Loving cup

Loving cup

Considering how much coffee they were ingesting that noon, the five panelists were surprisingly sedate. Indeed, watching them smell each of 10 cups, swirl, sip and then press their pencils into the grading sheet, an image of study hall came to mind. Not exactly the caffeinated showdown we had envisioned when we set up the C-VILLE Coffee Taste Test.

But when it comes down to it, coffee is no frivolous matter. Ask the anxious café manager who, when he got wind of this Coffee Invitational, sent us frequent and regular updates on the correct way to prepare, serve, and appreciate the bean. Or, the java-reliant panelist who wondered what to wear to the event (in the end, he went with everyday work clothes, but we were sympathetic to his jitters. Imagine a music nut being invited to the Grammys—the question of wardrobe is bound to come up). And really, to appreciate the vaunted position of coffee in the daily life of Charlottesville, look no further than the fact that 10, count ’em 10, establishments dedicate themselves principally to your morning (or all-day) cup. Had we allowed carts and other kinds of free-standing or unsheltered coffee establishments, we would have put upwards of a dozen cups in front of the quietly addled judges.

Our judges of joe, from left: Brian Irving, Jane Foy, J. Tobias Beard, Lise Clavel, and Vu Nguyen.

But we restricted the Blind Taste Test to 10 coffee-first establishments. And, in defiance of the budding trend to conduct coffee tastings with the piety and ceremony usually associated with wine tastings, we decided to forgo the “cupping” techniques that involve a lot of spitting and stirring and precise timing. We have as much respect for the rituals of gastronomy as the next newspaper, don’t get us wrong, but in the end we wanted to follow the fashion and approximate what the average American, Joe Six-Pack if you will, might get when he slaps a couple of bucks on the counter and orders a cup to go (all coffees were served and tasted black, however). So we asked each of the 10 Charlottesville shops to brew whatever they consider their best blend and have a fresh pot of it ready for noon consumption. Restaurateur Vu Nguyen, a panelist, lent the dining room of Zinc, his West Main Street restaurant, to our cause. Only our trusty intern and a representative from the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse knew the true identity of each coffee, which were otherwise identified by numerals—1 through 10.

click for larger view.

The judges applied four standards: Aroma, Flavor, Lack of Bitterness and Overall Experience. The scale was 1-5, with 5 being the top grade. There was also a space on the grading sheet for notes. Words like “pungent,” “grassy,” “weird nose,” and damningly, “not terrible” turned up there.

And the winner? Who was the winner? That’s all you really want to know at this stage, right? Well, hang on to your stirrers, all you Joe Heads. There were two winners. Indeed, a tie. Without further ado, congratulations to Mudhouse and Para Coffee. The longtime coffee standard bearer, established by John and Lynelle Lawrence 13 years ago, won with its Ethiopian brew. And the brand new kid on the block, Para Coffee, having opened on Elliewood Avenue less than two weeks before the tasting, also won—with its Costa Rican brew.

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