The Art of Cupping Coffee:
Craft at the Heart of the Coffee Industry
Story and Photos by Mathew Hill
Do you have a favorite coffee memory? One that a particularly
good cup of coffee makes memorable? Are you thankful that the
coffee beans that went into that cup were picked out from all
the other coffee beans in the world, roasted to the perfect color,
and brewed to grace your cup and palate with such sweet flavors
and aromas that they still defy description? Can you still taste
Well, if you have you ever wondered how that memorable cup of
coffee came to be, it’s a certainty that the cupping of
that coffee was an integral part of the story that brought it
to your cup. Cupping is not only fundamental to ensuring quality
and consistency in the final roasted product, but it is also
a valuable methodology in the initial steps of differentiating
specific coffee beans from all other possible beans and determining
the characteristics that each coffee possesses.
I recently spent a weekend at Lux Café, a small café/roastery
in Phoenix, Arizona, working with Jeffrey Fischer, the owner,
and Shaw Sturton, the head roaster, introducing them to the art
of cupping and discussing with them the benefits that go along
with it, as well as how to set up their own cupping room. The
first topic we discussed was why coffees are cupped. What about
cupping coffees makes it integral to the world of coffee enjoyment?
There are seven principal reasons why cupping is an important
function in the coffee industry. The reasons can apply both to
the home coffee roaster and industry roaster alike, and, while
a few of the reasons may seem to overlap, each stands on its
own merits for what it brings to your ultimate enjoyment of coffee
1. Evaluation: Whether you roast coffee on a production level
or for home consumption, you will want to make sure that the
beans you’ll be roasting possess the cup characteristics
you want and are free from defects or taints that will spoil
the cup quality. Roasting a small sample of coffee and cupping
it allows you the opportunity to evaluate the coffee for taints,
defects and cup characteristics before beginning production roasting.
2. Determining Optimal Roast: No two coffees are exactly alike
and thus each coffee has its own distinctive cup character. Consequently,
each coffee will have its own optimum roast level for bringing
out those characteristics. Before roasting a production batch
of coffee to an untested roast level and run the risk of wasting
the coffee, roasting and cupping small samples of the coffee
to multiple roast levels will allow you to find that perfect
roast level without wasting precious green coffee.
3. Buying Coffees: Maybe you are in the market to buy thousands
of pounds of coffee for production roasting; maybe you only want
to buy a few pounds for roasting at home and sharing with friends
and family. Do you really want to buy them before making sure
the coffee possesses the cup characteristics you are looking
for? Cupping allows you the opportunity to check the characteristics
of a coffee for acceptability before closing the transaction.
4. Comparison: Cupping coffees allows you to compare coffees
in a number of ways to demonstrate their differences and similarities.
For example, similar to the reason explained in Determining Optimal
Roast, roasting samples of the same coffee to several different
roast levels can reveal a coffee’s full taste spectrum.
Or, if you want to see how coffees from different areas of the
world compare, cupping coffees from multiple origins side by
side can illustrate their differences and primary cup characteristics.
Coffees of similar origin, but processed using different methods,
can also be cupped side by side to flush out and identify their
differences and cup characteristics.
5. Blending: When developing new blends, cupping allows you to
taste and compare multiple blend possibilities. Setting a table
with the coffees you want to blend, each brought to varying degrees
of roast, allows you to experiment with multiple blend possibilities
without having to sacrifice large amounts of green coffee. Simply
record the coffees and the percentages used in each successful
blend and roast accordingly. This, however, does not answer whether
coffees of similar roast and blend percentage should or should
not be roasted together for a particular blend. Coffees that
have been roasted separately and work wonderfully in a blend
may not perform the same when they are roasted together. The
answer to the question whether to pre-blend or not requires additional
roasting and cupping analyses to determine.
6. Quality Control: This is the key factor that will make or
break you in the coffee industry. Not only do you need to make
sure that the coffee being produced has the sought after cup
characteristic, and is free of taints and defects, but that it
is also consistent cup to cup. Without consistency, your customers
will never know what to expect when they bring cup to lip and
take that first sip. If you are roasting at home for personal
consumption or for friends and family, you will want to make
sure that what you are roasting tastes like it should every time.
