Cupping at Home: A Quickie How-To

September 13, 2010

Ever wonder how coffee tasters determine what beans to buy?

Ever wonder how coffee tasters determine what beans to buy? One of the tools of the trade is to cup a variety of coffees to determine flavor, aroma, and taste. To cup, or cupping, is a methodical, standardized way to brew and taste coffees to compare them to others, and for the novice, it's a marvelous way to develop a vocabulary of coffee tasting terms that will make your future choices personalized to your preferences.

In general, most professionals take the raw, green beans and roast them each the same way, usually a light or maybe a slightly medium roast. The lighter roasting style can emphasize both the faults and the more ephemeral qualities of each bean choice.

While brewing for cupping has many variations, here is a basic preparation guideline that simply uses water and ground beans and no machine:
• Roast the coffee (or have it roasted by your local roaster). If comparing three coffee brands, choose those that are roasted in the same style. 
• Allow it to rest two days, if freshly roasted. 
• Grind the beans coarsely. 
• Measure as you usually would for one cup and pour under-boiling water (195-205°F) on the grounds, and infuse from three to four minutes. 
• Smell the coffee and take note of anything to look for while tasting. 
• Break the crust that naturally forms while coffee is steeping and stir gently so that the grounds sink to the bottom. (Scoop off any of those that rest on top and discard.) 
• Now, cup. This is done by filling a tablespoon with coffee. Do not drink it, but literally slurp it by drawing the coffee into your mouth and allowing it to hit the roof of your mouth, coat your tongue, then fall into the back of your mouth, without swallowing. Doing this not only stimulates the sense of taste but those of feel/touch and your sense of smell. (You'll make noise like everyone else, so relax.) 
• Using a large bowl, spit out this coffee; do not swallow. The main reason is that you are going to taste six to 12 coffees at a time and you want to avoid the caffeine buzz and it can compromise your taste buds to drink and swallow. 
• In between tastings you can drink some cold water or eat some plain white bread to refresh your taste buds.

Okay, now you know how to taste, so choose at least three coffees, then work up to six and later to 12. You can choose any combination you want, three from Sumatra from three different brands and compare them against each other. Or, you can ask your coffee roaster to select three to six coffees for you to compare. There's no right or wrong here, this is a riff on brew-and-tell and a great teaching tool to introduce the differences from coffees from various regions in the world. Remember, ask for coffees to be roasted the same way, preferably a light roast. After doing this a few times, you can compare three types of coffees roasted medium, then move on to dark or flavored coffees, as desired.

Now, what are you looking for when you cup? In rating the coffees, ask yourself if the coffee is sharp or dull, lively or flat, heavy or thin in body, pungent or mild in fragrance, and if it has full-mouth flavor and/or a pleasant aftertaste. The following is just a guideline for your tasting notes. Feel free to add other characteristics as you learn more of the vocabulary of coffee cupping. The fragrance of the wet grounds should be more intense than the dry ones. Acidity can give the taste of coffee its freshness and its sense of liveliness.

Its necessary but unpleasant acidity can be so sharp as to be unpleasant, perhaps sour. Not every coffee gives a back-of-the-mouth feel or taste but when it does and it's great, it's fabulous. The suggestions below are typical of most coffee cupping but there are legions more. Add more as you cup more often and begin to tell the differences between countries of origin, between styles of roasting, and learn which is what you like best. As Confucius said, "Let your palate be your guide."

Cupping Guidelines:
• Name 
• Origin (country and estate, if known) 
• Moisture Percent, if known 
• Roast Level (Light, Medium, Dark, or Other) 
• Aroma/Fragrance of dry beans (Fresh, Stale, Over/Under Roasted) 
• Aroma/Fragrance of wet grounds (smooth, fresh, creamy, lively, sharp)

Taste characteristics: 
1. Acidity/Liveliness (1 to 10) 
2. Body (This is how the coffee literally feels in the mouth. Some descriptions are full, thin, fat, rich) 
3. Overall Flavor (Butter or caramel, fruit like black currant, wine, chocolate, woody, grassy, honey or malt, nut or spice (can you name the spice?), and in some cases, anise or licorice notes) 
4. Finish aka Aftertaste (dry, sweet, smooth, silky, burnt, full, sour, bitter, sharp, or thick) 
5. Additional Notes