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What is "Cupping," and How is it Done?

What is "Cupping," and How is it Done?

"Cupping" is a formal evaluation of the characteristics of one or more coffees that is done in a ritual of smelling and tasting the coffees. A cupping is to coffee what a wine tasting is to wine. A wine tasting might focus on a particular vineyard over a sequence of years, or a group of different vineyards for a single wine, or a variety of related wines. Similarly, in a cupping session you might compare different roasts of the same coffee beans, or different coffee beans from the same region of the world, or simply different coffees.

The sensations that a coffee creates are separated into four general categories. These are:

  • Aroma - The fragrance that brewed coffee gives off;
  • Body - The "mouth feel," a physical qualification as to its feeling of thickness or richness;
  • Acidity - The sparkly tartness (or lack thereof); and
  • Character - The overall impression created by the aroma, body, and acidity together.

As well as cupping to identify the good characteristics and essential flavors of a coffee, cupping is also useful for identifying the defects of a particular coffee. To do either, it is useful to use different coffees in a cupping session so that contrasts become apparent.

Originally, cupping was strictly professional. Cupping was done by experts within coffee companies to identify the flavor profiles of the coffees that they worked with. These profiles were made to identify characteristic strengths and defects so as to design custom blends, and to determine optimal roasting procedures for various coffees.

Recently, there has been a growing demand by consumers for more general knowledge about coffees. Many roasters and retailers now host "cupping sessions" that anyone can attend for both social and educational purposes.

Before cupping, coffees were judged within the industry primarily on the basis of the size, uniformity, and color of the beans. Since none of these correlates to flavor in a direct way, this seems strange to us today. The practice of cupping was started by Clarence Bickford in San Francisco about 100 years ago to put some more meaningful formalism behind the categorization of various coffees, blends, and roasts.

To hold a cupping session, you should choose from three to five different coffees. For each coffee, set up two to three cups, each of which will be dosed differently so that you can explore the "depth" of each coffee. A "cupping table" is a round table that rotates. These are used within the industry so that the cups can be circulated around without people having to move. Don't worry if you don't own one.

Of course, in a cupping session, each of the coffees will be freshly ground. The essential essences of a coffee start to degrade within a half an hour of grinding it. It would be meaningless to have a cupping session using pre-ground coffee. In cupping sessions held to design a roasting profile, a small, custom roaster is also used to freshly roast the green coffee beans prior to grinding them. In fact, the Romulus II roaster that we sell is half of a double roaster that was designed for exactly this purpose.

Each cupper at the session will need a cupping spoon (which is circular and bowl-shaped), a glass of tepid water (for cooling the spoon between tastes), a vessel in which to spit out coffee, and a pad onto which they will write their observations. The etiquette of a cupping session is to not talk during the tasting itself. Share your observations only after the tasting is over.

The coffees to be tasted will be steeped - like tea. It is best to steep coffee in the range of 195-200 degrees Fahrenheit. Boiling water will actually "singe" coffee, and damage its flavor profile. Bring the water to a boil, and then allow it to cool into this temperature range, using a thermometer to monitor it.

You should start with a good and pure tasting water. The water needs some mineral content in order to extract the cofffee completely. Unlike espresso, where you want to use softened water, water used to brew coffee should have a mineral content of 100-200 parts per million. Just as you should not use softened water, avoid overly-hard water too. Any bottled drinking-water that tastes refreshing to you is probably a good choice.

Grind each coffee in sequence. Discard the first part of each grinding, since it will contain some of the flavors of whatever coffee was ground before it. Using a scale (if measuring the coffee by weight) or a scoop (if by volume), put one dose of each coffee (eight grams, or one scoop) into one of the cups set aside for that coffee. Coffee cups should be about six ounces. Put 1.5 doses into another cup, as the "strong" benchmark for the coffee. If you want to work with a third dosage, you may go even stronger (primarily to examine the acidity more closely), or you might use less than a full dose to find whether the coffee's "body" tapers off.

First, and before steeping the coffee, pass around the cups of ground coffee with the "strong" doses in them. Each cupper should tap the cup a few times - to release the aromas from the ground coffee - and should smell the coffee grounds for "fragrance."

While "aroma" is the term used to describe the scents of brewed coffee, "fragrance" is a term that is reserved for the coffee grounds themselves. Everyone should sense the fragrance that is released by agitating the coffee grounds, and record their impressions on their pads. See our article "What to Taste for in a Cup of Coffee" in this section for some guidance on fragrances.

Assuming that the water has now cooled into the 195-200 degree range, pour the water into each of the cups, filling each to the same level, and being careful to saturate all of the grounds. Let the coffees steep for four to five minutes.

After the coffees have steeped, they will be sampled for aroma (tasting comes after this). To sense the aroma, you will do what is called "breaking the crust." With your nose near (but not directly over) the surface of the cup, reach your cupping spoon into the cup, and slowly bring up some grounds and release the vapors from the surface of the water. Carefully smell the aromas, and rcord your observations. Rinse your spoon in the glass of tepid water between coffees.

After everyone is done sensing aromas, the group should move on to taste. To taste a coffee, take a spoonful of the coffee and "slurp" it into your mouth. While this would be bad manners at a dinner, it is essential to sampling the taste at a cupping session. The idea of slurping is to aerate the coffee as it enters your mouth, so as to completely coat the inner surface of your mouth and the surface of your tounge. This will give you a better sense of the aromatics in the coffee. Remember that most of what we think that we are tasting is actually aromatic, and is sensed within the nose.

Roll the coffee around in your mouth and "chew" on it. Get a good sense for the "mouth feel" and the acidity of the coffee. Remember that you are evaluating aroma, body, acidity, and character. Once you have these concepts fixed in your mind for the coffee that you are tasting, spit it out.

After you have spit the coffee out, take another minute to notice what you are still tasting and sensing. Here, you are looking for the aftertaste of the coffee. The flavor might change over the course of the minute. If the flavor persists for more than a minute or so, this is called a "long finish." Record your observations about the taste and finish of the coffee.

Now you should circulate between the coffees. Taste each one. Go back and forth to look for contrasts. Note the differences between the normal, and weak or strong dosages. Between tastings, dip your cupping spoon into yor glass of tepid water. Not only does this rinse the spoon off, but it cools it so that you don't burn your mouth in the subsequent tasting. Make lots of notes.

As the coffees cool to room temperature, notice how they change. As coffee cools, its aroma will tend to flatten out, and its flavor profile may change.

After the tastings have ended, you should discuss your observations as a group. Look at the fragrance and aroma categorization that the SCAA has put forth (see our article "What to Taste for in a Cup of Coffee") to help you articulate what you have smelled and tasted.

Cupping sessions are always enlightening, and usually lots of fun. As you attend more of them, your palete will broaden. You will develop much more discernment in - and a much greater appreciation for - great coffee.

...written by your friends at The Coffee Brewers