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For any budding home barista, learning coffee cupping is an essential skill to have under your belt. Confused? Cupping coffee is a term used in the coffee industry to taste and smell batches of coffee to evaluate how it smells and how it tastes. Cuppers use a strict set of tasting protocols to assess the quality of coffee, take notes, and then compare with colleagues or fellow tasters.
Learning coffee cupping is probably one of the most important skills you can develop within the coffee industry. In fact, the idea of cupping was drawn up by green coffee buyers to evaluate the quality of coffee before determining and settling on a price per lot.
You can think of coffee cupping in much the same way as a wine connoisseur would evaluate a fine bottle of wine; there are similarities between both.
However, when it comes to casual cupping at home, the protocols needn’t be so rigid. Let’s be honest, you’re not gambling large sums of money on a price per lot – you only have a few bags of local beans!
If you’re coffee cupping at home, you’re most likely doing it simply for the love of coffee and wanting to discover (and enjoy) some new beans. Cupping at home can open up a whole new world, and you’ll find nuances and flavors that you probably never even knew existed in a cuppa joe!
This beginner cupping guide is meant to be used as a basic introduction, a stepping stone if you like. There’s no right or wrong way of cupping in the comfort of your own home, but this article should help any budding barista who wishes to enjoy the delights of single origin coffee at its best.
Below I will give you a step-by-step introductory guide on coffee cupping. Use this guide as your baseline, and don’t forget it’s okay to be flexible – It’s also perfectly fine if you make mistakes or omit things; have fun with it!
What You Will Need To Cup Coffee
Cupping coffee is best done as a group. Sure, you can cup coffee alone, but you’ll have no one to compare your notes, thoughts, and opinions with on what you’re sampling.
Any serious coffee drinker should take some time not only to learn coffee cupping but also to invest in setting up their very own cupping lab at home.
Here are some of the items you’ll need to get started.
- At least one other person (a family member, a friend, another budding home barista, a random stranger!).
- A minimum of two distinct, freshly roasted, whole-bean coffees. Three or four types of coffee are your best bet, but you can certainly cup more if you feel you’re up for it.
- A Burr coffee grinder. Consistency in the grind between samples is super important, so I highly recommend investing in a Burr grinder.
- Coffee cupping bowls. They don’t have to be specialized bowls; any small bowl will do. You can even use rocks-style glasses (heavy whiskey tumblers), which also work quite well!
- A tall glass filled with water and clean soup spoons submerged (one spoon for every person who will be cupping).
- Empty coffee mugs (one for every person who will be cupping). Cupping coffee involves a lot of slurping, sloshing, and even spitting. So having an empty coffee mug nearby can come in handy.
- A water kettle, ideally a Gooseneck style pour-over kettle.
- Gram coffee scale for measuring precise volumes of coffee for cupping.
- A Pen and paper or specialized cupping forms (here’s one to get you started) or what I like to use, the 33 cups of coffee booklet.
A Note On The Coffee
Before you go running out of the door to buy some coffee to cup, the coffee shouldn’t be a dark roast because almost all of the aromas and flavor notes will be masked by the 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 it can be a struggle to find two, three, four, or more coffees from the same region. Luckily, online retailers such as Coffee Bean Direct, Sweet Marias, and even Amazon has a large selection.
The Basic Set-Up
As I mentioned at the beginning of this guide, coffee cupping is a social affair, so when setting up your cupping session, choose a location in your home where there’s plenty of room for all of the cuppers to be seated. And make sure you have room to write down their observations while sampling the various coffees.
Many people prefer to use their kitchen (me included), while others find that the dining room table is a better location. It depends on the space you have available to you and where you can comfortably seat all of your cupping buddies (or random strangers!).
The Basic Coffee Cupping Steps
Now that you have the coffee cupping supplies outlined above, you’re ready to crack on with the actual coffee cupping. I’ve tried to break down the whole process into simple steps; hopefully, you can follow along.
- Start by measuring your whole coffee beans (I recommend 2 grams of coffee for 6.5oz of boiled water) and place them into each coffee cupping bowl. Make sure to keep track of which is which if you are going to be cupping multiple coffees.
- Now is an excellent time to start boiling your kettle; if possible, use only fresh, filtered water. Otherwise, you might find that the water will taint and mask the subtle taste of the coffee.
