Understanding the Process of Coffee Cupping


Have you ever wondered if there is something similar to wine tasting when it comes to coffee? We’re here to assure you that there is and it’s a huge thing in some coffee circles. Coffee cupping is what the process is called and it relates to tasting and observing the flavors and aromas of brewed coffee. It’s a professional practice that allows a barista or other person to judge a coffee on certain components like acidity, aroma, and aftertaste.

The founder of The Coffee Academics, Jennifer Lui, explains that, “Coffee cupping is to coffee what formal tea ceremonies and rituals are to tea appreciation in Chinese or Japanese tradition.”

Many different roasters and producers of coffee choose to use cupping to ensure coffee is up to their quality standards and to determine the exact taste of any coffee. It’s a lot like a wine tasting but it’s still not a well-known practice so only major coffee connoisseurs are likely to be familiar with the practice. Today we’re going to change that and offer some insight into the practice and what information can be gleaned from it.

What Cupping Actually Consists Of

Cupping looks at various characteristics of a specific coffee bean. It can be used to contract and compare different coffees to get a better understanding of each. The process has to be done using the exact same method each and every time, because any variation can lead to results that won’t match up. This is especially important when the process is being done to compare and evaluate different beans.

Cupping gives you a better understanding of the basic taste of each coffee you try. It can help coffee companies understand why a certain coffee might work well in one blend but be less than great in another. It also takes the coffee down into its basic form and lets you appreciate the nuances it has in flavor and aroma. It’s a great way to evaluate coffee, which has a lot of variance depending on the country, region, farm, and crop that it comes from.

When professionals taste coffee in a cupping, many different things are graded. These include the fragrance, aroma, finish, flavor, acidity, body, sweetness, balance, and uniformity of the coffee.

What Makes Cupping Different from Coffee Tasting

With a coffee tasting, you could simply brew up a few different coffees and have a taste of each. This is a fun option for tasting but it doesn’t quality as a cupping. Cupping is done using small brewed amount of coffee made using a cup or bowl, hot water, and coarsely ground coffee. There isn’t a filter and no modern devices are used to make the coffee. It’s a simple immersion brewing method that leads to a bit of coffee in a cup. You might wonder why a cupping is done in this manner, and there are actually a number of reasons for that.

1. When you use a simple brewing method like this, you can try a larger variety of coffees without being forced to brew a large amount. This can also aid in keeping the people at the cupping from becoming over caffeinated.

2. There is no filter or other special items used to make the coffee, which means what you taste is purely down to the coffee. The filter could potentially hold back oils, flavors, and acids but in this method, that is not possible.

3. This method allows the cupping to encompass the coffee and how it might change as time goes on. For instance, you could try it after brewing for a minute, five minutes, etc. While some grounds are removed for an easier tasting process, some remain.

Common Questions About Cupping Answered

The thing people find most strange about coffee cuppings is that not a single filter is used. That means the grounds are not kept away from the actual brewed coffee, which is odd to most people. This can lead to slurping up some coffee grounds, but that is actually entirely safe and will happen less often than you might think. It doesn’t disrupt the cupping and after you’ve done it a few times, it probably won’t even really bother you.

Some people might wonder why a pour over cone or a French press isn’t used for coffee cupping, since both are popular and minimalist ways to enjoy a coffee for personal enjoyment. The truth is that each method highlights specific tones, mouthfeels, and flavors. Using each of the other devices would not give the unfiltered look at coffee that is wanted when cupping. Not everyone has access to the same French press or cone and cupping should be accessible around the globe. Anyone can do immersion in a cup, so the method needs no adaptation. Special tools and techniques are completely unnecessary. This makes it a consistent method that is easy for anyone to use.

What You Need to Try Coffee Cupping

The most important thing to have access to for a coffee cupping is a freshly roasted and freshly ground coffee. You want the coffee to be coarsely ground for the best results. Nobody wants to sit around sipping on stale, old coffee in a cup. It’s going to taste pretty boring and dull. If you want to get an idea of why fresh coffee is better than old coffee, though, you can try cupping a portion of each. You’ll quickly realize why we recommend only drinking freshly ground coffee in your home or elsewhere.

