Notes of citrus. Chocolate undertones. Floral hints.
If the language of coffee flavour profiles sometimes leaves you a bit cold – or makes you interested in learning more – then fear not.
You don’t have to be a fully trained Q Grader to get to grips with coffee ‘cupping’. All you need is couple of cups, a spoon and a decent slurping technique. Read on for our beginners guide.
What is coffee cupping?
Cupping is the industry standard method for tasting brewed coffee. It allows producers and buyers to objectively evaluate the characteristics of a particular coffee - such as its level of acidity, sweetness, body – observe its flavour notes, and assess its quality.
It’s also the most useful tool for comparing and contrasting different coffees against each other, as each coffee is brewed in exactly the same way to remove all other variables.
For roasters like us, coffee cupping is done daily to help us make decisions on all sorts of things – what coffees to buy, how to roast individual coffees to maximise their potential, and ongoing quality and freshness testing (for example, we cup each batch of roasted coffee before it gets posted).
It’s useful in other parts of the coffee industry too.
At origin, producers who have access to a sensory expert will use cupping to determine the quality of their crop and how much they should get paid for it.
While closer to home, Baristas will cup a coffee to understand how best to brew it for their customers.
Although at an industry level, it requires a level of discipline and skill (many that cup coffee day in, day out are trained Q Graders), it can be a fun and rewarding at-home experience for those interested in learning more about their coffee and developing an ability to taste different flavours and aromas.
It’s quick and simple to set up and doesn’t require any specialist brewing equipment – all you need is some coffee and a few things from the kitchen. Start with just a couple of coffees and then add more to the table as you get more confident.
Understanding coffee flavour
Before you start cupping, it’s useful to have a basic understanding of how to evaluate coffee – the characteristics and flavour notes you should be looking for.
Picking up and describing these characteristics can be tricky for beginners, but comparing more than one can help you spot which one is sweeter, more fruity, or more acidic, or find flavour notes like chocolates, berries, or nuts.
There are over 800 known aromas (basically flavours that you taste with your nose) in Arabica coffee, so it really helps to know what you’re looking for.
We recommend using the Coffee Tasters Flavour Wheel as a reference and start by trying to identify the elements of the inner ring first - the following positive flavour categories (anything under the banner of Roasted, Vegetative or Other would be considered as unwanted):
- Nutty / Cocoa
As you taste more and more coffee you’ll start to be able to get more specific with your analysis – for example, identifying a fruity coffee as having berry, dried fruit, stone fruit, or tropical fruit notes.
Finally, with lots of practice, you may be able to pick up very specific flavour notes, like grapefruit, apple, strawberry and pineapple.
Know your coffee characteristics
In a professional coffee cupping, there’s a detailed process for evaluating different characteristics at specific times and temperatures (called the SCA Cupping Protocol), and alongside a list of flavour descriptions, you’d generate a cupping score out of 100, with any score above 80 being considered specialty grade.
But for the purposes of this introduction, it’s worth knowing the names of the most widely discussed characteristics and what they refer to, so you can start to evaluate coffees using this framework.
the intensity, quality and complexity of its taste (sensed by the tongue) and aroma (sensed through the nose and back of the mouth), experienced when you slurp coffee into the mouth and all over your palate.
How long does the flavour of the coffee linger after the first hit, and is that lingering flavour enjoyable?
In coffee, this is generally a good thing and can contribute to its liveliness, sweetness, or fruit characteristics. If it’s too intense or dominates the cup, it can be experienced as sourness.
The intensity of its sugary qualities, detected on the tip of the tongue. Often described as fruity, chocolaty or caramelly.
How all the elements (e.g. flavour, aftertaste, acidity and body) combine to complement or contrast each other. If any element is overpowering, the coffee may be considered unbalanced.
How the coffee feels in your mouth. Is it heavy, medium or light? Think of milk, for example: skimmed milk has a light body and whole milk has a heavy body. Once you’ve thought about that, then think about how you’d describe its character. It could be tea-like, smooth, jammy or even buttery.
A step by step guide to coffee cupping
What you’ll need
- Some cups, mugs or small bowls that can hold around 250ml
- A kettle
- A cupping spoon or soup spoon
- Some different coffees to taste
- A coffee grinder – if you’re using beans
- A notepad – if you want to make notes
Setup and aroma
Start by weighing 14g of each coffee into your chosen bowls or mugs. If you’re using beans, grind the coffee slightly finer than for a cafetiere. When all of the coffee is weighed out, fill the kettle with fresh water and boil.
While the kettle boils, it’s a good time to smell the coffee. Smelling the aroma of ground coffee can give you a really good idea of what is to come once brewed and should start to give you a sense of the differences between the coffees.
Breaking the crust
Once the kettle has boiled, let it settle for 30 seconds, then pour around 250ml of water onto the ground coffee, making sure to wet all the grounds. Leave to brew for 4 minutes.
Once the coffee has brewed, a crust will have formed on top. This crust needs to be broken so the coffee falls to the bottom of the cup and stops brewing. To do this, get your nose close to the cup and break the crust by pushing through your spoon 3 times. This will release a burst of aroma, so it’s good opportunity to smell the coffee again.
Skim off any leftover crema from the surface.
Now wait for the coffee to cool slightly before you start tasting. You’ll want to start cupping when it’s just cool enough to taste, so you can taste it from hot to cold and see how it changes.
To taste coffee, you need to slurp it up with a big, audible sound – trying to take in a rush of air at the same time as the coffee. This is really important, because the force of the slurp sprays the coffee all over your tongue, which is where you detect acidity, sweetness and bitterness.
This slurp also helps aromas to reach your nose where you pick up more complex flavours. It will seem weird – and possibly embarrassing – the first time you try it, but you’ll get the hang of it over time.
Now try the next coffee. Move between them to try and spot the differences, thinking and noting down the characteristics and flavour descriptions we covered in the section on Understanding Coffee Flavour.
So there you have it. Give it a go if it sounds like fun – and perhaps if you really take to it, you might find a path as a professional coffee taster. It takes about two years of constant tasting and development (and some very intensive exams) to become a Q Grader, but wherever you end up, it all starts with cupping.