7. Education: Cupping coffees is an effective method to increase
your knowledge about coffee, as well as your customers’.
Cupping provides a conducive setting for engaging customers in
discussion about the coffees you offer and, more often than not,
has the effect of not only increasing their own enjoyment of
coffee, but also their customer loyalty to you as their primary
source of coffee enjoyment.
When cupping a coffee, you are not looking to see how a coffee
tastes simply because it is of this or that origin or because
it is a particular grade of coffee, though these are important
considerations. Rather, you should look to see how a coffee can
taste. What spectrum of characteristics is a coffee capable of
bringing to the final cup? Cupping coffee is the best way to
determine all the best that a coffee has to offer before committing
to a production roast.
Back at Lux Café in Phoenix, we spent the first day cupping
coffees and discussing their cup characteristics. Sitting at
a table just off from the main counter, we fascinated and wowed
on-looking customers with our slurping, spitting and lively discussions
of aroma, body, acidity, flavor and finish. More than a few customers
were sincerely interested in cupping coffees at the café once
the cupping room was set up. This illustrates the effective dual
role that cupping can bring: It helps you to provide a consistently
good cup of coffee and allows you to engage peoples’ interest
in learning about coffee.
We spent the second day at Lux discussing and organizing the
In principle, cupping rooms should have the following items:
Eight to twelve glasses of equal volume (a good volume is 5.5
or 6.5 fluid ounces)
> A table (one with a round spinning top is best)
> An electric water kettle (at least 64 ounces)
> Coffee grinder (A burr grinder is best for producing consistent
grind between samples — the recommended grind for cupping
should be just a little coarser than a typical drip-brewing grind.
Once a grind level is determined, stick with it and don’t
> Four to six pint glasses for rinsing your cupping spoon
> Four to six “Cupping Spoons” (a specifically designed
spoon with a symmetrically round bowl)
> Four to six coffee mugs or other suitable container for spitting
into (don’t use the same type of glass you are cupping
> Gram scale (if one is not available, use a standard coffee scoop)
> Pencil and cupping forms (many forms are available on the Internet)
> A water temperature gage
> An electronic timer/stopwatch
THE CUPPING PROCESS
When cupping, it is important to think of the flow of the process.
Have everything lined up in advance and know where things are
so that once the flow starts, you don’t have to go back
and take care of something that wasn’t set up before you
started. So, with that in mind, long before grinding the coffee
and heating the water, be sure you have all your note-taking
and recording materials close at hand. List the coffees you are
going to cup on the evaluation forms and have tags or post-its
ready to identify the coffees. Fill the water kettle, but don’t
turn it on yet. Just have it ready. Turn off the television,
radio, or close the door to block out distracting noises. And,
oh, I know it’s gonna hurt, but, if you can, please turn
off your cell phone.
Ready? Good. Here we go!
Step 1: Dosing the Coffee
Measure out whole-bean
coffee into each glass. The standard weights to water ratios
I have seen
are 8 grams of coffee per 5.5 ounce glass and 12 grams of coffee
per 6.5 ounce glass. Two glasses per coffee sample is standard
but you can add more depending on the number of cuppers. It’s
important to keep track of what coffees are in which cups, so
label and identify the glasses with their specific coffees. Find
a marking system that works for you and use it consistently.
Step 2: Heating the Water
Start the water kettle.
Step 3: Grinding the Coffee
in this step to “purge” the grinder between each
coffee grinding. You do this by taking a small sample of the
coffee you are about
to grind and run it through the grinder into a separate “purge” container
before grinding into the cupping glasses. This is done to “purge” the
grinder of any coffees remaining from the previous grinding and
avoids the danger of cross-contaminating your coffees. You don’t
want your natural processed Brazil Yellow Bourbon mixed with
your wet-processes Ethiopian Yirgacheffe do you? Didn’t
Step 4: Sampling the Aroma
Once grinding is complete
and while the water is heating, sample and record the aromas
of each ground
coffee. This is done by holding the glass in one hand and gently
tapping it against the palm of the other hand. This agitates
the grounds to releases their aroma. Do this for each coffee.