The next thing you will need to get is clean and tasty water. It should offer a taste that you enjoy or it won’t be great to taste in coffee, either. You’ll also want to have a cup of warm water available during the cupping. This is going to be used to rinse off your spoons between each coffee. Having a cold cup of water for every participant also lets you cleanse your palate between coffees, so we recommend that as well.

You will want to have small cups or bowls of about six to eight ounces to place the coffee in. The smaller cups allow you to taste multiple coffees without being worried about drinking a full glass of each. Make sure each person has a spoon, as well, along with a timer to be used for each sample.

You will want to have some sort of paper available for everyone to take notes on, too. A coffee scoring sheet is the best option, but you don’t have to go to a lot of trouble if you prefer not to. Make sure you have pens and pencils, as well, so everyone can make notes and remember what each coffee was like when moving on to other options.

Steps to Take Before Holding Your First Coffee Cupping

You are going to have the best experience if you follow the typical cupping process. This starts with a blind setup, after which you evaluate the aroma of the dry coffee. Next, you consider the aroma of the wet coffees. After that, you consider the flavors, mouthfeel, acidity, sweetness, and aftertaste of the coffee by taste. However, a basic knowledge of coffee tasting will go a long way, so we’re going to go over that first.

The reality is that many coffee drinkers are going to be skeptical about the fact that you could taste flowers, green apples, or blueberries in the average cup of joe. However, with a bit of experience and knowledge, you can prove yourself wrong on that count. Sure, most coffee just tastes like coffee when you’re sipping on it before work. However, once you start working with specialty coffees and modern techniques, you may find yourself blown away by the flavor notes that are accessible.

Coffee has a diverse and deep range of flavors with tons of things to experience. However, when just enjoying a cup of coffee, you aren’t tasting in a way that provides access to the nuanced flavors that are there. It’s a skill and it can take time to explore the subtler flavors. But with some work and the ability to be open to learning more, you may find that your senses open up and the world changes.

Learning proper tasting is something that will help with coffee, but also will have an impact on the way you experience any other beverage or food. It takes patience, respect, appreciation, and a sense of intention to bring out. If you’re someone who buys and sources the best coffee, being able to appreciate it to the fullest is important. We’ll help with that.

Tasting Relies on Context

The thing with tasting is that context is important. When you think about chicken being lean, that is when it’s being compared to pork. When you talk about sharp cheddar, it’s sharp in contrast to milder cheeses. Everything we experience in life is compared with other things we come into contact with. As such, one of the best questions you can ask yourself when tasting coffee is what each coffee reminds you of.

Think about the flavors and consider what they remind you of. If the coffee is bitter, does it remind you of licorice of dark chocolate? Is the sour coffee note more like a lemon or green apple? Asking questions like these gives you more insight into what you are tasting and how it fits into your experiences. Not everyone is going to taste the same thing and that’s okay. As you keep tasting, you’ll begin to pick up on additional flavors and be better able to describe them to others.

What Happens During Tasting

Tasting is best done in a place where you have a fresh palate and a clean environment. Take a drink of water and move the candles out of the room. You can even clear of the counter or table so there’s nothing around to distract you. Once you’re ready, start with freshly roasted and ground coffee which will have more intense flavors than coffee that is a few weeks old.

Before you actually take the coffee into your mouth, smell the coffee deeply. Let the scents linger in your nose before breathing them out. Think about what the aroma reminds you of. This will give you something to go off of when you move into the actual tasting phase of things. Take your time and take notes if you want to remember the things you are thinking while the tasting goes on.

Let the coffee cool down a bit and then taste it. Professionals will recommend that you slurp small sips of the coffee. This might sound strange, but it lets the coffee coat the entire palate which gives you all the tastes at one time. It’s entirely up to you whether you wish to do this. Whatever method you choose, savor the sip of coffee in your mouth before you swallow it.

At this point you can think more about the specifics of what you have tasted. For instance, what flavors are you reminded of? Is the acidity gentle or more sharp? Does it feel thin or have a creamy body? How is the aftertaste? To get even more in depth with this, there is a Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel that offers a way to look at all the flavors you may find in a sip of coffee.

This flavor wheel contains only chemically identifiable flavors in coffee so they all have merit and weren’t just added by a random barista. If you’re having trouble determining your tasting for a brew, pull this out for a little inspiration and to dig deeper into the flavors you may be experiencing.

