Coffee Cupping: A Beginner’s Guide

Coffee Cupping: A Beginner’s Guide

Coffee has made a tremendous journey to make its way into our cup, and while much of that journey is basically obvious to us (i.e. growing, harvesting, shipping, roasting, and brewing), some of the nuances of that process go unappreciated by the average coffee consumer, even some of the more discerning ones. In this post, I’ll touch on one of those behind-the-scenes processes, one that coffee professionals worldwide use to perfect their craft, bringing you that delicious morning brew: cupping.

In its most basic form, coffee “cupping” refers to the process through which a coffee roaster or other industry professional assesses the flavor, mouthfeel, fragrance, aroma, acidity, cleanliness, and overall quality of a particular roast. Oftentimes, roasters will sample or “cup” several roasts at a time, hoping to compare/contrast different roast profiles with the goal of determining which roasts they hope to bring to market.

Cuppings are an essential part of the coffee professional’s toolkit. In addition to identifying those roasts which should be pulled into production, regular cuppings are crucial to developing a refined and capable palate. Just as a sommelier should regularly taste wine, a coffee roaster should cup weekly to keep his or her palate sharp.

I’m sure you’re wondering, as I most certainly did at a time: so they just drink a few cups of coffee? How is that any different than the involuntary “process” I take when finding my favorite cup of joe? Well, you’re not exactly wrong. While cupping does involve coffee consumption and an exploration of preferences, there’s a surprisingly scientific method that governs the process, one that is (nearly) universally accepted and which is intended to control the brewing process to create a level, and comparable, playing field on which to make objective assessments.

The Specialty Coffee Associate (SCA), specialty coffee’s official governing body, has a robust set of protocols and best practices for a proper cupping sequence. I won’t bore you will the full list of these protocols, but a few of the most crucial ones include:

  • Cupping glasses should be between 7-9 fl. oz. and should be of a tempered glass or ceramic material with a top diameter between 3-3.5 in.
  • Sample should be roasted no more than 24 hrs before cupping, and should be allowed to sit at least 8 hrs after roasting.
  • Optimum ratio is 8.25 grams of coffee per 150ml of water (this will make more sense in the “how’s it work?” section, below)
  • Sample should be ground immediately prior to cupping
  • Water should be freshly drawn and heated to approximately 200F
  • Grounds should be steeped undisturbed for a period of 3-5 mins before evaluation.

At the heart of the SCA’s protocols is an intent to control for external forces which may effect one’s perception of a roast. Think of it this way: let’s say you’re considering two applicants for a job. After a cursory look at their resumes, you’re impressed enough to offer them both an interview. Out of fairness to both applicants, you will prepare a list of questions ahead of time, intending to ask both applicants the same questions. If you were to adjust the questions in some way from one applicant to the next, you may be altering the conditions in a way that would allow one applicant to shine, where the the other had no opportunity. The same concept can be applied to our “cupping” process.

How’s It Work?

Okay, okay, enough talk, what do I need to do to “cup” at home? While this process is typically for roasters, there’s nothing saying you can’t hold your own mock “cupping” to develop your coffee palate. You’ll need to bend a few of the SCA rules to pull it off, but we won’t tell. First, let’s start off with what you’ll need:

  • Coffee cups. 1 per person, per coffee sampled – if you have 3 people and you’re sampling 2 coffees, you’ll need 6 cups. They should be glass or ceramic, relatively the same in size (7-9 fl. oz. preferred)
  • Spoons. Preferably soup spoons. Ideally 1 per cup. Full disclosure, you’ll go through a lot of spoons in a typical cupping.
  • Kettle. Electric or stovetop, doesn’t really matter.
  • Grinder. Hand or electric. Ideally a burr grinder.
  • Evaluation Form. You’re welcome to make your own, but there are several available on the internet, with varying degrees of detail. Personally, I opt for the SCA form.
  • Timer. Any basic timer should do.
  • Scale. Preferably to the nearest tenth of a gram, but any kitchen scale should do just fine.

Okay, now that you have all of the equipment, let’s get cupping! As a preface to the below, in this cupping model each person will have a cup of each sample in front of them. So, if you are sampling three different roasts, each person will have three cups.

  • Step 1: For each person, measure 10g of each type of coffee using your kitchen scale.
  • Step 2: Using your grinder, grind each coffee at a medium-coarse setting. Add grinds to ceramic/glass cups. Each sample will get its own cup.
  • Step 3: Take the chance to sample the aroma of the dry grounds.
  • Step 4: Bring water to 200F. If you’re not able to measure the temp, bring your water to a rolling boil. The settled water should bring you to right around 200F.
  • Step 5: Add the water to your dry grounds. At 10g of coffee, you’re looking for right around 150ml of water per cup. Let water steep for 3-5mins.
  • Step 6: Break the crust that has formed on top of the steeped coffee with a spoon. While doing so, take a moment to assess the aroma again. How was it different from the dry grounds? What was similar? What kind of notes are you picking up on? What do you like/dislike?
  • Step 7: Remove the rest of the crust from the cup. Discard.
  • Step 8: Using the spoons, scoop out some of the coffee. Audibly slurp the coffee from the spoon, ensuring the coffee fully covers your tongue and palate. Note the flavors, paying special attention to acidity, sweetness, and mouthfeel.
  • Repeat step 8 until all coffees have been sampled. Be sure to regularly take notes throughout the process.

Be mindful that developing a palate for coffee takes time. Your first cupping may be a bit underwhelming – your notes may be pretty basic. That’s okay. The details will come with time, you just need to allow for it. It may be a bit cliche, but this is a marathon, not a sprint. Just keep at it, and you’ll start to unlock those skills.

Let us know how your cupping journey is going. What are you finding to be the most difficult part? Are you finding any tasting strategies particularly helpful?

Cheers,

Michael

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