all sensory power is diverted to his nose and mouth. He begins to thrash about, pawing aggressively at anything and everything around him trying to find something to bring him back, but his fingertips aren’t registering any sensations, not the headrest, not the face of the person in the chair next to him, not even the window that just dislocated two of his knuckles. Nothing. In comes a rush of copper.
And in an instant, everything is gone.
Alex opens his eyes to the blurred features of a soft, white room. It’s unclear where he is or how long he’s been here. His eye muscles have grown weak from atrophy. He can feel the cool wall against the back of his exposed neck. His senses must be returning.
“Ah, you’ve come back to us,” Alex hears a female voice say. “That was quite an ordeal, wasn't it.”
Alex tries to sit up but is too weak.
“Be careful now. You’re not back up to full strength. You should make a complete recovery in no time. Except for…”
Alex tries to speak but only a garbled noise comes out, accompanied by a shooting pain.
“I was trying to tell you, when you had that terrible spasm on the airplane, you bit off most of your tongue. The doctors ran a CAT scan and you seem to have fried your parietal lobe in the process. I’m afraid you’ll never taste or smell again. But on the bright side, all your other sense were unharmed.”
Tears begin to fill Alex’s eyes as he lay motionless against the wall.
“Oh, there it is.”
The specter's soft focus tightens as she floats closer to Alex, leaning over him to pluck a shiny metallic object from the chain around his neck. In a moment of perfect clarity, Alex can read her name tag: Derwood.
And then, as though overcorrecting the camera lens, the shape of the woman blurs, fading into nothing but a voice.
“I’d hate to lose this. It's very special.”