Coffee Cupping – Discovering Character and Quality of Coffee

Coffee cupping

What is coffee cupping?

Coffee cupping is a coffee tasting technique where you weigh beans individually in small cups, grind them and then soak in boiling water for 4-5 minutes before slurping the brew on the palate with large spoon. Origin of this process is from Hills Bros Coffee in San Francisco. Coffee cupping is widely used amongst roasters to determine quality of coffee and how to use it in their blends, and to discover quality of coffees so they can set the price for each lot.

Coffee cupping protocol

The purpose of cupping protocol is to determine quality of coffee and rate it on numeric scale. Scores between samples are easy to compare and if the cupper is experienced enough then coffees with higher scores will be better than coffees with lower scores. In order to ensure most accurately evaluation of coffee quality, Special Coffee Association of America or SCAA recommends this standards for coffee cupping:

  • Cups you’ll use for coffee cupping have to be from 207-266ml and made of tempered glass or ceramic with top diameter between 76-79mm. All cups must be the same and with lids.
  • You must roast your beans not more than 24 hours before cupping and leave it to rest at least 8 hours before cupping.
  • You have to finish roasting in 8-12 minutes, without any signs of scorching or tipping. Beans than have to be immediately air cooled until they reach room temperature ( 21°C ).
  • Optimum ratio is 8.25 grams of coffee per 150ml of water and you have to weigh coffee as whole bean.
  • Grind your beans a bit coarser than coffee used for paper filter drip, no more than 15 minutes before infusion with water.
  • Use only clean and odor free but undistilled and unsoftened water.
  • Temprature of water should be 91°C when you pour it over coffee

Characteristics of coffee you should know before coffee cupping

Old SCAA Coffee tasters flavor wheel

There are lots of words that are used to describe tastes found in coffee. Descriptions are useful in attempts to explain the essential nature of coffee using language that people can relate with. Taste is a personal experience and with lots of practice you will form a background of tastes that will help you to evaluate and understand new tastes.

Coffee tasters flavor wheel is designed as a tool for coffee tasters. It will help you to become more specific in identification of flavors.

New coffee tasters flavor wheel

Some of the commonly used characteristics of coffee

  • Acidity is brightness or sharpness of coffee and delivers fruit and floral flavors. Acidity is best evaluated when your coffee cool down to warm temperature. Coffee without acidity is mellow, kinda boring. But they can taste very nice with mellow notes of chocolate, nuts or spices. If you want to taste the range of acidity for yourself try Brasil Peaberry vs Sumatra Mandheling coffee.
  • Body or Mouthfeel is the weight that coffee have in your mouth, like viscosity or thickness of coffee. Try to compare Toraja Sulawesi with Mexican Coffee to taste different bodies of coffee.
  • Sweetness is one of the most important element in coffee. It often separates good from great coffees and it is important because sweetness allows all the other tastes to stand out.
  • Aftertaste or Finish is the last impression in coffee cupping and it is very important to overall quality of coffee. Ideal aftertaste you are looking for is clean, sweet and refreshing. Capable to hold flavors in your mouth for 10-15 seconds after swallowing.
  • Balance is how flavor, aftertaste, acidity and body of coffee works together and complent or contrast each other. If you find that coffee is missing some taste attributes or if some of them are too noticeable you should give lower score in balance section.
  • Flavor is combined impression of taste and retro-nasal aromas in your mouth and nose. Flavor indicates intensity, quality and complexity of taste and aroma when you slurp the coffee into the mouth.
  • Aroma/Fragrance aroma is the smell of coffee when you mix it with water and fragrance is smell of your ground coffee when it’s still dry. There are 3 steps to evaluate aroma and fragrance in cupping. 1st is to sniff the grounds for fragrance before pouring hot water onto them. 2nd is sniffing aromas when you break the crust on top. 3rd is sniffing the aromas while coffee steeps.
  • Uniformity is consistency of flavor in different cups of same sample of coffee.
  • Clean cup is actually a transparency of coffee. Clean cup is coffee without any negative impressions from start to finish.
  • Defects are poor or bad flavors of coffee. They are divided on “taint” and “fault”. You can detect taint in aromatic aspects and fault in taste aspects.

Coffee evaluation

Trough coffee evaluation we can learn to identify different flavors of coffee from different origins. You can write down attributes of coffee like flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, balance, uniformity, clean cup, sweetness, defects and overall scoring aspects in cupping forms. Than they are compared with other samples from cupping session to determine which one is the best. Proffesional cuppers coffees are rating coffee on the scale that represent level of quality from 0-10. Coffees above 6 points ( or 5 in some forms) are considered specialty coffees. You should give 10 points only for something that completely rocks your world.

SCAA coffee quality scale
The Final Score is calculated by summing the individual scores
given for each of the primary attributes.

Evaluation procedure

Before everything you should visually checked beans for roast color.

