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Coffee Tasting 103: A Simplified Guide To Cupping

Coffee brewing is a mix of art and science. Coffee tasting is much the same way, in that we can elevate the coffee experience beyond simply gulping the stuff down to something that's both more systematic and more rewarding. That's true whether you're a master taster (the coffee world's version of a sommelier) or by coffee enthusiasts like you or me. Cupping is one of the methods that can give us a more uniform and predictable way to evaluate coffee, especially if we want to evaluate a few types at once.

What Is Cupping? Cupping evaluates the main components of a coffee's taste -- the nose, mouthfeel, sweetness and acidity. What's different is the method by which it's done. It's not a matter of making a pot in your Mr. Coffee and taking your chances. Part of the point of cupping is to standardize the preparation in order to level the playing field among different types of beans. That means ensuring uniformity in how the coffee is roasted, the water temperature, and the brew time.

How's It Done? Start with your coffee, typically roasted light to medium-light. The grind should be the same on all varieties sampled (and should be a medium-coarse grind similar to what you'd use for a French press); if you're using your own grinder, make sure you clean it between grinds to eliminate the possibility of cross-contamination. You'll also need:

  • A sufficiently large table to accommodate all of your paraphernalia and the people attending the tasting
  • Bowls for whole and ground beans (for examination and sniffing)
  • Glasses or clear coffee cups in which to brew the coffee (so you can see the color of the coffee)
  • Spoons to taste the coffee (soup spoons work best -- especially a renge, or Japanese soup spoon)
  • Water (to cleanse the palate)
  • Spittoons (red Solo cups work just fine)
The coffees can be labeled so that everyone knows what they're tasting, or you can do a blind tasting. Blind tastings are preferred by many who conduct tastings because it keeps tasters from approaching coffees with any preconceived notions.
Coffee Crust (image: foodgps.com)

Now it's time to brew. Heat your water to 195-205 degrees celsius and pour over the grinds in the cup -- 1.63 grams of coffee per ounce of water, allowing the coffee to steep for four minutes. Take note of the scent as it brews. Once the time's elapsed, it's time to break the crust and to take another nice, deep breath of the scent of the coffee. Skim the crust -- don't worry about the stray grounds that sink to the bottom of the cup -- and discard. Fill your spoon with the resulting infusion.

Now, slurp. Yes, we know, you've been told a million times that it's rude to slurp. Here, it's acceptable, and helpful. It aerates the coffee, helping you to pick up on the scent and get more of the taste; it cools your coffee a bit so you don't scald your mouth; and it ensures that the coffee hits all the different areas (sweet, sour, bitter, salty) on your tongue. Let the coffee linger for a bit. Spit. Take notes. Repeat.

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What's important isn't that you get everything perfect (unless you're doing this professionally). What is important is consistency. You want your notes to be an accurate reflection of what to expect from each coffee, and if you're changing variables (temperature, brew time, et cetera), those notes aren't going to mean much.

Conclusion Coffee cupping, like chess, only has a few simple rules. Depending on time and inclination, you can keep this as simple, or get as advanced, as you'd like within those rules. Like the tasting tips that we've gone over in the last couple of weeks (which you can read here and here), the goal of cupping is twofold: to be more mindful of how you taste your coffee and what you're tasting, as well as providing a framework in which you can evaluate (and hopefully appreciate) the best coffee. And since it's all about the taste, feel free to step outside the rules for a bit. Have a few friends bring their French presses or Aeropresses over and brew a half dozen pots at a time, for example (just make sure you're keeping grind, water temperature, brew time, and your other variables constant among pots). Heresy? Sure. But you can save correct form for when you're at a formal tasting. Meantime, enjoy your coffee mindfully!

Resources: There are several guides to coffee cupping available on the web, each with varying degrees of complexity. The links below -- each of which goes to a PDF document -- contain forms that you can use as part of your cupping experiments. You can also, if you'd rather, devise your own criteria and scoring system. Coffee Geek has a simplified form for evaluating coffee here. It's a simplified version of a similar form used by Intelligentsia, found here. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) has the definitive guide (and forms) for coffee cupping, found here. Finally, Tom Owen wrote a guide to cupping for Sweet Maria's Coffee that's concise, useful, and hilarious. Check it out here. And a video on cupping from the folks at Rogers Coffee: