Thinking of an analogy for coffee cupping has made my head hurt. Coffee cupping in not like wine tasting and should not be regarded as such, even though every site on the internet says so. The reason I say that it is dissimilar is that when consumers taste wine, the wine will taste the same the next time they enjoy it. Coffee on the other hand will not. We do not prepare coffee every time we enjoy it in the same way that we cup it. So forget about wine tasting and let’s concentrate on coffee and its qualities. About the closest analogy that I can think of (kids close your eyes), is sex. You get all excited about your first time, it probably doesn’t live up to your expectations, but you try and try again getting better each time. The same applies to cupping coffees. You really just have to find your own way through it, and you will get better over time. That’s the inspiration for this piece which will hopefully turn into a series of how to guides for people like me who generally have to find their own way through things.
So, let’s jump right in and talk about this scary subject of coffee cupping. Cupping seems to be a source of great debate among roasters these days. Each roaster develops their own cupping sheets which can differ greatly from the SCAA designed sheets. Each roaster tries to bring in what they believe is a better and simpler process for evaluating the quality of a coffee, and they are almost always right. Why? Well, let me tell you why. You know what you like and what your consumers’ expectations are.
Cupping can also be intimidating the first time you try it. You don’t want to look stupid because you couldn’t make out the black currant or blueberry essence in that cup of Kenyan Peaberry. Who can really distinguish all those flavors from a single slurp anyway? Well, as you probably guessed, very few people. It takes years to develop a pallet that can distinguish between the over 1,500 aromatic and flavor compounds in coffee. So don’t worry, the only person who might think you look stupid is the idiot beside you who believes they know everything about coffee because they once tried Kopi luwak (coffee that has been eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet and is thought to be the world’s most expensive coffee).
So enough ranting, let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of cupping for the everyday Jeaux. There are 4 broad characteristics that we grade coffee on after it has been roasted.
Aroma – aroma, simply put, is how the coffee smells when brewed. What flavors does it exhibit? It is your interpretation of the gases being released from brewed coffee. Does the coffee smell smokey? Nutty? Earthy? Like fruit?
Acidity – acidity refers to a sharp and pleasing aftertaste, it can be thought of as the liveliness of the coffee. Acidity is a highly desirable quality and varies from low (dull) to high (lively). Acidity is essential, without it coffee is generally undesirable and referred to as flat similar to gas station coffee.
Sweetness – how sweet is the coffee, this is an easy one.
Body – often referred to as texture or mouthfeel (such as oiliness). Body refers to how the coffee feels in your mouth, is it heavy or light (think: water vs. milk)? It can be sensed by allowing the coffee to rest on the tongue and by rubbing the tongue against the roof of the mouth.
So now that you know the 4 main components of coffee cupping, the tricky part is figuring out how to pick up on these flavors in comparison.
Most flavors that you have a mental reference of are easy to pick out. But the fun in cupping is the building of new flavor references and the camaraderie that comes with a bunch of people sitting around slurping coffee. So let’s prep up our coffees and get to work.
Steps in Coffee Cupping
Grind your coffee beans coarsely using a burr grinder if possible. I generally look for a grind level similar to what you would use for a French Press. Measure out 12 grams of coffee per 6.5 oz of water and place the grinds in the cup. Clean grinder and repeat for every coffee you have to sample.
Boil your water. While your water is boiling take a moment to smell the ground coffee in each sample. Once your water is boiling, set it aside for about 30 seconds. This will allow the water to cool to the preferred temp for the best extraction (196 – 202F). Once the 30 seconds is up, start pouring the water over the grinds coating them evenly and starting with the oldest grinds first.
Start your timer for 4 minutes which is the time needed for your coffee to cool enough to slurp. Now you can begin to evaluate the coffees. Bring your nose as close to the soaked grinds a possible while pressing down on the top of the grinds with the back of your spoon and inhale through your nose taking it in as deep as possible. This is called “breaking the crust”. Repeat for every coffee sample.
Now, it’s time to clear the remaining crust that is still afloat. To do this, use two spoons and drag them together across the top of the coffee catching all floating grinds. Next lift the two spoons full of the remaining grinds and dispose of the grinds. Clean your spoon.
Step 5 (The fun part)
All the hard work is done, now it’s time for fun. Slurping is different than tasting in that you want to spray the coffee across your palate and coat your entire tongue rather than letting it flow across. The slurping will allow for even distribution across the regions of the tongue while also inhaling the aromatic elements to exert their full effect. Sounds pretty cool right! Before you move to the next sample, be sure to rinse your spoon to avoid cross contamination of samples.
So basically that’s the gist of it. If you were cupping for quality or reviewing samples, you would score the 4 characteristics and keep notes on a cupping sheet. But for our purposes, just sampling and developing our palate, we don’t need to keep score.
I, like most professionals (in the loosest sense), like to keep quiet and focus on the process. Chatter about different tastes can influence your perception of flavor and throw off the process. I prefer blind cupping to keep my own personal biases from interfering in the process. Once the process is over, then you can discuss, argue and debate the merits and comparative qualities and characteristics of the coffees with your friends. Take notice of where you agree and disagree, or how you’ve managed to describe the same qualities using different sorts of descriptions.
Now that you have a cupping under your belt, you can start to see that the process isn’t all that intimidating. There aren’t any right or wrong descriptions of the qualities of the coffee. Sure some may be more creative than others, but it’s all in what your palate has been exposed to. For some, this process may be no different than liking what you like, but that is the beauty in the process. If nothing else, you are exposed to many different coffees, each with something different and unique to bring to the table.
Looking for a coffee cupping sheet?
Check out ours! It may be a little over the top for your first cupping, but as you get into it, you’ll appreciate the complexity. Download Cupping Sheet