Another way to do so is by trying multiple coffees at the same time. This can bring out the flavors of each in a more noticeable way. You can easily do this by brewing three or four different coffee varieties and then trying to pick out the differences between them. This is a trick that is used by professional coffee roasters and buyers to ensure they source only the highest quality coffee.

Coffee Cupping

What to Do at Your First Coffee Cupping

Now that you have the basics of tasting out of the way, you may be ready to attempt coffee cupping. We’ll go through each step in detail so you get an idea of what is done and why it is done the way that it is. The first step is optional but highly recommended and involves the blind setup process.

The Blind Setup

The first thing you will want to do is number each of your coffees and then write down the coffee and number on an identity sheet. Put the same numbers on the cup or bowl you use for brewing. As you grind each coffee, make sure to grind it into the appropriate cup labeled for it. After all of that is done, move the cups around so you have no idea which one is which number or which coffee.

This is the part of the process that makes the cupping a blind tasting. You will not be able to introduce any bias into the cupping based on the roaster, origin, or other variables. At the end, after you have finished the cupping, you can then take a look at the identity sheet to find out what each cup of coffee actually was. You may be surprised to find out that your preconceived notions are often wrong.

You don’t have to go through this step, but it does help with ensuring nobody has an edge in terms of best identifying what a coffee will be like. The experience is more genuine and honest, and people have to use their nose and mouth to determine the factors of each coffee.

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The Dry Aroma Phase

During the dry coffee aroma phase, what you want to do is grind a small amount of the coffee into your cup. After that, you should breathe in deeply to get the aroma. Use your cupping sheet to write down what the coffee grounds smell like. Sure, they are going to smell like coffee, but if you try, you’ll find other hints among the more intense coffee odor. As you discover new things and come up with comparisons, write those down so you can look over them at the end of the cupping.

Start Brewing the Coffee

You are going to want to bring some water to boil and then pour a small amount onto the coffee grounds in your cup, enough to fill up the cup or bowl. At that point, you can step away or do other things. Set a timer for four minutes and let your coffee brew with the hot water. You do not want to bother the coffee while it is brewing. The coffee grounds will build a crust that you can see on the surface of your drink. The crust is what holds in the aroma, which you want for the next step in the cupping process. Anything from shaking the table to stirring the coffee will disturb the cup and make for a more disappointing experience.

Checking Out the Wet Coffee Aroma

Once your timer goes off after four minutes, you can grab your spoon and approach your cup or bowl. Slowly press back the grounds and breathe the aroma in deeply. You want it to go down your throat and fill up your lungs. You can push the spoon back and forth a time or two to experience it again in a large concentration. At this point, you can take up your pen again and write down the scents you experienced. Pay attention to whether this aroma is different than the one you got with the dry coffee.

Now You Get to Taste the Coffee

After the majority of the grounds have settled down into your mug, you can take your spoon and move away any stragglers of the grounds. Those can go straight into the trash or your compost bin. Once you’ve done that, take your spoon and fill it with a bit of coffee. You don’t need a large amount, just a bit of it will do. Take the spoon to your lips and slurp it into your mouth. Don’t be afraid to be loud. Slurping allows the coffee to spray across your entire tongue. This is needed to get the entire flavor profile at one time.

Now you get to think about what you taste. Consider sweetness, flavor, acidity, body, and aftertaste. If you are having trouble coming up with anything, pull out your Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel to get your head in the game. Even making a guess is better than not writing down anything on your tasting sheet. You don’t have to share your thoughts with others during this process. In fact, most people avoid it in order to avoid someone’s thoughts interfering with someone else’s.

After you are done, you’ll want to get the warm water from earlier and use it to rinse off your spoon. This is an important step because you don’t get the flavor of one coffee mixed up with the flavor of another. Then you can start again with a new coffee. After you’ve gone through each of them, you can do it all again. This is suggested because the flavors can change over time. Consider the new notes you taste and jot down any changes you notice.

Discussing the Coffee Among Your Group

The discussion after the coffee cupping can be one of the most fun and exciting parts of the entire experience. Everyone gets to take a turn talking about the coffees and their own experience. If you are hosting the cupping, encourage those who might be less confident to share with the group. As other people tell their own thoughts, every person gets the chance to learn and grow. You can also ask questions to get people going if needed. Simple questions like “what did the first coffee smell like?” can get the group talking and from there it’s easier to continue.

