Coffee Cupping Guide For Beginners

what is coffee cupping

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For any budding home barista, learning coffee cupping is an essential skill to have under your belt. Cupping coffee allows coffee professionals to fully experience the nuances of single origin beans.

While professional coffee buyers use strict protocols to evaluate quality and price lots for trade, casual cupping at home will allow you to discover new flavors and explore new coffees.

As any wine connoisseur knows, tasting is integral for appreciating subtle notes. The same goes for coffee cupping. By smelling and sampling brews side-by-side, you can detect complexities that otherwise go unnoticed in a single cup.

This beginner’s guide breaks down the basics without any rigid rules. The goal of this guide is to teach you how to taste coffee and expand your palate – no professional experience required.

So, grab your favorite mug, and let’s dive into the fascinating world of coffee cupping together!

What is Coffee Cupping?

Have you ever wondered what makes each cup of coffee unique? That’s where coffee cupping, a practice cherished in the coffee world, comes in. 

It’s like a treasure hunt, where we discover the hidden gems in each coffee bean. Coffee cupping is the process of observing the tastes and aromas of brewed coffee.

It’s not just a ritual for professionals; it’s a journey every coffee lover can embark on to explore the diverse world of coffee flavors.

Think of coffee cupping as a backstage pass to understanding your coffee’s story, from its humble beginnings as a green bean to the aromatic cup you cherish each morning. It’s a way to taste coffee in its purest form and appreciate the various factors that influence its flavor. 

This process is crucial for coffee buyers, roasters, and baristas for quality control, but it’s equally fascinating for any coffee enthusiast at home.

guide to cupping coffee

How to Taste Coffee Flavor Notes?

In coffee cupping, the brew and aroma play leading roles. The brewing method is critical because it unlocks the coffee’s potential.

It’s not just about pouring water over coffee grounds. It’s an art, and different brewing methods can highlight various aspects of the coffee, from its acidity to its full-bodied flavor.

Roasting is the magic that transforms green coffee beans into the rich, aromatic beans we know and love. The roast profile – whether light, medium, or dark – dramatically influences the coffee’s final taste and aroma. 

During cupping, we pay close attention to these aromas. They’re the first notes that dance on our senses, guiding us toward understanding the coffee’s character. It’s an olfactory journey that sets the stage for what’s to come in the taste.

So, when we cup coffee, we’re not just sipping and judging – we’re exploring. 

We’re connecting with the coffee’s origin, its journey through the roaster’s hands, and finally, its last act as a brewed cup. 

Essential Supplies Needed for Cupping Coffee

Embarking on your coffee cupping journey is exciting, and having the right tools at hand makes it even more rewarding. Each piece of equipment plays a specific role in enhancing your cupping experience. 

From the precision of grinding to the subtleties of tasting, these tools will be your companions in the journey of exploring coffee. 

Below is a brief introduction to each essential tool:

Grinder: The starting point of your cupping session is grinding the beans. A good grinder ensures consistent grind size, which is vital for uniform extraction of flavors. Burr grinders are preferred for their precision – you can find our recommended burr grinder here.

Cupping Bowls: These are the stages where your coffee performs. Using bowls of similar size and shape helps maintain consistency across different coffee samples.

Kettle: The water temperature is crucial in coffee cupping. A kettle with temperature control allows you to heat water to the optimal temperature for extracting the coffee’s full range of flavors.

Scales and Timers: While not essential for beginners, scales, and timers bring an element of precision to your cupping routine, helping in replicating successful brews consistently as well as keeping track of coffee to water ratios used. Take a look at our recommended coffee scales.

Cupping Spoons: A cupping spoon is specially designed for coffee tasting. It allows you to slurp the coffee effectively, ensuring that the coffee evenly coats your palate to experience its full flavor profile.

Notebook: Your observations and notes are key to tracking your progress and preferences. A notebook serves as a valuable tool to jot down your coffee cupping experiences.

How To Do Coffee Cupping at Home

Let’s get started on your coffee cupping adventure! You don’t need a lot to begin—just a few essential tools and of course, your love for coffee. 

For anyone new to this, coffee cupping is like a detective game where your senses are the clues to unlock the mysteries of each coffee bean.

First things first, as I mentioned above, you’ll need some cupping bowls, a couple of spoons, and a good coffee grinder

These are your basic tools. The bowls should be of similar size and shape to ensure consistency. The spoons? Well, they’re not just for slurping but also for exploring the coffee’s aroma. And the grinder, that’s your key to unlocking the full potential of each coffee bean.

Choosing the right coffee beans is also crucial. You want to look for quality beans that speak to you. 

The roast profile of these beans is also important. 

