By Sherri Johns
You’ve heard people talk about cupping coffee, seen pictures of cuppers sitting around a circular table with numerous small cups in front of them, and now you want to try it. You’ve tasted various coffees featured at your favorite café, attended a home espresso demonstration at your local coffeehouse and tried your favorite roaster's seasonal offerings. Perhaps you have purchased a home coffee roaster and are now roasting for friends, family, and yourself. Simply put, you want to learn the flavor profiles of varietal and regional coffees and share these experiences with your friends. Much like an armchair traveler, you can travel the world geographically by cupping coffees.

Why cup? Coffees are ‘cupped’ to evaluate their good and bad qualities. An exporter will cup coffees seeking defaults, taints, or other negative traits that affect the coffee's flavor, price, and marketability. Some common defaults result when under-ripe coffee cherries are picked and mixed with ripe cherries or beans have been exposed to bacteria or insects or have fermented due to exposure to moisture.

A coffee cupper at a specialty roastery will cup to evaluate the positive attributes of a coffee before determining whether or not to purchase that particular coffee or crop. The cupper will scrutinize the coffee for body, flavor, acidity, and finish. He’ll note the nose or fragrance of the freshly roasted, ground, and brewed sample. Based on a lifetime of tasting and smelling experiences, cuppers select coffees that best represent particular regional tastes or they cup for a coffee that is meant to be complemented by blending it with other beans, either for an espresso or French blend as an example. It should be noted that cupping is a systematic approach and should be conducted using the same method each and every time; otherwise your results will vary and not fully represent the coffees.

Cupping is not hard to do, but takes training, practice, and patience. It is a fun way to reward yourself, and allows you to experience a journey that will give you invaluable knowledge as you advance your coffee skills.

For home cupping you’ll need:

Fresh filtered water. Water accounts for 99% of brewed coffee, so the water you use must be free of taints. Do not use distilled or softened water.

Coffee measure scoop. You will need one that holds two tablespoons.

5-ounce glasses or small cupping bowls. You will need three for each coffee to be cupped. If cupping five coffees, you’ll need 15.

Coffee trays. Use rectangular plastic trays that hold whole-bean samples. You will need one for each coffee.

Cupping Spoons. Use deep-bowled spoons designed for slurping and cooling samples.

A Cupping Form. Use to record and log your results in a consistent manner.

Whole-Bean Coffee. You will need enough for three cups each–six tablespoons–plus an allowance for misgrinds.

Procedure

Bring fresh water to a rolling boil and let it rest. Place your five-ounce glasses or cups on a table in groups of three, one set for each type of coffee to be cupped. Use one coffee measure–two tablespoons of beans–per cup. Grind each coffee sample to a fine consistency and place it in a cup. A burr grinder achieves the best consistency; however, you can also use a blade grinder. Make certain each sample is ground to the same exact fineness and that the grinder is clean and free of stale coffee oils.

Sniff each coffee sample and log your findings on a cupping evaluation form. Pour water that is just off the boil directly onto the ground coffee. Allow the samples to steep for four minutes. Grab your cupping spoon and gently ‘break the crust,’ allowing the aromatics to escape. Glide the spoon back and forth to stir the grounds. This motion will allow the finer grounds to settle on the bottom and the larger ones to float to the top. Inhale deeply as you stir. Rinse the spoon in clean water and continue gliding the spoon back and forth until all the crusts are broken, sniffing carefully and logging the results. Carefully scoop the floating grounds from each sample and discard. Don’t forget to rinse the spoon between each cup so you don't cross-contaminate the flavors.

Once the brewed samples have cooled slightly, dip your cupping spoon into the first coffee. Slurp the coffee from the spoon with a deep pull. Let the coffee spray over your entire palate, allowing your taste buds to experience and recognize each flavor and nuance. Hold the coffee in your mouth without swallowing and swish it about. Some cuppers like to exhale through their noses while doing this. Finally, purse your lips and spit the coffee into another vessel whose sole purpose is for discarded samples. You can use a large coffee mug that you hold in your hand and bring to your mouth for ease of use, or a spittoon designed specifically for the cupping room that sits on the floor. Aim carefully. (Don’t worry, this takes practice.)

What does the coffee feel like? Is it syrupy, full-bodied, thin or shallow? Is there a tingle or tartness? If so, this is called acidity or brightness. Is the coffee highly acidic like grapefruit juice or is the acidity more subtle like that found in grape juice? Finally, what flavors come to mind? Is the coffee nutty, spicy, peppery, or floral? Record your observations on a cupping form. Taste the coffees several times to fully explore each similarity, difference, and uniqueness. Arrange the coffees from lighter to darker roast, beginning with Latin America, Indonesia and finally, Africa. The different characteristics will become more pronounced as the coffee cools. You’ll want to return to each coffee at least once.

Coffee cupping is an essential developmental tool in understanding and appreciating coffee, and this short article is simply a primer. Remember, proper tools and a consistent approach will get you jump-started. Don’t be overwhelmed with the process–have fun!

For more detailed cupping terminology and descriptions, I recommend Ted Lingle’s Coffee Cuppers Handbook, Tim Castle’s The Great Coffee Book and Ken Davids', Coffee: A Guide to Brewing, Buying and Enjoying. Available from Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup.

Where to get Supplies: Coffee Cupping Kit is available from the Specialty Coffee Association of America (562-624-4100). It’s equipped with 10 Cups, a silver-plated spoon, trays, cupping forms and an instructional booklet. Cost is $60 for non-members, $45 for members. Items are also available individually.

Another source for individual cupping supplies is Espresso Supply (800-782-6671).

Sherri Johns is a 26-year veteran of the specialty coffee industry, began her career as a budding barista in San Francisco in 1976. She was owner/operator/chef at The Blue Note Cafe in SF, 1987 through 1990, which was recognized as serving one of the best cappuccino in North America by Travel & Leisure Magazine. In 1990, Sherri joined Starbucks Coffee, and for five years, she facilitated the opening of 20 Oregon stores and the company’s first drive-thru. For three years, she was sales and marketing manager at Kittridge and Fredrickson Fine Coffees. From 1999 to 2001, she was Director of Operations and Director of Retail Design at Allegro Coffee / Whole Foods Market, where she developed an in-store roaster specialty coffee concept, opened stores, designed and oversaw the build out of the Allegro Retail store and coordinated with regional architects and project managers on brew and bean design sets for Whole Foods Markets. Sherri can be contacted at sjohnswholecup@aol.com.


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