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What Is Coffee Cupping, And Why Is It Important?

Cupping refers to a specific method of tasting coffee that allows a standard for evaluating coffee, usually with a specific goal in mind (ie. evaluating green coffee to purchase, or evaluating for quality control), thereby allowing the “Cupper” to build a frame of reference and to have a "litmus test" or touchstone to compare any given sample against. This helps the Cupper make informed purchasing decisions, as well as aiding the Roast Master to determine the necessary roast degree to highlight positive attributes of a sample (and conversely disguise the negative). Lastly, it creates a process for ensuring quality control and ongoing roasts show as well as the original sample did.

The process calls for the Cupper to be well trained, organized, strategic and detail oriented. Notes are invaluable and the use of a standardized cupping form make for a smooth process. It takes practice to get the scientific process down to an art.

Mr. Ted R. Lingle literally wrote the book (several actually) on specialty coffee, including one called: “The Basics of Cupping Coffee”, which I will provide the cliff-notes to here:

“Coffee cupping is a method of systematically evaluating the aroma and taste characteristics of a sample of coffee beans. A prescribed manner of brewing and a specific series of steps lead to a complete sensory evaluation of the coffee cupper’s olfaction, gustation, and mouthfeel sensations. Because cupping is usually associated with some economic purpose, such as buying or blending of coffees, practitioners of the craft follow the procedures and techniques quite seriously.

Sample Preparation

Nearly boiling water (195-205 F - we prefer 205 F) poured directly onto the 8.25 grams of roasted and ground coffee (fine grind) particles contained in a small (150ml) cup. The roasted and ground coffee particles initially rise to the surface of the water and form a crust or cap as they "bloom". As the coffee particles steep in the hot water, they begin to sink to the bottom of the cup.

For three to five minutes (we prefer 4), the process continues: The cap is broken and the liquid gently stirred to ensure that all the particles sink to the bottom of the cup. The remaining particles are skimmed off the surface of the brew and discarded. In this method of brewing, nothing is done to filter the coffee or otherwise interfere with the extraction of the flavouring materials from the coffee grounds.

The coffee-to-water ratio in every cup of being sampled remains constant at 8.25 grams of coffee to 150 ml of water (8.25 grams being the SCA standard, some other standards, and Ted Lingle's original book call for 7.25gr per 150ml of water). This coffee-to-water ratio is designed to prevent the coffee’s flavour in the strength range of 1 percent to 1.3 percent soluble solids.

This specific infusion method uses coffee beans ground into a fine grind. This grind standard is designed to achieve an 18-22 percent extraction rate from the roast and ground coffee particles. Empirical testing has determined this as the optimum extraction range for balancing all the flavour compounds removed from the coffee.

Evaluating Coffee Characteristics

The physical motions involved in each step of the cupping process, such as sniffing, slurping, and swallowing, are greatly exaggerated beyond the normal levels of everyday eating and drinking. By exaggerating these physical actions, you saturate as many nerve endings as possible with the appropriate stimulus from the coffee, which evokes a complete flavor sensation. Although such behavior would be considered rude in other settings, it is essential at the cupping table.

  • The cupping method consists of six steps:
  1. Fragrance. Grind the 7.25 - 8.25g sample and place it in a sampling cup, then vigorously sniff the gasses released as the carbon dioxide (which carries aromatic compounds) leaves the newly ruptured bean cells. Character of fragrance = nature of the taste. Intensity of fragrance = sample freshness.
  2. Aroma. Pour 150ml of freshly filtered, nearly boiling water onto sample. Allow 4-minutes steep (extraction) time. A “cap” or “crust” develops. “Break” the cap gently while vigorously pulling into the nasal cavity the gases that have formed, with a long, deep sniff. Aromatic character ranges from fruity or herbal to nut-like.
  3. Taste. Using a special cupping spoon, raise a portion of the coffee brew just in front of the mouth and forcefully slurp the fluid into the mouth. Brisk aspiration spreads the fluid over the entire surface of the tongue and sensory nerve endings.
  4. Nose. Analyzing the brew’s nose at the same time as its taste, the aspiration of the coffee brew across the surface of the tongue also aerates it, which causes a portion of the organic compounds normally present in the liquid to change into gases. The forceful sucking action draws these gases into the nasal cavity.
  5. Aftertaste. First swallow a small portion of the brew after holding it in the mouth for a few seconds, and then rapidly pump the larynx to force up into the nasal cavity the vapours lingering in the back of the palate.
  6. Body. Conclude by probing the fluid to determine its mouth-feel; gently slide your tongue across the roof of your mouth, eliciting a tactile sensation. The oiliness, or slipperiness, of the sensation measures the fat content of the brew. The thickness, or viscosity of the sensation determines the brew’s fibre and protein content. Together the oiliness and depth determine the brew’s body.

Allow the coffee to cool and repeat steps three through five. Doing so will allow a more accurate overall taste impression. Further, it is also customary to compare side-by-side at least two samples of coffee beans to test for uniformity or likeness. Some suggest three. In addition, you can rinse your mouth with small amounts of tepid water. The number of samples you can effectively evaluate before odour and taste fatigue sets in will vary.

When learning to cup coffee, you may find it useful to take notes on a particular coffee’s flavour. Associating different aspects of the flavour with distinct works helps imprint the sensation in your brain’s flavour memory. “

At FIX!, we cup our coffee after every roast, and whenever we roast samples - usually every Monday, feel free to join in, just give us a call ahead of time to let make sure we have a clean spoon for you!

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