- Now, pick up one cupping bowl at a time, grind the coffee using your Burr coffee grinder, and place it back down in front of the cupper. If you’re cupping more than one coffee (which ideally you should be), make sure to empty the grinder thoroughly and clean the grinder as well as brush out between each sample.
- This is a great opportunity for the cuppers to evaluate and sniff the ground coffee before the boiling water is poured into the cup.
- Your kettle should have switched off by now, and your water should be at the best temperature (ideally 202F). If your water is still boiling, let it sit for around 25 seconds when it comes off the boil before pouring. When you pour always start with the cupping bowl where you placed your first grind and then continue in the order you ground (oldest to the newest ground).
- Make sure all of the coffee is well-saturated, and pour slowly. Remember to keep accurate water to a coffee ratio (2 grams of coffee for 6.5oz of boiled water). An easy way to hit the correct amount of water is to do a dry run on one cup and take a mental note of where the water reaches in the bowl and make sure to hit that level. Once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll instinctively know when to stop pouring the water.
- The clock starts as soon as you start pouring, so make sure to note the time, using a timer if possible; most smartphones have an app built-in these days. Wait up to 4 minutes for the coffee grounds in each of the cupping bowls to settle.
- It’s going to get all crusty! Now it’s time to get intimate and close with your coffee! In the 4-minute waiting period, the water and the coffee have had a special moment, and you’ll now be looking at a thick crust of coffee grounds on top of your cupping bowl. Get up close to your cupping bowl (don’t be shy) because you’re about to do something called “breaking the crust.” Get your face as close to your cupping bowl as you can and take your soup spoon and slowly start to break the crust while inhaling all of the aromatics that are released.
- Repeat this process for each of the coffee cupping bowls. Once the crust-breaking ritual is complete, it’s time to skim off the remaining leftover coffee grounds on the top. There is no right or wrong way to do this, but typically experienced cuppers will take two spoons, place them in the bowl near the back, then, in a single fluid movement will drag the spoons forward around the edges to then meet again at the front of the cup; then they scoop out the grounds.
- Now it’s what you’ve been waiting for – tasting! …. But hold on for just one more second. Before tasting commences, go around the table and take a “sample” spoonful, slurping it in your mouth while at the same time gently inhaling. There’s a method to this madness – the goal here is the coat your tongue with the coffee while inhaling, which will allow for the aromatic elements to exert their full effect. If you’ve ever watched wine tasting, this cupping method will look pretty similar to that.
- Once you’ve finished with your spoon, place it back into a tall glass with water. This will ensure that the spoon is thoroughly rinsed before using it again on the next cupping bowl. You want to try and avoid as much as possible any flavors contaminating the other batches of coffee (cross-contamination).
- As the cupping bowls begin to cool down, go back and forth, and sample each coffee with a fresh perspective. The goal here is to see how the coffee taste as it cools down.
Key Characteristics To Note When Cupping Coffee
When you first venture into cupping coffee at home, it can be daunting to remember so many different things – timers, coffee cupping grind size, taking notes, etc.
One of the primary goals of cupping is to evaluate the taste. In a span of only a few milliseconds, many flavors and aromas will wash across your palate at the same time. So the challenge of any good coffee cupper is to be focused and skilled at identifying and describing those flavor sensations and not get distracted by the process.
When describing the flavors and aromas, pro cuppers use a broad range of vocabulary, a lot of which can be confusing for cupping newbies.
Standard coffee terms such as sweet, chocolatey, and fruity to sturdy, vibrant, and clean are the familiar favorites. There’s nothing set in stone when it comes to describing the cup you are tasting. Feel free to communicate the flavors and aromas of the coffee in a language others can relate to.
Damn, I’ve even heard people describe their coffee as a Justin Bieber, Cold Winter Nights, Kim Kardashian, and even a 1988 Ford Fiesta (I kid you not!).
However, let’s not get carried away with ourselves. When you’re starting, it’s helpful to use only a handful of the main well-known characteristics when making comparisons.
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 most intriguing floral and fruity flavors in the coffee. 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: Often, cuppers will use the word mouthfeel in place 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 coffee, 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 aftertaste that carries flavors for up to 15 seconds after you’ve swallowed.