Each roast – light, medium, or dark – tells a different story. Light roasts often have floral notes, while dark roasts typically shout bold, rich flavors.

coffee cupping and tasting a guide to coffee cupping

Coffee Grind and Acidity

Now, let’s talk about grinding and acidity – two critical factors in coffee cupping. The grind size of your coffee can make or break your cupping experience. Think of it as setting the stage for your coffee’s performance. 

Too fine of a grind might lead to an over-extracted, bitter cup, while too coarse of a grind might underwhelm you with weak, underdeveloped flavors. 

The goal here is to find that sweet spot where the grind size reveals the coffee’s true character.

The Specialty Coffee Association specifies a particular grind size (similar to coarse sea salt) and water quality (clean, odor-free, and with a neutral pH) for cupping. This ensures that the coffee’s authentic flavors are extracted without interference from any external factors.

Acidity is another key player. It’s like the spark that brings life to your coffee. But don’t confuse it with being sour. A good acidity is bright, lively and adds a refreshing quality to your cup. 

Think of biting into a crisp apple; that’s the kind of invigorating sensation you’re looking for.

A Note On The Coffee Beans

​Before you go running out of the door to buy some coffee for cupping, make sure that the coffee isn’t at the extreme end of a dark roast because almost all of the aromas and flavor notes will be masked by this charred roast level.

​Ideally, the coffee should also be from a single origin (same growing region or country, not a blended coffee). Finally, it should be fresh coffee no older than two weeks past the indicated roast date.

​Sometimes, finding two, three, four, or more coffees from the same region can be a struggle. Luckily, online retailers such as Volcanica Coffee have a large selection and will ship a fresh bag of coffee directly to your door.

Mastering the grind and understanding how to evaluate a coffee are your first steps toward becoming a coffee cupping connoisseur. It’s a journey of taste and discovery, and you’re just getting started. 

In the next section, we’ll dive into the step-by-step process of coffee cupping.

A Beginner’s Guide To Coffee Cupping

Now that you’re equipped with the basics, let’s dive into the step-by-step process of coffee cupping and tasting. 

The environment you cup in is just as important as the coffee itself. A clean, well-lit space with a neutral smell is ideal – you want nothing to interfere with your coffee’s natural aromas and flavors.

First, set up your cupping table. 

You’ll need clean, pre-heated cupping bowls, freshly boiled water, and, of course, your selected coffee beans. 

Grind your coffee to a medium-coarse texture – remember, think sea salt. This is crucial as it allows for a proper extraction of flavors without overdoing it.

slurping coffee according to the cupping protocol

Slurping and Tasting: The Heart of Cupping

Now, let’s get to the heart of cupping – slurping and tasting. Slurping might seem a bit odd at first, but it’s the key to unlocking a coffee’s full potential. 

When you slurp, you aerate the coffee, spreading it evenly across your palate. This exposes all the subtle nuances and intricate flavors of the coffee.

To taste the coffee, follow these steps:

  1. Slurp: Take two spoons and first break the crust on top of the coffee with one spoon. Next, take a clean spoon and slurp a small amount of coffee. It’s about combining oxygen with coffee to release flavors.
  2. Savor: Let the coffee roll over your tongue. Pay attention to the body, acidity, and balance.
  3. Identify: Use a flavor wheel as your guide (you can purchase one from here). Can you taste hints of chocolate, nuts, fruits, or spices? This is where you become a flavor detective, identifying the unique notes in each cup.

Remember, there’s no right or wrong here. It’s all about exploration and discovery. 

The Specialty Coffee Association of America provides a detailed scoring system and cupping form (which you can find here) for various aspects of the coffee, such as aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, and balance. 

The coffee cupping score goes from 0 to 100, and only coffees scoring 80 points or above get the “specialty coffee” badge of honor. Commercial-grade coffee scores anywhere from 60 to 80.

Total Coffee Cupping Quality ScoreQualityClassification
90 – 100OutstandingSpecialty Coffee
85 – 89.99ExcellentSpecialty Coffee
80 – 84.99Very GoodSpecialty Coffee
< 80.0Below Specialty Coffee QualityNot Specialty Coffee

Common Cupping Terms

Sweetness: This is one of the essential elements in any coffee, and it often separates the exceptional coffee from the okay and mediocre.

Even if the coffee you’re sampling is intensely acidic, if there is enough sweetness in the cup, you’ll find that it is still refreshing.

​Acidity: In coffee, terms acidity can be described as the sharpness of the coffee. Acidity also carries some of the coffee’s most intriguing floral and fruity flavors.

Acidity can come in many forms – you can have edgy, intense, round, or simply mild. Typically, the acidity of coffee is best evaluated when the coffee starts to cool.

​Body: Cuppers often use the word mouthfeel instead of the body. Both words can be used interchangeably and mean the same thing in the cupping world for the heaviness or weight of the coffee in the mouth.