Some things the entire group will agree on, but other things you won’t. That’s completely normal and not something that should be discouraged. Maybe everyone tastes acidity in coffee three but there is not a consensus on what the notes are. Everyone has a different palate and will interpret the coffee in a different way. This can help everyone grow and learn more about the tasting process.

Once everyone has shared and you’re done discussing the coffees, you can take out the identity sheet that you made earlier in the day. At this point, you can share with everyone what country, region, and farm the coffees came from, what roastery took care of roasting them, and what flavor notes are included from the roaster. This will give you a chance to find out how close your own flavor notes are to the ones included with the coffee. Notice your flavor notes are pretty far off? That might mean it’s time to have another coffee cupping soon. If you’re pretty close, your palate is doing well on its own.

Tips for Using the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel

We mentioned the flavor wheel earlier and you might be wondering how it works. This is simply a tool that can be used by a coffee taster to better understand and describe the flavors they find in a cup of coffee. It’s beneficial for use by anyone who wants to know more about coffee, but it can also be a bit intimidating to start. Here’s how it works so you can incorporate it into your tasting and cupping, if you would like.

Take a Good Look at the Wheel

The coffee flavor wheel is colorful and offers a comprehensive look at the world of coffee flavors. Take a look at it, read over it, and get an idea for what you’re experiencing. You are likely to find that not all of the words are familiar to you but don’t worry about that right now. Initially, you just want to get a feel for the myriad possibilities for flavor in a cup of coffee. Think about what flavors you might have experienced in the past and where they line up on the wheel before moving forward.

Taste Some Coffee

You can use the flavor wheel with tasting or even coffee cupping in a professional setting. The idea is to mindfully taste your coffee. That means you want to prepare the coffee in a careful manner and observe different aspects of preparation. Take in the aroma while you grind the coffee, how it smells when the water hits the grounds, and what flavors you get when you sip the coffee. Flavor constitutes both the scent and taste of the coffee and the flavor wheel will have everything from aromatics to tastes to choose from. Think about the flavors of the coffee and turn the wheel.

Begin in the Center of the Wheel

The wheel is designed for you to start in the middle and then slowly work outward. The general descriptors are going to be found in the center while they will get more specific as you move out from there. You can stop anywhere you like but the closer you get to the outside edge, the most specific the descriptions will be. So, you might have a coffee from Ethiopia that has a hint of fruit. You’d start with the fruity section of the wheel and then move towards other choices. You might find that the taste is closer to grapefruit than it is to lime, so you choose that and move further outward until you zero in on a specific flavor. Then you can start all over again with another flavor note until you believe you have located all of them.

Read the Lexicon for More In-Depth Information

The above information is the basic way to use the coffee flavor wheel, but the entire wheel itself is built on the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon. This is a set of standard attributes that are used to allow trained panels to evaluate coffees for the purpose of scientific research. While most people who use the flavor wheel won’t be trained on this, the lexicon can still be a useful tool for understanding the various attributes you find on the wheel. Each attribute will have a reference and definition. The reference is used to help calibrate tasters to a specific attribute if they aren’t sure what it is composed of. Using the wheel and lexicon together is the best choice, since you can get extra information as needed.

While the lexicon is largely for the scientific community, professional tasters will also find use for it. There may be many words that are a bit unfamiliar due to being chemical or technical descriptions of flavors, but the lexicon does a great job of properly explaining them and offering references to understand the attributes themselves. This will give you insight that you can use at any tasting or cupping in the future.

Take a Look at Some of the References

Now that you know how the lexicon works, take a bit of time out to look at some of the references. Every single attribute present will include a reference and most of the things referenced can easily be found online or at a supermarket. One thing to keep in mind is that aromatic references shouldn’t be consumed to put in the mouth, only smelled. However, the flavor references can and should be tested through consumption to get a better idea of the flavors you may find in a specific coffee. You can also sniff most of the references with a snifter which gives you a more concentrated dose of the fragrance. Again, take notes and practice if you want to improve your coffee tasting abilities.

