Coffee News: from Seed to Cup

A Beginner’s Guide to Cupping Coffee & Improving Your Palate

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Cupping is the industry standard for coffee quality evaluations, and a great way to learn more about coffee whether you’re a consumer, roaster, trader, or even a coffee farmer. Yet attending a cupping session can be intimidating, especially if you’re new to it.

I spoke to Chris Kornman, Lab and Education Manager at The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab & Tasting Room, which hosts cupping sessions for industry professionals and the public alike. From how to avoid common errors to improving your cupping technique, read on to discover what he recommends.

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Cupping in the presentation room at The Crown. Credit: Evan Gilman 

Cupping Is an Industry Essential

Cupping is a quantifiable and widely used method of analysis for a coffee sample, from its overall quality to individual characteristics (such as acidity or body) and specific flavour notes. As Chris says, “cupping is just one of many ways to taste coffee, but it’s a very efficient way to taste many different coffees side-by-side”.

At a cupping session, there will typically be a variety of samples. They might be coffee from the same origin but different farms, they could represent different varieties and processing methods, and perhaps they will even be from different countries. This diversity is useful when you are looking to buy or sell coffee, or are simply keen to expand your knowledge and experience.

“While cupping was originally undertaken to ensure coffee samples were free of defects, the specialty industry has adopted the technique to help describe a coffee’s flavours,” Chris says.

Cupping is believed to have originated in the late 1800s, when merchants would taste a variety of coffees to decide which ones they wanted to buy and also check for consistency. In 1999, cuppings were being used at Cup of Excellence competitions, leading to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (now the Specialty Coffee Association, SCA) creating guidelines that have since been widely accepted by the international specialty community.

Today, the industry uses cuppings in the same way as those 19th-century merchants did: to assess a coffee’s characteristics, make purchasing decisions, and confirm consistency. “Cupping allows for a standardized methodology and language that can be used and understood anywhere,” Chris says. 

“This provides invaluable opportunities for communication with supply chain partners – farmers and exporters cup the same way as roasters and baristas, and this can complete a feedback loop that leads to better quality and value.”

But cupping isn’t just about purchasing decisions and quality control: it can also be used to determine ideal roast profiles, brewing methods, and more. 

Chris tells me, “I like to think of cupping as peering through a window into a coffee’s potential. By dissecting and analyzing the core elements of taste like sweetness, acidity, and aftertaste, as well as more ephemeral and esoteric characteristics of flavor notes, we can get perspective on how best to showcase the coffee’s best attributes, whether in a different style of production roasting or when it’s brewed in service as a pour over or espresso, for example.”

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Presentation room at The Crown, ready for a cupping. Credit: Royal Coffee

How to Cup Coffee

The cupping process is relatively simple, but it’s important to be prepared and control all variables. You want your notes to reflect the differences in the coffees, not the differences in how you’ve prepared the samples. Here’s what you should do:

  • Gather Your Equipment

“You’ll need a scale, a grinder, water, kettles, cups or bowls, spoons, a timer or two, towels, pens/pencils and… cupping forms, spittoons, and plenty of surface area,” Chris lists. 

The SCA recommends using a well-lit and spacious room that’s quiet and free from any aromas. During the cupping, the room should be calm and devoid of distractions so that participants can give the samples their full attention.

Consistency in equipment is paramount to ensuring consistency in cupping. The SCA recommends that all cups are of the same dimensions and volume, as well as being made of the same material (glass or ceramic). This ensures correct and consistent ratios of water to ground coffee, as well as the same amount of heat retention in each cup during extraction.

  • Understand Your Evaluation Form

While the SCA cupping form is widely used, you may find yourself facing a different evaluation system, depending on the purpose of the cupping. At The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab & Tasting Room, for example, SCA formats are used for various cupping formats. However, Chris tells me that other cupping sessions might use a slightly modified protocol “to suit our purposes”.

Chris says, “At Royal’s Emeryville office, traders cup using a simplified form and coffee is dosed by volume (rather than weight)… Traders often will issue ‘approve’ or ‘decline’ for samples in addition to a modified cup score. These cuppings are rarely blind.

“At The Crown, we use a customized production roast evaluation form conceived of by our Director of Roasting Candice Madison. We include a vacuum-sealed ‘control’ sample from a previous roasting session and cup new roasts against it. The form and format allow for a quick and accurate evaluation of our standards for coffee going into service.”

Before you enter a cupping session, make sure you have familiarised yourself with the evaluation form. Do you know what to look out for? What does each criterion mean? And how will you score them?

SCA evaluation form. Credit: Ana Valencia

  • Prepare Your Samples

Your sample preparation will vary slightly according to the cupping protocol you’re using. You can find detailed SCA protocols here, while the publishers of other protocols will have also released specific methodologies.

The first step will be to purge the grinder of any old coffee that could contaminate your samples. You should do this with a few grams of the coffee sample that you are about to grind. 

Multiple samples of each coffee will typically be prepared to ensure consistency, and the coffee for each cup should be ground individually. “We dose 11.5 g, grind at 8.5 [on a Mahlkönig EK43] and pour 185 g filtered water (about a 1:16 ratio) at 95°C [203°F],” says Chris.

It’s vital that all variables are controlled. This is the only way to ensure consistency and therefore accurate results. “Grind size is important, but so is water temperature, ratio of coffee to water, agitation (or lack thereof), and many other factors,” Chris tells me. 