Step 5: Cooling the Water
Once the water has
boiled, wait until the water has cooled to between 195¾ F and
198¾ F before pouring.
If everything is flowing correctly, the water should have boiled
and begun cooling while you are finishing Step 4. It is important
to note that water that is poured just off the boil can actually
singe a coffee and alter its cup character. At sea level, this
typically takes about 4 minutes. Use the thermometer to get an
accurate measure of time it takes in your location. The higher
the altitude, the lower the boiling temperature will be for water,
resulting in a shorter cooling time.
Step 6: Pouring the Water
Pour water into each
glass in order of first coffee ground to the last. Pour slowly
and evenly, making
sure to saturate all the grounds; no dry grounds should be visible.
Don’t fill glasses to the very top as this will result
in a huge mess when you get around to cupping. Leave a little
glass showing below the rim and be sure that each glass is poured
to the same uniform level. In cupping, consistency is king.
Step 7: Steeping the Coffee
Start a timer or stopwatch
just before pouring the first glass. Wait 4 minutes for the coffees
While waiting, pour lukewarm water into the pint glasses and
position them on the table for rinsing cupping spoons. (Lukewarm
water should be used because water that is too hot can actually
heat the spoons to the point that they can burn your lips when
sampling the coffees.) It’s a good practice to keep rinsing
cups between each group of cupping samples.
Step 8: Breaking the Crust
Starting with the
first cup you poured, position your face so your nose is close
to the cup, but not
directly over it. Your nose should be almost level with the glass
so the nostrils are in the best position to inhale the aromas.
Take your cupping spoon and hold it at a slight angle with the
bowl towards your face — you want to dip the spoon into
the grounds that have formed on the top of the glass and gently
stir the coffee with the spoon just below the surface, while
smelling the coffee’s aroma. This is known as “breaking
the crust” and should be done gently to agitate the coffee
in order to better smell the aroma of each coffee. Note and record
each coffee’s aroma. If there is a marked difference between
the aromas of glasses from the same sample, this is also noteworthy
and should be recorded. When “breaking the crust” and
smelling the aromas, you might find better sensory results by
making small inhalations (sniffs) through your nose, rather than
one big long inhalation. Experienced cuppers will also sometimes
be seen smelling their spoon after removing it from the glass.
The intent is to smell the aromas as thoroughly as possible.
Also, be sure to rinse your spoon between each glass, since there
can be differences even in coffees from the same sample. Repeat
this for each sample. If you are cupping with multiple cuppers,
it is best to agree in advance on the position of each cuppers’ cup.
Playground etiquette is as important here as it was in 3rd grade — everybody
should have a turn.
Step 9: Clearing the Grounds
Once all the crusts
have been broken and notes recorded, it’s time to clear
the grounds from the glasses. This is done by taking a rinsed
cupping spoon and
skimming the remaining grounds from the top of each glass. Experienced
cuppers typically use a two-spooned method for clearing the grounds.
To do this, start at the back of the glass with the spoons together
and then pull/drag them forward with the outer edge of each spoon
following the rim of the glass and meeting again at the front
of the glass. The collection is then dumped into an empty spitting
cup or spittoon. This two-spooned method takes practice. Initially,
use one spoon and try to keep the spoon as shallow as possible
in the glass to remove only the grounds from the top surface
level, trying not to take too much of the coffee in the glass.
