If you have spent enough time around coffee heads and perusing through the specialty coffee scene, you might have heard the officianados throw around terms like cupping and cupping scores. We’re here to talk about what this means and why we think it is important.
The specialty coffee industry revolves around the pursuit of the best tasting cup of coffee that we can find. This can pose a little bit of a problem when taste is such a subjective thing. Not only is it subjective to the tasters preference, but the taste of coffee can be heavily influenced by the different brew methods. Think about how different espresso tasted to a pour-over! In order to inject some order into this quest, the practice of cupping was developed. This is a standardized tasting protocol, designed to encourage a taster to think more analytically and objectively about the taste of coffee.
Cupping scores take this process to a new level and break down the taste into separate groups to analyze and grade. When cupping, you grade a coffee on specifics like Aroma and Fragrance (both dry and wet), flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body and consistency (does all the cups taste the same). By separating these, you might realize that despite having certain characteristics that you don’t like, a coffee can still have very unique and interesting characteristics.
This practice can help us to identify unique and specific flavors and characteristics in a coffee, but it can also be great quality control practice that help coffee professionals identify defects in the coffee. The practice of cupping can be done as a fun practice to taste new coffees, but it can be developed into a skill that you can build a career on. Professional coffee tasters, known as Q-graders, dedicate there careers to tasting coffee, learning about flavors, roast defects and defects in coffee beans.
At the end of the day, we can never completely remove ourselves and our personal tastes from the equation, but this is a great step in the right direction.
If you’re interested in coffee, I’d recommend keeping an eye on your local coffee community, you’ll find cupping events all over the show. If you want to get more involved, check out the Specialty Coffee Associations in depth and detailed guide to cupping protocols. Bear in mind that these protocols are designed for high level coffee professionals and if you’re just a fan of good coffee but don’t have the means to follow this to the tee, take it easy, do what you can and enjoy good coffee.
Guide To Cupping Coffee:
Now that we know why we do it... lets talk about the how.
What you need:
- Balance / scale that can measure 0.1g increments.
- Cupping bowls / glasses (any ceramic or glass cup between 7oz-9oz will do)
- Cupping spoons (soup spoons will also work fine)
- A kettle
- Freshly roasted coffee (preferably roasted within 24 hours of the cupping)
- A coffee grinder
This section, we'll break down what is essentially the "brewing process" for cupping. Bear in mind that you will be tasting and evaluating the coffee throughout this process.
Grind the coffees at a grind setting that is slightly coarser than a standard pour over. The specialty coffee association uses a ratio of 5.5g for every 100g of water. You can tweak this to your own preferences and to work with your specific equipment and water - but it is important to make sure once you have established your ratio you always use the same ratio. For the purpose of this recipe, I’m going to suggest 11g of coffee to 200g of water.
Weigh out 11g of coffee into each cupping bowl. We recommend doing more than one bowl of each coffee. This is just in case there happens to be a defect in one cup or something goes wrong with the measuring.
Add 200g of water to the cupping bowl - you can use volume markings, but due to how different coffees will expand differently when added to water, weighing your water is the most accurate practice. Water used for cupping should be clean and odour free, but it should not be distilled or softened - the minerals in water play an integral role in the extraction of coffee. Bring your water to just off the boil (around 94°C) and pour the freshly boiled water into the cupping bowls, directly onto the grounds and let it steep for 4 minutes.
After four minutes has passed, you'll notice that a crust of coffee grounds has formed on the surface of the bowl. You want to gently stir the surface of the coffee in order to break that crust and let the coffee grounds settle - this also stops the extraction. There are two schools of thought here, some say you should only agitate the surface of the coffee, allowing the grounds to settle, and others say you should gently stir to the bottom of the cup, making sure to agitate all the coffee - whichever way you chose to do it, it's really important that you always do it the same way. Once everything has settles, use two spoons to remove any foam or ground coffee that remains on the surface.
At this point, your cupping bowl is ready to taste - although it will still be ripping hot and you might want to wait for it to cool down. We'd recommend waiting till at least 8 minutes has passed from when you poured the water.
To begin with, you should familiarise yourself with the SCA cupping sheet. You can download it here. Even if you are not going to use it for tasting, it's good to take a look at and see how the pros do it.
The last step of the cupping is evaluating the coffee. This can be exceptionally tricky as you want to evaluate the coffee as objectively as possible. True objectivity is impossible as we all have preferences and favourites, but I think if we keep this in mind, we can avoid a heavily skewed bias. In order to evaluate coffee objectively, we need to look at what are generally considered positive attributes and those that are generally considered negative. It's important to take note of these, because if there are clear flavours of a certain characteristic that you might not like, but are generally considered positive, you need to mark it so. Below is a ballpark idea (by no means is it exhaustive) of good and bad flavours in coffee.
- Sweetness (caramel, honey, brown sugar)
- Acidity (often presenting itself as fruits like citrus or green apples)
- Fruit flavours (melon, berries, pineapple, etc)
- Nutty & chocolate flavours (hazelnut, pecan, chocolate, cacao etc)
- A generally pleasant mouthfeel (creamy, buttery, full, heavy).
- Sourness (this can come from a coffee that has a pleasant acidity, but it isn't well balanced with sweetness or body)
- Grassy or hay/straw flavours,
- Burnt and acrid flavours
- Chemical flavours
- Unpleasant mouthfeel (weak, watery, dry, astringent)
When cupping, you need to think about all the elements of the coffee throughout the cupping process. You want to analyze the dry aroma of the freshly ground coffee, the fragrance of the coffee when you add the water, and the fragrance when you break the crust, and lastly the taste. taste is broken up into body, sweetness, acidity and balance. Don't forget to taste your coffee continuously over time - as the coffee cools you will notice the flavour changing. Write things down, take notes and taste with intention!
Cupping coffee is such a great experience, and it awakens a world of flavour that only happens by tasting with intention and focus. You'll find that as you cup coffee more, your lexicon of flavours grows and everything that you taste, from coffee to wines and beers, come alive with flavour!