The Art of Coffee Cupping – A Beginner’s Guide to Coffee Cupping

While everyone can agree on what coffee is, people can also agree that there are a number of different, and oftentimes delicate and subtle differences between the different types of coffee. Coffee cupping or simply “cupping” was a process originally developed to help planters, growers, and blenders distinguish these miniscule differences and to help them create the coffee blends that we drink on a daily basis. As a process, cupping creates a level playing field to allow the specialists to judge and rate the value of every cup (or type) of coffee on its own intrinsic merits.

A Beginner's Guide to Coffee Cupping

A blend of art and science

For those new to the almost mystical blend of art, science and magic that is coffee cupping, you will all discover a series of new flavors, tastes, textures, even aromas in your coffee. With a bit more experience, you can start creating your own custom blends – but that is a ways down the road for now. For the social cupper, this is about exploring the world of coffee and having a good time. In this introductory overview, we assume you will be cupping four different coffees and we start with what equipment you need, basic preparation, a guide and give you a few ideas about what you should be looking for when you are cupping coffee.

Of course, this requires the application of a number of scientific principles to the process to ensure that you are judging each coffee solely on its own merits including:

  • Ensuring that your measurements of water and coffee grounds is precise.
  • That you clean or at least flush out all grinding and brewing equipment between different cups and types of coffee to prevent cross-contamination.
  • Tasting time is also a factor, as all coffees will undergo many changes in chemistry and flavor as it cools.
  • Because of these requirements to keep the playing field level, most coffee cuppers have developed a protocol to manage this sequence of events to ensure that every coffee cupped receives equal preparation and treatment. Coffee cupping for casual or beginners should be a social process, involving other people so that you can all compare and contrast your notes and experience and your cupping partners will probably be able to point things out that you have missed and do the same for them.

    Coffee Cupping Equipment

    Assuming that you start simple and start small, you will be cupping four different types of coffee. You will need the following:

  • Eight cups or glasses that are between five and seven ounces in fill volume.
  • Hot water boiler.
  • A coffee grinder – ideally a conical burr grinder.
  • Large glasses filled with water to rinse the cupping spoons between cups.
  • One cupping spoon for each cupper.
  • A gram scale – to measure out exactly how much coffee you’re using.
  • Four extra empty cups – coffee cupping involves sloshing, slurping, and even spiting. The extra mugs are your spittoons.
  • A few extra spoons – these will always be handy.
  • The coffees you will be cupping.
  • Note pads and pens.
  • A Beginner's Guide to Coffee Cupping

    The Setup

    Since coffee cupping tends to be a social thing, it helps if you have a large enough table to hold all those cups of coffee, the cuppers and of course pads and pens for people to make notes. What works best for you and your fellow cuppers is up to you all to decide. Just make sure you are not too far from the sink, grinder, coffee maker and hot water.

    Step by Step

    1. Start by presenting the whole bean coffee for examination then grind and let everyone examine the ground coffee.

    2. Next, you have to brew the coffee. The ratio of water to coffee that works best for you is up to you to find out by experimentation. However, try using 12 grams of coffee with 6.5 ounces of water as a starting point.

    3. When you start pouring, mark the time and wait four minutes before you start tasting and evaluating. This gives the grinds in the coffee time to settle and for the “crust” to form.

    4. Now, you need to do something called “breaking the crust.” If you brewed your coffee and let it stand as directed, you will have a “crust” of coffee grounds sitting on the top of your cup. Get close, take your cupping spoon, and with the back of your spoon, dip in to the crust as close to the forward edge of the cup and drag back. Take a deep breath as you do this and you will get a face full of all those wonderful aromas.

    5. With the crust broken, remove the crust in a fluid, relaxed motion with your cupping spoon. Make sure you leave plenty of coffee behind so that you have plenty to taste.

    6. Using your spoon, take the coffee a spoonful at a time and slurp it, while inhaling gently. This ensures the coffee coats your tongue and you get to inhale all the aromatic elements. Swallow so you can get a feel for the after taste and the finish.

    7. You have just cupped one cup of coffee, but since you had (or should have) four different coffees, you are only a quarter of the way through. Rinse out your mouth, chew a saltine cracker, start over with coffee number two, and repeat until you are done.

    8. You should be taking notes on a pad with pen and do not talk because the mind is incredibly suggestible. You do not want to suggest “strawberry jam” flavors to someone else, just as you do not want them reminding you of a “whiskey smooth” aftertaste.

    9. Once everyone has cupped the four coffees, feel free to discuss, debate, and argue the merits of each coffee. Compare the qualities you observed, contrast the characteristics. Sometimes you will agree and others you will disagree. See how you have managed to describe the same qualities using different descriptions.

    10. Now that you have completed your first coffee cupping session, I will say congratulations! You have had a good start in to cupping coffee, but before going any further – Do you know what you are looking for in that cup of coffee you just “cupped?”

    What to look for when Cupping

    Taste is one of the most fleeting sensations imaginable. Here for a moment and gone the next. In those few seconds, there is no telling what flavors can wash across your palate. As you become more skilled at the art of cupping, you will get better at noticing, identifying and describing those flavors.

    The challenge is to describe the coffee using language that people can easily relate to. This can range from the mundane (chocolatey or fruity), to the conceptual (clean, sturdy) to the strange and esoteric (sexy or even gentlemanly). The more cupping you do, the more of these descriptors you will come to understand and possess. This will allow you to better describe what is sometimes called the “soul” of the coffee.” There are of course a few landmark terms and concepts commonly used:

  • Acidity: How sharp the coffee is. Its acidity will determine the fruit and flora flavors of the coffee. This is the most scrutinized characteristic, ranging from intense, and wild, to mild, and smooth with everything in between.
  • Body: Sometimes referred to as the “mouthfeel” is about the sense of weight or heaviness the coffee exerts in your mouth. This one is tricky for beginners to identify. Think of it as the thickness or how much physical presence the coffee has. Think of how it interacts with the four flavor zones of your tongue. Gauge the depth, riches, and balance on your tongue.
  • Flavor: Think of this as the “taste” of the coffee. Sometimes they are pleasant and easy to identify. Other times, it is not so easy. This is where conceptual or even the esoteric descriptors can help.
  • Sweetness: This is of crucial importance. This is true of even the most acidic coffees. There will be enough sweetness to balance out the finish and allow other tastes to flourish and be appreciated separating good coffee from great coffee.

    Finish: The aftertaste tends to leave the most impact on the entire tasting experience because it will linger for up to fifteen seconds after the last swallow of that particular coffee. Whatever the perfect finish to you is, it should affirm the flavor of the coffee and hold it with grace and confidence like a singer hitting the high note before trailing off to a serene silence.

  • Aroma: This is a two-stage process. This first time is when you see the ground coffee (before brewing). The second is when you break the crust for the first time. Take notes when you do both, and remember that your friend in describing aromas are the descriptors, mundane and bizarre alike.
  • When you get to the bottom of the cup

    For beginners, or experts, cupping coffee is a way to make the old, seem like something brand new as you explore unique tastes and flavors. Always remember to consider how the coffee is as a whole. Some coffees are low on acidity but the coffee itself may be amazing. So remember to keep the big picture in perspective and rate the coffee as a whole: Is it good, or truly great?