How does coffee cupping work?

In recent years, the culture surrounding coffee has seen significant growth and increased curiosity among people about all the processes involved in the coffee industry. One of the most popular aspects of this culture is coffee cupping.

More and more people are looking to understand the intricacies of coffee cupping and what is required to learn it. In the coffee cupping, we will determine the following nuances in this order:

  1. Fragrance
  2. Aroma
  3. Flavour
  4. Aftertaste
  5. Acidity
  6. Body
  7. Sweetness

Here’s a guide to learning the art of cupping and discovering the unique characteristics of different coffees.

What is coffee cupping?

Coffee cupping is a method of evaluating the properties and characteristics of coffee through sensory analysis. The sense of smell, taste and sight are crucial in this evaluation process.

This process examines aspects such as the aroma and flavour of coffee, which allows the different properties and characteristics of coffee in its different varieties or preparations to be perceived.

Experts traditionally carry out the coffee cupping in the quality processes of the crops. They analyse different coffee samples to determine which properties stand out best for future crops.

Another way of coffee cupping is through the individual analysis of a specific sample. In this case, the focus is on studying the qualities of a single sample without the need for comparisons with other samples. This method is useful for understanding the quality of a specific sample.

Characteristics to be evaluated

1. Fragrance

Fragrance assessment is an important step in the coffee cupping process. Before adding water, the coffee’s aroma is evaluated when the sample is dry. The sample is brought to the nose, and the beans are smelled to determine and describe the fragrance.

It is important to write down everything that comes to mind when evaluating the fragrance, regardless of whether it sounds strange. This step is repeated with any other sample, evaluating and noting your feelings. It is important not to think too much about what you write down.

2. Aroma

After adding hot water to the samples and breaking the crust to cut the extraction, an aroma evaluation in the coffee cupping process is performed. The aroma is released in the form of vapour and is thus felt to be more intense.

This is done after allowing the samples to stand for 4 minutes. Again, the impressions perceived during this time are noted.

Clean the spoon in water and continue with the other samples to be evaluated, hoping to detect the previously sensed fragrance but in a more intensified way and to detect if there is anything new.

3. Flavour

Taste evaluation in the coffee cupping process involves first cleaning the surface of the coffee of residue and foam before tasting. Two spoons are used to sweep the surface and remove the residue. The spoons are cleaned before continuing with other samples.

Once finished, wait for the coffee to cool slightly before tasting it, as it will be very hot at first and could burn.

8-10 minutes after adding the water, when the coffee is about 70ºC, take a small portion of the surface with a spoon and put it in your mouth. It is sprayed so that the coffee occupies as much of the mouth as possible, especially on the tongue and palate.

4. Aftertaste

The evaluation of aftertaste in the coffee cupping process involves assessing the flavour and aftertaste when the coffee is at high temperatures, as the vapours are at their maximum intensity. After swallowing the coffee, the aftertaste is the flavour that remains in the mouth.

Coffee samples are tasted several times, contrasting each other and in no specific order until the temperature is lowered. It is important to assess whether the aftertaste is intense or light and to note the impressions during the process.

5. Acidity

As the coffee’s temperature decreases, evaluating its acidity is possible. Although it may seem unusual, the perception of acidity is a desirable characteristic in a high-quality coffee, as it signifies the coffee’s liveliness on the taste buds.

This aspect allows us to measure the coffee’s chlorogenic, citric, malic and tartaric acid sensations. If the coffee did not have this characteristic, its taste would be flat and indistinct.

For example, when biting into a green apple, we can describe a positive acidity as “vibrant” or a negative one as “sour”. To detect notes of acidity, it is useful to relate them to fruits. If the coffee resembles an orange or an apple, it has a positive acidity. If, on the other hand, the acidity does not relate to any fruit and is a bitter sensation, it is negative.

6. Body

The body of the coffee, which refers to the textural mouthfeel of the beverage, is an important factor in the evaluation of coffee as it can affect the perception of taste and mouthfeel.

Several factors, such as the type of coffee, the brewing process and the preparation, can influence this. The right body is crucial to achieving a balanced and enjoyable coffee experience.

7. Sweetness

Now, when the coffee is almost at room temperature, let’s think about sweetness. But when we talk about sweetness in coffee, we are not talking about sweetness as if we add sugar to the coffee. It’s not so obvious.

When the temperature drops, it’s easier to distinguish it. For example, this coffee has a pronounced sweetness, like caramel, brown sugar molasses, or maple syrup. It is important to note that sweetness in coffee can be an important factor in evaluating coffee quality and taste perception.

How is coffee cupped?

Gather the equipment: Some indispensable items for coffee cupping are teapots, towels, a timer, cups and spoons, a scale and a grinder. A well-lit and quiet space for coffee cupping is also recommended. On the other hand, the cups should have the same volume and be made of the same material, such as glass or ceramic, so that the ground coffee and water can mix without contamination.

Know the evaluation form: the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) has a standardised format for evaluating coffee cupping. However, it may vary depending on the purpose and reason for the event. This format should be well understood to know which rating is the most appropriate for evaluating each aspect.

Preparing the samples: the preparation varies a little according to the cupping protocol to be developed. To begin with, it is recommended to grind some grains of the sample to be used in the tasting to clean the mill of possible impurities or remains of other grains. Generally, each sample requires grinding 9 grams of beans individually, which should be roasted for 8 to 10 hours before the tasting.

Assessing the samples: an important aspect of the assessment is to smell the freshly ground dry sample and note the sensations perceived (fragrance). To add the water, no more than 15 minutes should have elapsed since grinding the coffee, and it should be around 95 °C. It is recommended to implement 150 millilitres of water for the samples.

After 4 minutes, the crust on the surface of the cup “breaks”, and it is time to analyse the aroma through the vapours. After 10 minutes with the coffee at about 70 ºC, it is time to taste the coffee after removing the foam that forms with the help of two spoons.

Tasting the coffee: The rest is another important aspect, which requires a wait of about 10 minutes to taste the flavour and a little longer for the sweetness.

The taster dips a spoon into a cup of hot, clean water and then dips it into the coffee sample to continue noting the perceived sensations.

As you can see, coffee cupping is a simple process that requires time, care and attention. In addition to the passion of the tasters and the contestants, the correct preparation of the samples before and during the tasting is a fundamental pillar of any coffee tasting.