The scent of coffee is incredibly important for tickling our nerves and exciting our senses, and it’s how coffee smells in combination with its mouthfeel and taste that let’s us judge if a cup is enjoyable or not.
Coffee cupping is the process of taste testing several coffees via a consistent preparation method, taking note of each coffee’s general taste and aromas, as well as distinctive notes.
A World in Every Bean
Some cups of coffee are rancid, sour, and undrinkable. They’ve got strong traces of sulfur and ammonia, and an astringent smell, like cleaning supplies.
Some cups of coffee are homely and comforting. They remind us of toasted grains, chocolates, and the scent of smoldering wood chips.
Some cups of coffee are almost tea-like, with fruity infusions. Maybe it’s a hint of something like raspberry, or a sourer berry like cranberry. Pleasant and summer-like.
Some cups of coffee are just overpoweringly bitter. They’re easy to drink, but taste flat, or linger uncomfortably on the tongue.
Most coffees contain a little bit of everything, leaning more heavily in one direction than another. Some of us like our coffee with certain distinct notes or qualities, perhaps because that’s what we are used to tasting and smelling since childhood, or because we enjoy a certain type of flavor more than another.
Despite being the same fruit and seed time and time again, coffees develop an incredibly vast array of scents and flavors because of altitude, soil quality, plant varietal, depulping method, and roasting processes.
One coffee bean can contain thousands of phytochemicals and volatile compounds that change from the moment the fruit is taken off the plant, all the way until it ends up in your cup in its ground and roasted form.
To figure out how a coffee’s taste and aroma develops and find the best coffees for one’s brand or blend, coffee producers and roasters typically rely on professional coffee cupping experts (and their own palates) to sus out the different overtones and undertones in each roast, and categorize hundreds of coffees every day on the basis of body, taste, and more.
Subtleties and the “Big Picture”
Taste is purely subjective, but skilled coffee tasters practice cupping with the intention of determining a coffee’s unique qualities in relation to other flavors and smells that we are already familiar with.
They use sheets of paper and cupping forms to keep track of specific notes and flavors, and rate a coffee by its taste, mouthfeel, and aroma. Some of the qualities of a coffee that a cupping session can immediately reveal include:
- Body – this refers to the weight of the coffee, or its mouthfeel. Some of the basic factors that go into the body of a cup of coffee include its roast (which affects how many oils were extracted during the roasting process), its grind, how long it was steeped, and the method of extraction.
- Acidity/Bitterness – coffees typically exist on a spectrum of acidic to bitter, depending on how long they’re roasted and extracted. Acidic or sour coffees are typically the result of shorter extractions and lighter roasts. Dark or bitter coffees were roasted and extracted longer.
- Sweetness – the result of a coffee’s simple sugar content, which varies based on origin and roast. Sweetness is generally more perceivable in coffees with fewer off-putting flavors as well. Coffees that remind one of chocolates and caramels have a more perceivable glucose content.
- “Strength” – this is an ambiguous term that is generally used to determine a coffee’s lasting impact on the palate, or its overall impression. The SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) defines strength as based on a coffee’s total dissolved solids (i.e. how much of the coffee bean has extracted into a cup of water).
On the other hand, coffees also contain many subtle flavors which are determined by their chemical composition. These chemical compounds, of which there are about 850 in coffee (only about 40 are considered major contributors to coffee aroma) are highly volatile, and different factors go into how some of these compounds are diminished or enhanced in the final product.
This affects how coffee smells and tastes, alongside the grind, roasting process, and brewing method. That’s why some coffees taste overwhelmingly bitter and woody, while others taste of apple and hibiscus, and yet others have a more berrylike aroma.
The cupping process is critical towards creating a lab-like environment to isolate these unique qualities in every batch of coffee, and thereby market different single-origin coffees to customers with specific preferences (from the professional barista to the aspiring home brewer to the average consumer).
What You Need to Get Started
When cupping, you need to keep a few things in mind:
- You want to replicate the same basic brewing method for every cup.
- You want your coffee to be freshly ground and brewed within a couple minutes of grinding.
- You’ll need plenty of measuring tools and a decent amount of space.
- You’ll want a pen and paper.
- You need some place to rinse your spoons and spit your coffee (unless you’re cupping relatively few coffees).
The cupping process begins with a number of cupping bowls or mugs (each with the same volume and material, i.e. all plastic, all ceramic, or all glass), at least two spoons and a place to rinse them (to avoid cross-contamination between cups), scales and measuring spoons, and an easy way to keep hot water on-hand (an electric kettle works best). Then:
- Prepare your coffees with 1/16 of the total volume of the cup in milliliters converted to grams. That’s about 9 grams of coffee for 145ml of water, for example. Don’t grind them yet.
- Heat your water to 200 degrees Fahrenheit or 93/94 degrees Celsius.
- When preparing to taste one of your coffees, grind your coffee (always with the same setting) and take note of what aroma you get from your dry coffee grounds. Does it smell like anything in particular? You don’t have to be a master coffee taster to determine some of the unique characteristics of a new coffee. What does it remind you of? Apple pie? Candy? Wood? The chemical supply closet at school?
- Pour your coffee slowly and let it steep for four minutes.
- Take your spoons to “break” the coffee crust (the grounds that float to the top) and gently spoon them out of the cup without disturbing the coffee too much (you don’t want the grounds that settled to the bottom to whirl up and extract further).
- Wait another minute, then take a sip with your spoon. Let it linger and take note of what you taste. Is it nice? Is it bad? What’s bad about it? What’s good about it?
- Try to slurp your coffee so you get some air mixed in to help cool it down in your mouth – a burnt tongue tastes nothing.
- Spit it out if you’re planning to taste a bunch of coffees. A spoonful of twenty or more coffees can seriously begin to impact your senses, as you start to become highly caffeinated.
- Rinse your spoons, not just between cups but between spoonfuls, especially if you aren’t cupping alone. You don’t want to double dip.
Try to describe what you taste in words. Some people have a natural talent for tasting and smelling foods, coffee included.
Others have a much harder time. It’s like distinguishing between a hundred shades of red – one person may instantly tell scarlet and vermillion apart, while to another, it’s all bright red.
Consistency is Key
When cupping coffee, it’s important that the different aromas and flavors you perceive are a result of the coffee’s own qualities, and not the minute differences in preparation.
A single dose of ground coffee will taste different depending on how long it steeped, the temperature of the water, the source of the water, and the level of agitation used when preparing a cup (i.e. how you pour your coffee, and how much your spoons affected the grounds at the bottom of each cup).
Controlling for these factors as best as possible is the most important part of the cupping process, as the only real way to tell how each coffee is different is to make sure they’re all brewed the exact same way.
Cupping coffee isn’t just something for coffee snobs. You might not necessarily be able to tell every single coffee apart your first time, but if you’ve ever had different roasts you’ll know that some coffees are more acidic, some are more bitter, some have a strange aftertaste, and some remind you of pleasant foods that have nothing to do with coffee.
Cupping can help you learn more about what kind of coffee you really like and why – and how these flavors are isolated by coffee producers around the globe.