Why Cupping Is Important To The Coffee Experience
Coffee is a ritual that is deeply rooted not just in American culture, but international culture. One, complex beverage, brings together people to enjoy conversation and a connection with one another. The coffee community is evolving in such a way that it is becoming similar to that of the wine culture. Farmers and roasters are pushing the boundaries of flavors to give the coffee flavors that were previously unimaginable. With all of these tests being conducted, there is a process along the way that is crucial to measuring the quality of the coffee: cupping.
What Is Cupping?
Coffee Cupping is a process that allows coffee professionals and the community to “grade” coffees. This became an industry standard practice in the late 19th Century in the Bay Area. Now, cupping is incredibly common and is now a tool for education about the coffee process to help consumers gain a larger appreciation for where their coffee comes from. In a traditional cupping, coffee roasters will roast their coffee and about two days after roast, evaluate it. Rounded bowl cups such as the ones below are the standard throughout the process for consistency. Each coffee is measured to a specific ratio and ground to a slightly finer consistency than table salt. Each cup is then placed on the table. Every coffee should have five cups of ground coffee. This is to evaluate the quality of the coffee and identify defects that might be involved. Now that the table is prepped and hot water is ready, let the process of cupping begin….
Step One: Give It A Sniff
One of the most enjoyable experiences throughout the cupping experience is the first impression that the coffee gives you. This first impression involves going down the line of the coffees and smelling them one by one. You are searching for flavor notes that would describe what you are smelling. This step is known as the fragrance/aroma step. Some notes might be floral, fruity, berry, caramel, chocolate, spicy, etc.
Pro Tip: Don’t spend too much time searching for just the right word…Often times your first thought is the most accurate when it comes to cupping.
Step Two: Fill The Cups
With your hot water just below a boil, you fill every cup right up to the brim starting with the first cup and going to the last. The process of cupping is very much about timing so you want to always stay in a specific order when completing the steps of cupping to ensure consistency. The standard is setting a timer for four minutes when you initiate pouring, and you move to step three when the timer runs out. You don’t need to smell the coffees during this process as this is part of step three.
Step Three: The Break
This step can be very exciting because it is where you might notice the coffee starting to change. The idea of “the break” is to take a spoon and stir the grounds three times and “break” the layer of gas that is sitting just under the surface. During this process, you want to get your nose as close as possible and sniff like a dog to circulate the aromas throughout the nasal cavities. You are still looking for the fragrance and aroma of the coffee but it might have a bit more complexity to your previous tasting notes depending on the coffee.
Pro Tip: After stirring, turn over the spoon and sniff the bottom. It definitely helps in making the aroma stand out more!
Step Four: The Clean
Cleaning is the process of taking the grounds of coffee off of the top and disposing of them, leaving just a clean cup of coffee. This process involves taking two spoons and making a “snow plow” out of them. You start from the back of the cup and move your way to the front, scraping just along the surface and making sure to pull all of the grounds to the front. When your spoons arrive at the front, you stack them on top of each other and scoop the grounds out of the cup. The objective is to clear it out completely but sometimes a few grounds are left. This is ok because some grounds will be on the bottom of the cup naturally. However, you want to try your best to get them out in one try. It is very important to not clean more than once. If you think about the agitation of the coffee, you want each coffee to only be agitated once throughout the clean to keep things consistent.
Step Five: The First Taste
While it might be tempting to immediately jump in and start tasting, you should definitely wait for the cups to cool a little bit. If you taste the coffee and it is too hot, it will shut down your palette and you won’t be able to identify the subtle flavors of the coffee. You should wait until the coffee is still very warm, but not too hot. A good way to test the coffee is to lightly touch the side of the cup and feel it for temperature.
Once it is ready, you begin tasting. If you have ever been around a cupping table, you will find that the people tasting the coffees are incredibly loud with their spoon. This is on purpose! You want to aerate the coffee so that it completely coats the palette and circulates to the outsides of the tongue. You are trying to engage all of the senses for flavor here and this really wakes the palette up. So feel free to make a lot of noise when slurping the coffee!
Important! DO NOT DRINK THE COFFEE. When cupping coffee, you aspirate the coffee off of the spoon, and then spit it out into a cup. If ingesting all of the coffees and flavors, it will skew your perception from one coffee to the next. Also, you will evaluate different components of the coffee at every step throughout the process. It is important to focus on only a few components in each round. Each round leads into the next with consideration to how the palette experiences the coffee and the temperature that you taste it at.
On this first round of tasting, you are looking for the flavor and the aftertaste of the coffee. While they may be similar to what you smelled, it may also be different. So you may be tasting a delicate fruity finish or a chocolate, sweet aftertaste. You are constantly evaluating what is going on throughout the tasting experience. If it feels like the coffee has a dry finish, make a note of that. Keep in mind that there is no one right answer. Everybody has different tasting palettes and might identify different things inside of each coffee. Cupping is a very individual experience. Now that you have tasted the coffees in the first round, it is now on to the second round…
Step Six: Acidity and Body
Now that you have the flavor and aftertaste, you are evaluating the acidity and body of the coffee. Acidity, as it relates to coffee, is actually a good thing. There is an ongoing battle between the body and the acidity of the flavors and how they complement each other. You are looking for a coffee that has a well-balanced body that can complement the acidity in such a way that one doesn’t overpower the other. This gives the palette almost a journey that it goes on rather than just being all body or all acidity. Acidity is identified on the outside of the tongue. There are two different ways to look at the acidity of coffee: one is the intensity of the acidity, the other is the flavor. For example, you can have a subtle winey acidity or an intense lemon acidity. The intensity comes in with how much your mouth might salivate right after you taste the coffee. The more it salivates, the more acidity it has. When it comes to the body of the coffee, it is very similar to how you associate the body with wine. Coffees can have the characteristics of velvety, smooth, buttery, or even dry, chalky bodies. While cupping is about enjoying coffee, it is also about identifying where roasts can be improved. So keep that in mind while you cup the coffees.
Step Seven: The Final Taste
The last round of tasting is where you are really grading the quality of each individual cup. So the things that you are trying to identify are the sweetness of the cup, the uniformity between the cups of each coffee, if it is a “clean” cup of coffee, and the overall impression of the coffee. The uniformity of the cup is a very important component of this step because it hints at whether or not there are variations or defects in the bean before roasting. If two of the five cups taste different, that can indicate that 40% of your coffee may have a defect in them, which is less than ideal. The overall grade of the coffee is the only place throughout the entire process that can be influenced by your preference. Every step leading up to it is evaluating the coffee in an objective way. However, if you like acidic, bright, fruity coffees, the overall score is where these coffees can rank higher to you than a chocolatey, caramel, and full-bodied coffee.
The process of cupping is both fascinating and addicting. Tasting coffees every week and making small changes to coffee throughout the roasting process is what makes specialty coffee truly an art. At the heart of it all, you are trying to help the coffee express itself in the best way possible. Each coffee bean has inherent qualities, and it is the job of the roaster to help make those qualities shine as bright as they can.
We are hosting our own cupping for everybody to enjoy and learn more about this process. Check it out and sign up here!