The Art of Cupping
by Mathew Hill

A Connoisseur of Coffee

By Jeanie Senior

Viva Barista!

by Chris Ryan


What's Brewin' — Coffee News Flash


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 that cup?

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 drinking.

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.

POTENTIAL

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 cupping room.

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 vary.)

> 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 with)

> 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
It’s important 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 think so.

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 195 F and 198 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 to steep. 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.

Step 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 tasting and 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

Finally, review 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 results.

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. He’s 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.


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