It may be a new year, but often it is only the calendar that changes. Take this article in today’s New York Daily News — yet another installment in a long line of ever-popular wine analogy/”gee whiz, there’s this thing called cupping” pieces: Coffee: Hey, I’m no ordinary Joe. It comes with the obligatory Counter Culture Coffee PR placements, historical revisionism about what coffee cupping is, shoehorned wine comparisons, and ensuing ridicule in comments from readers who still resent those who started asking for cheese in flavors other than “orange” and “white”.

After getting past wondering how some people could seem so threatened by someone else’s coffee habits, I mused over the ever-bewildering relationship society has been having with their food in general. Setting aside the obesity epidemic and the insane proliferation of corn-based products in the American food chain for a moment, we’ve evidently become so disconnected from how our food is produced that we’ve come to glamorize and romanticize the ugly, dirty, back-breaking underside of food production. (Mind you, I came to this as I was caking grime under my fingernails, taking apart my home espresso machine for the annual ritual of replacing its gaskets.)

How the decommoditization of food has glamorized its production and producers

The public invention of the celebrity chef, the adoration of wine growers, and even the public promotion of coffee cupping all share common roots with this phenomenon. Being a restaurant chef was, and still is, largely a blue collar profession. Wine growers are basically farmers who have developed sudden packs of fashionable, well-heeled groupies. And coffee cupping — despite John Moore’s claim that “[cupping] is like going to mosque, temple or church to celebrate the coffee” — is the ritual of coffee buyers testing lots of unroasted coffee for defects before purchase.

A true coffee cupper is only interested in the taste evaluation and doesn’t actually swallow the stuff — spitting it out into a container. And yet coffee cuppings are being promoted as if some elitist activity analogous to wine tasting (hence eliciting rage and scorn from the occasional Web commenter) … as if slurping and spewing for coffee defects were among the most indulgent pleasures known to royalty. Let’s just say that the next time I get a birthday cake, I don’t plan on celebrating with it by spitting it back onto my plate.

“This coffee cupping sure is fun, Ben!” *spit*

Dealing with agricultural products, whether coffee or wine or restaurants, has always meant a lot of sweaty, unglamorous work. Yet this disconnect between food producers and consumers has created an upscale market where people are willing to spend top dollar for the privilege of performing the most menial labor. It’s the modern equivalent of Ben Rogers, whom Tom Sawyer famously convinced to gladly whitewash his fence for him. Except in today’s version, even Tom Sawyer would have admired the oneupmanship masterstroke of also getting Ben to pay for the pleasure of doing it.

The best examples of this today come from the wine industry, where people are paying large sums of money to go on trips for the back-breaking work of wine harvesting. Marketed as a sort of lifestyles of the rich and richer, the Sonoma County Grape Camp, for example, charges $15,000 a couple (I am not making this up) for the privilege of picking grapes while hunched over in an open field — doing work that otherwise only illegal immigrants can seemingly tolerate. Similar programs exist overseas.

There is an upside to this, of course. People are more willing than they have been for decades to know where their food comes from and how it is made. But the true mark of success for this movement will be when it isn’t just the elitists who recognize the value in that. The first step is in recognizing things for what they are — and even for what they are not.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to taste and enjoy coffee’s many flavors among the different varietals it has to offer. I’ll even continue roasting my own coffee at home from time-to-time. But just as I don’t want to USDA-inspect my own meat, please — someone else do the actual cupping for me.

'Ben, don't you wish you could cup coffee too? Doesn't that sound like fun?'

UPDATE: April 21, 2008
To illustrate how Counter Culture Coffee’s public cuppings graft this industry process on to bewildered retail consumers expecting something much more akin to wine tasting, today a reporter from Asheville, NC’s Citizen-Times wrote a humorous piece about his experience: Columnist at a coffee tasting | COLUMNISTS | Asheville CITIZEN-TIMES.com.

Basically, the reporter puts the “ridicule” in “ridiculous”. Just because some consumers may love bacon, that doesn’t mean they want to play meat inspector for a day and examine a pig carcass for abscesses, tuberculosis, and hog cholera — as much fun as that might be for hog farmers.

UPDATE: May 28, 2008
Counter Culture Coffee continues to seek a profit by spreading consumer ignorance. This time it’s marketing manager, Mark Overbay, trying to sex up coffee’s equivalent of meat inspection in today’s New York Times: Do I Detect a Hint of Joe? Coffee Tastings Catch on With Aficionados – NYTimes.com. There’s a reason why Peet’s Coffee & Tea promotes something called “Comparative Tastings,” Mark.

For example, here’s the definition of cupping from the Napa Valley Roasting Company Web site:

Cupping is an evaluation of green beans. The beans are under roasted and ground into a cup. Then the grounds are infused with water and first slurped and then spit out to experience all the flavors that exist in the beans. The best and worst flavors are present in this state. The key to a truly great cup of coffee is translating the promise of what exists in the green beans and then executing a roasting profile that maximize those flavors.