Go Back to the Wheel and Start from the Center

After you have a better idea of the attributes from the lexicon, try a new tasting experience. Give a coffee a taste and then start from the center of the wheel again as you search for a specific attribute. Once you get to one on the edge, look at the ones that are right next to it. You are going to notice that some of the cells for the attributes are farther away than other. Some of them will even be connected to others. The ones that are connected are those that professional tasters believe are extremely closely related. On the other hand, a gap means that they are not as closely related together. The larger the gap is, the less related the two attributes are to each other. This is a helpful addition to the wheel when it comes to determining the end flavor note and which others might be very similar.

Focus on the Wheel Language

What is great about tools like the wheel and lexicon is that they offer a common language among all people who participate in tasting coffee. The wheel is considered an industry standard which means that anyone who is a coffee professional can study it and easily converse with others using the exact same language and terms. Sometimes it can be fun to come up with more innovative descriptions and there’s nothing to say that you shouldn’t, but in some contexts, having common language makes communicating about coffee much easier.

Pay Attention to the Colors on the Wheel

Our senses tend to work together and are connected to each other. As such, looking at a food, even one you aren’t familiar with, might give you a base for how you would expect it to taste if you try it. This also applies to coffee and is why terms like “red,” “bright,” and “green” are used to communicate certain flavors of coffee. The color wheel takes this another level and you can see that the chosen colors are there in order to link the terms there with a color that fits. This can also help burgeoning tasters better determine the flavor notes they are attempting to describe. For instance, if you take a sip of coffee and can only think “it tastes like something brown,” you can look at the brown terms and find one that best fit. Whereas if the flavor is red and fruity, you’d start with the red terms until you found one that fit.

Wrapping Up

Coffee cupping is a fun activity that can really let you gain insight on the actual flavors that are in your favorite coffees. Coffee tasting is also a fun experience and tends to be a bit more casual in nature. If you’re new to the idea of tasting and cupping, starting with a few tastings is likely to be more approachable than jumping into cupping coffee. However, after you’ve given it a chance and are a bit more knowledge and less inexperienced, there’s no reason you can’t hold your own cuppings or go to cuppings hosted by a local coffeehouse.

There are great tools to help you along the way like the coffee flavor wheel and the lexicon we went over earlier. They can help you better determine what flavors you are experiencing and communicate them in a way that any coffee professional will understand. Remember that like any skill, tasting and determining aromas and flavors takes time and practice. It’s not something that you will pick up right away. Give yourself time, learn as you go, and most importantly, have fun!

Bonus Questions

1. What should coffee taste like?

While this is a matter of personal preference, most people consider a good coffee one that is not bitter but has a brightly acidic taste. You can expect a great cup of coffee to taste fantastic whether it’s hot, warm, or cool.

2. What are the four steps of tasting coffee?

The four steps of tasting coffee involve smelling the coffee, slurping the coffee, experiencing the taste of the coffee on your tongue, and then writing down a bit about the experience you had with the coffee.

3. How do you take the bitterness out of coffee?

One of the easiest ways to cut down on the bitterness of a coffee is by adding a small amount of salt to the beverage. You don’t want to use too much, or it will alter the flavor too much.

4. What are tasting notes in coffee?

There are dozens of tastes and aromas that coffee can offer, and the notes can be complicated. You can expect to taste anything from floral notes to smoky notes. You may taste bitterness, sourness, sweetness, or even saltiness, depending on the coffee.

5. What is the body of coffee?

When someone mentioned the body of coffee, what they are referring to is the texture or mouthfeel you get when tasting the coffee.

6. Why my coffee is bitter?

Coffee can be bitter if it is too finely ground. It can also be more bitter depending on the type of coffee beans that are used in a cup.

7. What temperature should coffee be served at?

The ideal temperature for coffee to be served at is somewhere between 160- and 185-degrees Fahrenheit.

8. What is single estate coffee?

Single estate coffee refers to coffee that was all produced in a single estate. Single origin coffee is similar and means that all coffee was produced in a single area, although not always on the same farm.

9. Is it OK to drink coffee every day?

In general, it’s completely fine to drink coffee every day. It’s recommended that you not consume more than 400 milligrams of caffeine a day, however. Some people with health issues are also asked not to drink coffee as it may cause additional problems.

10. Does coffee help a hangover?

This is a common belief but it’s not really true. The only effect coffee has toward helping a hangover is by preventing caffeine withdrawal. It will not sober you up or make you avoid a hangover in the morning.

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