Even though the samples haven’t yet been brewed, your analysis should begin now: smell the dry grounds and note down the aromas you perceive. Don’t take too long: you want to add the water a maximum of 15 minutes after grinding the coffee. 

Set a timer so that you know how long has passed between adding the water, breaking the crust, and sampling the coffees. “The crust that forms on top of a cupping bowl is basically a collection of ground coffee and volatile aromatics that are no longer extracting. You have to ‘break’ the crust (and skim the foam that forms afterwards) to taste the coffee underneath,” says Chris.

This is usually done three to five minutes into the brewing time and by pushing the back of a cupping spoon through the layer of grounds. (A cupping spoon has a similar shape as a soup spoon but slightly deeper so that the participant can consume enough coffee to taste its qualities with one mouthful.) When the crust is broken, the wet grounds will produce much more intense aromas that can be noted by each participant.

The crust should be scooped out using two spoons. You want to leave as much liquid behind as possible and avoid disturbing the settled grounds at the bottom of the cup. If you accidentally agitate these, you will speed up the coffee’s extraction.

“I’d suggest that consistency is more important than any one technique,” says Chris. “I recommend people push the crust with the curved edge of their spoons, like rowing a boat, using three strokes, and not dip to the bottom of the bowl. But if the technique is consistent, breaks the crust completely, and doesn’t over-agitate, I don’t think people should get hung up on the style of breaking. Just make sure every cupper does it the same way.”

Coffee beans cooling in the sample roaster. Credit: Bax + Towner

  • Sample The Coffee

With a longer brew time, cupping allows you to note some of the subtle flavours and aromas that are less easily distinguishable at higher temperatures. According to the SCA, coffee samples can be left to steep for as little as 3–5 minutes. However, some people prefer to leave them for longer. What is important is that the time remains consistent. 

Typically, a cupper will dip their spoon into a clean rinse cup with hot water and then dip their spoon into the coffee sample. This works fine when cupping alone. In the current climate of the global pandemic COVID-19, Chris recommends that everyone needs to take precautions to stay healthy. 

“Don’t feel like you have to slurp loudly. It’s not a decibel contest,” Chris tells me. However, don’t let old-fashioned manners push you to quietly sip the samples, either: slurping is typically done to increase the flavour and aroma perception. 

Before and after dipping your spoon into a sample, make sure to rinse it. “It’s good etiquette, helps keep things sanitary, and prevents cross-contamination of samples,” says Chris.

Sample each coffee as many times as you want to, making notes on what you observe throughout. 

 Samples awaiting to be ground. Credit: Bax + Towner

How to Avoid Common Errors 

Cupping can be daunting at first, but the process is relatively simple. As well as familiarising yourself with the protocols and evaluation sheet, bear the following tips in mind.

Discussing flavour and aroma notes whilst cupping can lead people to find similar sensory notes – even if they wouldn’t have otherwise perceived them. Stay quiet to avoid influencing other people’s evaluations. The discussion part will come afterwards.

Industry professionals, who can taste dozens of coffee samples every day, recommend spitting their cupping samples out into separate cups or spittoons. Swallowing large quantities of caffeine can have adverse short-term effects on the body and can also start to alter your palate so that you can no longer detect delicate aromas and flavours.

The most important factor to remember is to not be overwhelmed by the potentially confusing methodology and vocabulary that goes along with cupping. To start with, just focus on being consistent and describing samples using your own frameworks of reference. Over time, your familiarity with the methods and common notes will develop.

Pouring water in the grounds. Credit: Bax + Towner 

How to Improve Your Cupping Skills

The best way to improve is to keep practising – especially with other people. Chris tells me, “Practice makes perfect, and cupping with others is always better than cupping alone. You’ll learn as much by observation and repetition as you will from reading any article or watching any instructional video.” 

Discussing techniques and sensory perceptions with others can help to hone your skills, or expand your lexicon and knowledge. “Be methodical, and slow, and go back and forth to confirm or disconfirm bias,” Chris adds.

Understand yourself, too. “The practice is equal parts mental and physical, so being prepared and calm and open-minded is just as important as knowing how to use the cupping form,” he stresses. “Are you especially tired? Did you burn your tongue yesterday? Do you have a naturally over- or under-sensitive palate to sweetness or acidity, for example? All of these will affect your ability to be as objective as possible.” 

Studying the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon and the SCA’s Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel will help, too. Both describe in varying levels of detail the aromas, flavours, and textural qualities that you can expect to find in coffee.

Chris, however, warns against getting lost in the finer details. “Exercise your palate when you’re not cupping by thinking about the big-picture elements first: sweetness, acidity, viscosity (body), and aftertaste,” he recommends. “Then hone in on more specific flavors.”

And, most importantly of all, treat every meal and drink as an opportunity to practice. Chris also recommends developing your palate by “tasting different percentages of chocolates side-by-side or different fruits of similar types”. And if you’re struggling to identify certain notes or flavours, why not sample food or drink that typically contains those notes?

Skimming the Grounds. Credit: Bax + Towner 

No matter how challenging it might seem, you can master cupping. Just remember to stay consistent, familiarise yourself with the evaluation sheets, and make training your palate a habit.

And until you’re confident? “Don’t be afraid to ask!” Chris stresses. “The process can be intimidating and a little complicated… but no one expects you to know everything!”

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Written by Tasmin Grant. Featured photo caption: Coffee being cupped at The Crown. Featured photo credit: Bax + Towner

Please note: This article has been sponsored by Royal Coffee.  

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