This is our coffee cupping guide.
Without experience evaluating coffee, it's hard to figure out how to do cupping, also known as tasting coffee. But we'll walk you through the process step by step and tell you why it's done in the first place.
Let's get started.
Why Is Coffee Cupping Important?
Cupping is done by two categories of coffee professionals:
- Buyers, who have the opportunity to give feedback to the farmer and to the company providing the green coffee
- Those who monitor the quality of the coffee beans during production
Cupping is a professional, in-depth assessment that provides an opportunity to contribute to the coffee world through a little personal research.
To assess coffee quality during cupping, professionals use a horizontal A4 sheet of paper, where all items are filled in from left to right. On one sheet, it's possible to describe and evaluate three lots of coffee at once.
Some coffee producers also use a more simplified version of this form. Typically, simplified forms are created to get feedback on a certain product from baristas and coffee lovers. After all, the regular form requires training and experience, and also time to sort everything out point by point and correctly fill out the form using the maximum number of comments. This is great for professional tasters, but not for baristas or coffee lovers who haven't been trained in cupping.
The Cupping Process
According to the accepted Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) requirements, multiple attributes are graded during coffee cupping:
- Fragrance/aroma of freshly ground coffee
- Fragrance/aroma of wet coffee
- Balance and uniformity
- Sweetness, cleanliness of the cup, and defects
During the assessment, the taster gives points for each parameter. The samples are provided in order to assess the potential of the coffee bean, so any prejudices about roasting or freshness should be put on the back burner.
Let's take a closer look at each attribute graded during coffee cupping:
Fragrance/aroma of freshly ground coffee
The first thing you should do is evaluate the smell of the dry coffee grounds immediately after grinding. Breathe in the scent deeply and slowly.
The nature of the inhaled scent indicates the profile of the freshly roasted coffee. How the coffee was roasted can already be determined at this stage.
Sweet aromas are characteristic of acidic types of coffee, and piquancy is inherent in coffee with a strong taste and a dense, sweet body. The intensity of the aroma indicates the freshness of the sample, namely the time that has elapsed since roasting.
But aroma consists of the most volatile substances, so dry aroma alone is not enough to properly evaluate coffee.
Fragrance/aroma of wet coffee
The second step is to evaluate the aroma of the wet samples. After adding hot water to the coffee grounds, let the grounds steep for 4 minutes.
After you pour hot water into cups of grounds, a crust of the lightest coffee particles is formed. The denser this crust of coffee grounds, the richer the tasting notes of the coffee. Using a tasting spoon, you need to break the crust by gently stirring, all while inhaling the aroma.
The aroma of the wet coffee allows you to appreciate the overall character of the coffee, which can range from fruity to nutty. At this stage, a general sense of aroma is formed: the dry aroma is either confirmed or is supplemented by new shades.
The next step is to study the flavor of the brewed coffee in detail.
After you break the crust in all the cups, the coffee is given seven minutes to cool down to a comfortable temperature.
Next, use a special tasting spoon that dissipates heat quickly. Bring a spoonful of coffee to your mouth and suck in the coffee quickly.
This evenly distributes the coffee over the entire surface of your tongue. All the tongue's nerve endings then simultaneously respond to the sweet, salty, sour, and bitter tasting notes of the coffee, which allows you to more accurately assess the entire flavor palette. Use your experience to determine the descriptors, intensity, and duration of the resulting taste the coffee.
It is worth noting that temperature affects your taste perceptions, so it's important to understand how temperature affected your identification of flavors. For example, because high temperatures reduce the sweetness of sugars, when tasting acidic varieties, you'll first notice a tingling sensation on the tip of the tongue, followed by sweetness. Hold the coffee in your mouth for three to five seconds so you can assess both the primary and secondary taste sensations.
Medium-roasted coffee often contains flavor characteristics of the byproducts of burnt sugar, while dark-roasted coffee acquires flavor characteristics of dry distillation/distillation products. Flavor notes are assessed both for a hot cup and for a warm one. It will not be easy to define flavors once the coffee cools down too much.
The fourth step in the assessment is to determine the aftertaste of the brewed coffee.
Aftertaste is how long positive flavor and aroma notes last on the back of your palate after you've swallowed the sip of coffee.
Coffee's aftertaste can be characterized both at warm temperatures and at cold temperatures, and can have chocolate (sweet), campfire or tobacco smoke (burnt), clove-like spice (hot), and pine resin (gummy) notes. These flavor characteristics can be found in various combinations.
An overall sensation of acidity can be formed and appreciated at both warm and cold temperatures. First, evaluate the acidity's intensity, giving it a qualitative characteristic (wine, apple, lemon) and description (even, tingling, bright). Then evaluate how it affects the balance of the coffee.
The amount of acids found in a coffee berry after ripening still surprises experts. Depending on the terroir, the amount of these acids can be either reduced or properly expanded during the roasting process.
Therefore, all samples are roasted according to generally accepted SCA standards. This allows you to preserve all the necessary acids, roast evenly, and achieve the right temperature when roasting the coffee. Then all the lots of coffee will be on an equal footing at the time of their evaluation.
Cupping does not end with after evaluating tastes and aromas.
During tasting, the tongue glides gently over the palate, capturing tactile sensations along the way. Oily, slippery sensations allow you to evaluate the oil content of the coffee; thickness and viscosity allow you to evaluate fiber and protein content. In combination, these two sensations make up what is called the body of coffee.
Body can be characterized at all three stages of cooling, and a comparison of body over time most often determines the quality component. After all, if the body at the beginning of your assessment is dense, smooth, or round, but the same descriptors are not confirmed when the coffee cools down, the coffee beans weren't good enough to deserve a high rating.
Balance and uniformity
Balance is about the harmony of flavor elements—sweetness and acidity—and body. Well-balanced coffee does not have a distinct flavor element. That is, balanced coffee cannot be only sweet or only acidic—all characteristics should complement each other and also correspond to the group of aromas that you noticed when brewing.
Balance should not be confused with uniformity. Uniformity is only assessed when five cups of the same freshly roasted coffee are tasted, according to SCA protocol. If one of the cups differs greatly from the others in terms of flavor, the lot cannot be given a high score for uniformity.
Sweetness, cleanliness of the cup, and defects
Sweetness and purity of the coffee is also assessed in terms of the presence or absence of defects. Accordingly, if any of the cups is not sweet or has a pronounced defect (phenol, iodine, enzymes, etc.), the lot of coffee receives a poor score in accordance with the system for determining the defect. Defect scores vary based on how intense the defect is and how many cups it's found in.
You can always give a lot of coffee a poor score for good reason, but you should never do it in advance—our sensations shift from the beginning of cupping to the end, until the coffee has completely cooled down. You can only fairly grade coffee after moving through the entire cupping process. Also, it's important to pause between cups and cleanse your palate with water.