10: Slurping the Coffee
Take a small spoonful and slurp
it into your mouth. It can be helpful to start inhaling (slurping)
just before the coffee makes contact with your mouth. Also, it
might help to tilt the spoon slightly when slurping. Initially,
don’t try to slurp aggressively. It’s not a contest
and slurping harder won’t change the coffee. The intent
is to spray the inside of your mouth and coat your tongue with
coffee. Slurping functions to aerate the coffee, which results
in a better sense of its aromatic properties. If you have the
image of wine drinkers carefully slurping wine, then you have
the right idea. Once you’ve gotten some practice, your
slurping will improve and you will be making the fast, high-pitched
slurping sound that is the hallmark of truly refined and experienced
cuppers. The age-old axiom holds true here: Practice makes perfect.
Step 11: Evaluating the Coffee
Roll the coffee
around in your mouth for a few seconds. Chew it. Try to be aware
of how it feels
in your mouth. Take small additional slurps of air through your
teeth to re-aerate the coffee, but only a few times. If you do
this too many times, you will overemphasize the aromatics, which
will impair your ability to sense the coffee’s flavor and
other characteristics. Record what you sense. You are looking
to evaluate the coffee’s body, acidity and flavor.
Step 12: Spitting the Coffee
Spit each sample
into your empty spitting cup/spittoon. Don’t be shy and
timid. A good forceful spitting has more effect than one less
forceful. It might not
be a bad idea to have a napkin or towel handy to help clean up
any spitting mishaps. Once you’ve cupped a few times, especially
with others, you’ll be so comfortable with spitting you’ll
be hard-pressed to remember a time when spitting wasn’t
as normal as…slurping.
Step 13: Evaluating the Finish
Take a moment after you
have spit the coffee out and make note of what you are still
sensing from that coffee. This is called the Finish or Aftertaste.
Sometimes the Finish/Aftertaste will continue to change for a
minute or even longer. This is called the Long Finish and should
also be noted.
Step 14: Sampling the Table
Move on to the other
glasses, sampling each in turn. Did you remember to rinse your
spoon between each
coffee? If so, good job. If not, remember to rinse. Once you’ve
completed one full circuit and have made initial notes on each
coffee, start going back and forth among the coffees on the table.
You not only want to take the time to get a clear sense of how
each coffee tastes, but also how they taste in relation to the
other coffees on the table. Also try to be aware of any differences
present in the cups of the same coffee sample. It only takes
one bad bean to make a coffee bad and that bean can only be in
one glass at a time.
Step 15: Finalize the Sampling
Once all the coffees
have cooled to room temperature, go through them one last time
and note how
they taste at room temperature. Are they sweeter? Do you notice
something now that you didn’t when the coffee was warm?
A coffee’s flavor and cup character is dynamic and will
typically change noticeably as a cup cools. Just because the
coffee is cold doesn’t mean that there isn’t some
characteristic that has yet to be sensed and noted. Give each
coffee every opportunity to communicate what it has to offer.
Step 16: Reviewing the Notes
your notes. If you are cupping alone, this is time for you and
your coffees. What
did they tell you? If you are cupping in a group setting, share
your notes with the other cuppers and see what others had to
say. A sample of each coffee is often set aside and not cupped
for situations when there is a question about that coffee. If
there is a discrepancy or a question about a coffee’s cup
character, there’s no harm in cupping again.
Like most things in life, it’s important to find a comfortable
pattern that fits your style and works for you. The same is true
for cupping. Once you have an idea of what that pattern is and
you’re able to get consistent and reliable results from
it, make that your regular cupping practice. Consistency is the
cornerstone to cupping. If you’re not consistent in every
controllable variable (water source, pouring temperature, grind
level), then you will never be able to rely 100 percent on your
By following these steps and making the cupping process your
own, you will be able to produce roasts of the highest quality
that will amaze your friends and family, and keep your customers
coming back for more.
Mathew Hill has been in the coffee industry since 2002.
sample roasted and ran the cupping table in the Moraga, CA,
office of InterAmerican Coffee. He was Production Manager and
Head Roaster for The Roasterie in Kansas City, MO. Currently,
Mathew works for Kenneth Davids of Coffee
Review where he sample roasts, cups, sources coffees and assists with
blend development. He also roasts for Zocalo Coffee House in
San Leandro, CA.