For new home coffee cuppers, the body can be tough to identify.

The Finish: When it comes to cupping, it is often the last impression that leaves the most impact. Think of the finish as the aftertaste.

The perfect finish (in my opinion) is a clean, refreshing, and sweet taste that carries flavors for up to 15 seconds after you’ve swallowed.

Advanced Tips for Coffee Cupping and Coffee Tasting

As you delve deeper into coffee cupping, you’ll discover it’s much more than just sipping and noting flavors. For the experienced tasters and coffee professionals out there, it’s time to elevate your cupping skills. 

This part of the journey is about refining your technique and exploring the complexity of coffee flavors in more detail.

Mastering the Technique

Advanced cupping is where your senses really get to work. 

Here are some techniques to enhance your cupping skills:

  • Focus on the Details: Pay attention to the subtleties. How does the flavor evolve as the coffee cools? What’s the taste in your mouth like?
  • Compare and Contrast: Try cupping several coffees side by side. Notice the differences in body, acidity, and flavor profiles.
  • Mind the Water: The quality of water you use can significantly affect the taste. Aim for filtered water with a neutral pH.
cupping with others cupping protocol

Quality Control and Complex Profiles

For coffee professionals, cupping is also about quality control and understanding complex flavor profiles:

  • Consistency is Key: Use a consistent method and environment for each cupping session to accurately compare different coffees.
  • Go Beyond the Wheel: While the flavor wheel is a great tool, try articulating your taste in your own words. This can help you better understand and communicate the unique aspects of each coffee.
  • Record Your Observations: Keep a detailed cupping journal. Note the roast profile, grind size, water temperature, and your sensory observations.

Advanced coffee cupping is not just about what you taste, but how you express and remember those flavors. Each cup of coffee has a story to tell, and as you refine your cupping skills, you’ll become more adept at uncovering these stories. 

Fine-Tuning Your Sensory Skills

Developing your palate is a gradual process. Start by smelling the coffee – let its aroma tell you its first story. As you sip, pay attention to the initial flavors. 

Do they remind you of a crisp autumn morning or a fresh spring day? This is where your personal experiences play a role. Coffee isn’t just about taste; it’s a sensory journey.

Next, focus on the aftertaste. 

What lingers in your mouth after a sip? Is it a hint of chocolate, a whisper of citrus, or a touch of spice? Recognizing these subtleties is critical to understanding a coffee’s complexity. 

Here are some tips to enhance your palate:

  • Taste Widely: Don’t just stick to your favorite blend. Try different types of coffee to expose your palate to a range of flavors.
  • Pair Coffee with Food: Notice how different foods can change the taste of your coffee. This can be an eye-opening experience.
  • Practice Mindful Tasting: Slow down and savor each sip. Think about the flavors and where they’re coming from.

Closer Inspection of the Green Beans

An integral part of coffee cupping, often overlooked by beginners but crucial among professionals like Q-graders, is the initial visual inspection of the unroasted green beans.

This step involves carefully examining a sample size of about 350 grams (or 12 ounces) of these beans to identify any defects that might affect the quality of the coffee.

Defects in green beans fall into two categories: primary and secondary. 

Primary defects are significant issues like sour or moldy beans, while secondary defects include less severe concerns, such as broken beans. 

To give you an idea of the scale, in a 12-ounce sample, which typically contains around nine hundred beans, finding even six broken beans could disqualify the batch from being considered specialty grade.

The criteria for a coffee to be classified as specialty are stringent: the sample must have no primary defects and fewer than five secondary defects. 

This rigorous standard ensures that only the highest quality beans are labeled as specialty coffees, promising an exceptional cupping experience.

This initial inspection underscores the meticulous nature of professional coffee cupping. It’s not just about tasting; it’s about ensuring the quality from the very first step. Understanding this process provides a deeper appreciation of what goes into your cup of specialty coffee.

Conclusion

As we come to the end of our coffee cupping guide, it’s important to remember that this is more than just a process; it’s a journey into the heart of coffee. 

Over the years, I’ve learned that every cup offers an opportunity to deepen our understanding and appreciation of coffee’s diverse world. Coffee cupping is your key to unlocking the rich stories and complex flavors hidden in every bean. 

Whether you’re just starting out or you’ve been exploring for a while, there’s always something new to discover.

I encourage you to continue this adventure. 

Experiment with different beans, roasts, and techniques. Share your experiences and learn from others in the coffee community. With each cup, you’ll find new flavors, new aromas, and new insights. 

Remember, the journey of coffee tasting is a path of endless discovery, and your passion and curiosity are the best guides you can have. 

So, grab your spoon, and happy cupping!

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