Think back to the very first time you tried coffee. It was probably difficult to describe the flavours you were experiencing, with no coffee tasting experience or frame of reference. As you develop a more discerning palate, cupping lets you understand the intricacies of taste, while providing a process to analyze what can often be a subjective sensory experience. Whether you’re a lifelong coffee enthusiast or an eager novice, cupping sessions help you compare and learn about coffee from all over the world. It also provides quality control professionals in the coffee industry a formal system for assigning quality scores.
A great cupping session always begins with patience, curiosity, and a focused, clear mind. Most formal cupping sessions are also conducted in silence, as the sensory system is very susceptible to the powers of suggestion. For example, if one cupper describes a particular coffee as having a “blueberry” flavour, then the others will almost certainly identify the same flavour in their own tasting.
To learn more, we chatted with Stamatis Papadopoulos, our Quality Assurance and Quality Control Manager and certified Q-Grader, to take us through the entire process. How it starts:
The first part of the cupping process involves the preparation. Coffee bean “samples” are evenly weighed out (13 grams) in “rocks” glasses, ground, and then poured back into the individual tasting glasses. While water is boiling, the fragrance of each dry grounds sample is observed and recorded.
Then, hot filtered water is poured evenly and directly onto the measured grounds, to the rim of the cup. Grounds are left to steep for 3-5 minutes, and the aroma of the wet grounds can be evaluated, with any changes noted.
The next step is commonly known as “breaking the crust”. After the water and grounds have interacted, there will be a layer of grounds sitting at the top of each glass. A spoon is used to break through the top layer of grounds, and the aroma is inhaled. This step is repeated for all the samples. Once completed, two spoons are used to skim the grounds off the top of each cup, in a fluid motion, and the samples are ready to be tasted.
Each coffee is then tasted, with a simultaneous “slurping” and inhaling method (the goal is to saturate your entire palate: sweet, salty, bitter and sour taste receptors, while also activating your sense of smell). The coffees are rated on a numeric scale, according to different “attributes”, including flavour, aftertaste, acidity, body, balance, uniformity, clean cup, sweetness, and defects (unpleasant flavours). Between each coffee, spoons are rinsed to ensure that there is no mixing. The coffees are tasted again as they cool, and any changes in these attributes are recorded.
At this point, discussion opens, and the individual scores are tallied, for a final quality rating.
Stay tuned as we explore the cupping sheet and rating process in more detail, in a later post. In the meantime, for more information on the cupping process, and for a range of other specialty coffee resources, visit the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) website.