1.Fragrance/Aroma

No longer than 15 minutes after you ground your samples, lift lids to evaluate fragrance of sample by sniffing. Timing for second sniffing is 3-5 minutes after you pour hot water to determine aroma of coffee. When you pour water the crust will form on top of the cup. Leave that crust unbroken while soaking. After 3-5 minutes stir 3 times to brake crust with spoon and allow coffee foam to run down of the spoon while sniffing.

2.Flavor,aftertaste,acidity,body and balance

When your samples cool down to 71°C, about 8-10 minutes from mixing water and coffee, take your spoon and evaluate liquor flavors and aftertaste. As coffee continues to cool you should rate the acidity, body and balance of coffee.

3.Sweetness,uniformity and cleanliness

When coffee reaches room temperature ( 21°C ) you can start to evaluate sweetness, uniformity and cleanliness of coffee. After evaluating all samples write down scores for each coffee into cupping form.

Coffee cupping forms

Cupping forms are just your tool for recording atributes of coffee. There are many types of cupping forms available. Some of them are complex like Cup of Excellence form or SCAA cupping form.

Cup of Excellence cupping form
SCAA coffee cupping form

And some of them are much simpler and you can use it as a total begginner in cupping.

Inteligentsia cupping form
Coffee Geek cupping form

Inteligentsia and Coffee Geek forms are similar and evaluate things like acidity, mouthfeel, flavor and aftertaste. But Coffee Geek form is focusing more on some elements with more connections to SCAA traditional cupping form. Some cuppers who don’t like numerical scoring system don’t accept numerical scoring forms. They believe that such system brakes the coffee to the sum of its parts.

How to do coffee cupping at home

If you decide to do coffee cupping at home it’s not necessary to have a specialized tools. All you need to have is an accurate gram scale but if you are thinking to buy specialized tools you can buy them from SCAA shop. Specialized tools exist for reason so it’s always good to have them. For example, silver plating minimizes any potential flavor change in coffee samples that is why for cupping you should use specifically designed silver plated spoons.

What do you need for your coffee cupping session?

If we assume that you’ll be evaluating 2 coffees you’ll need:

  • 4 cups of same volume ( small tumbler glass works well enough for cupping )
  • Water kettle or an electric water heater
  • Coffee grinder ( burr grinders works best )
  • 2 glasses with water for rinsing your spoon
  • Gram scale for weighing your coffee.
  • Cupping forms aren’t necessary but they will hep you to be more organized in evaluation of coffee
  • 2 empty coffee mugs for spitting.
  • Sample trays for each sample for roasted whole beans and for unroasted beans if you are roasting for yourself
  • Extra spoons to remove grounds from liquid
  • Coffee. Maybe the best is to buy different coffee from same region for your first cupping. If you don’t know where to get them, check Volcanica coffee.

10 steps to your first cupping session

  1. Weigh 12 grams of whole beans for each sample into their cups and label them to know which is which. Use 2 cups per 1 sample of coffee.
  2. Turn your water kettle on so the water boil until you grind your beans.
  3. Grind each cup individually and make sure to clean grinding chamber after each sample. Grind as fast as you can so your coffee don’t go stale.
  4. Before water in the kettle starts to boil sniff the grounds from each sample and make notes about fragrance.
  5. When water starts to boil remove it from heat and wait 25 seconds before pouring over grounds.
  6. Start a timer when you begin with pouring because you have to wait 4 minutes for grounds to settle. Watch for the ratio of coffee and water, for 12 grams of coffee use 200ml of water.
  7. After 4 minutes it’s time to break the crust and smell the aroma of coffee. As I said before, thick crust of grounds will be on top so put your nose close to cup and brake the crust while smelling released aromas. Do this for every sample and don’t forget to make notes.
  8. Now it’s time to remove the grounds from top so you can taste the liquid.
  9. When you remove all grounds you can start tasting. Take coffee with spoon and slurp it into your mouth while inhaling. Your goalvis to spread the coffee onto your palate. If you know how to taste wine then you’re good because these 2 methods of tasting are familiar. Always rinse your spoon before tasting different samples and make sure to evaluate every sample in different stage of cooling. If you remember that you needed 2 mugs for spitting use them. Just make sure to swallow some coffee from each sample to evaluate aftertaste.
  10. When tasting is over it’s time to compare your evaluation with other cuppers or if you are cupping alone then you can find online reviews of coffees that you tasted and compare them with your notes.

Conclusion

Cupping is the best way to learn about flavors and aromas of coffee. Just like with wine, you can find large number of flavour notes in coffee because every harvest is different. Learning to identify coffee flavors takes lots of time and practice but it adds a new level of enjoyment in coffee.

Do you find coffee cupping interesting or you think it’s just too much for regular coffee drinker?

If you like this article make sure to read other articles from my blog.

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