How to Cup Coffee

Can you imagine trying to prepare a range of twenty to thirty varieties of coffees for a taste test? Regardless of the arsenal of equipment you’ve got, nothing is going to produce the same results quickly without affecting the taste results in some way.

This is why the process of cupping is so important:

  • To ensure uniform treatment of all coffee samples
  • Efficiency in tasting coffees
  • To not interfere in the procedure of prepping coffee

By brewing with the cupping technique you’re taken away from the footwork of brewing techniques to focusing intensely on the aromas and flavors in the cup. You are granted a new window into the world of coffee tasting.

Additionally, the Specialty Coffee Association has some seriously stringent guidelines on what makes a proper coffee maker, and this way you’ll be able to bypass that altogether and focus on judging coffees accordingly.

Many people interested in the world of coffee used cupping to reach from novice stature to full blown expert tasters.

Although you don’t have to be obsessive to enjoy cupping coffees, it is a good idea to strive for maximum consistency in the set-up. This way you can really make sure of doing everything possible to compare the various kinds of coffee to each other.

What you’ll need to cup coffee

  • Start with eight ceramic cups or glasses of equal volume: ideally, you want cups that are between 5 and 7 ounces in volume. Whiskey glasses are a good reference for the particular volume you want, and if you have some on hand would even make up a good lot for testing. Glass is particularly helpful here, not because it is especially conducive to heat, but because it allows light to refract through the coffee and showcase the true color of the brew.
  • Have a water kettle or an electric water heater on hand. The minimum capacity of the kettle should be 64 ounces, but do realize that heating the water will aid evaporation over time so prepping extra water is pertinent.
  • The obvious grinder preference here is a burr grinder because consistency in the grind between samples is very important. You’re going to be sticking with a specific grind size for your samples so keep that in mind. Check out our review of effective hand grinders, often called burr mills. If you don’t have a grinder then perhaps you’ll need to come up with some ingenuous grinding ideas on the spot.
  • Two pint glasses will be used for rinse water, for washing your cupping spoons while you cup. Glass again is preferred so it’s easy to know when to refresh your water.
  • Four spoons are needed. Now, there are specifically designed spoons for this, but a tablespoon style measuring spoon can also work well. European-style “deep bowl” tablespoons. Let’s just say, that the more concave the bowl is, the better.
  • A digital scale for measuring precise volumes of coffee. In this case you need to have a scale that weigh in grams. Though it is less accurate, a measuring scoop will also do.
  • Cupping forms: For our purposes these might not be entirely necessary. However, forms will help you evaluate the coffee in a more complete and concise way. Just like the pros would. Regardless, some kind of note taking is going to be important for you to remember what attributes of what coffee you liked most. If you want to get really accurate check out the Specialty Coffee Associations cupping forms.
  • Trust us, you won’t want to skimp. Have a few extra spoons hanging around.

Now clear your mind and begin to organize. Cupping coffee can often incite a bit of a mess so it’s important to take proper precautions. Last but not least, a spittoon. Or you could grab an extra a coffee mug if you’re not so picky.

What Coffee Is Best For Cupping

Consider this, professional cuppers (yes, wizards do exist) typically want to evaluate four or more different coffees from the same region, elevation or farm plot to see how they compare and contrast. Finding the best samples from a specific place will allow them hone in on what makes these various characteristics special. Remember, coffee is a crop, and as such can change season to season, year to year, even bag to bag.

Many of the pros will test four, eight, twelve or more coffees in a session. This is an impressive feat if you consider just how intense a good coffee can be on the palette. Of course, that’s where the spittoons come in.

Coffee cupping, or coffee tasting, is the practice of observing the tastes and aromas of brewed coffee. It is a professional practice but for our purposely we’re starting as amateurs. Although I’d prefer to call them wizards, the professionals are actually known as “Q Graders”.

Q Graders will often suggest that a similar kind of roast should used for all of the coffees evaluated, but typically a lighter roast is used so that defects in the beans can be taken note of after the visual samples are revealed. This is some seriously technical stuff!

Prepping Your Coffee Samples

how to cup coffeeRun the first coffee through the grinder and discard. Be sure to remove any stray grounds from the last coffee you used, since we want to taste only the flavor of each coffee. Make sure to use a medium-coarse grind setting if possible. You may not have to be exact but you will want all the beans to be uniform.  Put the grounds in the first cup and make sure to have a labeling system of some kind.

Typically it’s recommend to write a code on a piece of paper and hide the label under the cup or face-down. This allows for a blind taste test.

Grind beans for the remainder of your testing cups and label. After you’re finished with that it’s a good idea to grab something to take notes with and perform an olfactory test. This means smelling the dry grounds.
Open your mouth when performing this test. That will deliver more aromas to your palate.

Take notes on the quality of each grind, for uniformity, as well as the general color.

Coffee Cupping Table Preparation

In a coffee cupping session, each table is usually set up with 6 to 10 cups per coffee. These are fashioned in a triangular manner. At the top of this triangle you should place a sample of the roasted coffee and a sample of the green (meaning unroasted) coffee, if you have them available.

Now, start a timer and add your prepared hot water. Temperature can vary for whatever coffee you are testing and preparing, but just below the boil is a good indicator of proper extraction temperature.

Make sure each cup is at the same level, and the grounds have been mixed properly in each cup. Having ample water on hand can be a bit tricky, consider using a coffee urn or a large insulated carafe to keep a good amount of water hot available.

Next you’ll want to grab a spare cup and fill it with hot water, then place the tasting spoons inside while we wait for the next four minutes.

In the center of the table place a cup of room temperature water and an empty cup containing the cupping spoons. Both the green and roasted sample will remain covered until the cupping session is over and the coffee aroma, fragrance, and flavor profile have been documented.

After this time, the coffee samples could be uncovered and additional comments can be written based on appearance. This method will help reduce the common “eye cupping” technique. For example, if you were tasting wine, a lot of the information you’d gather would be from appearance, and this should be avoided in order to truly hone in your sense of taste.

As previous stated, some coffee experts will want to note any defects in the bean so that a better understanding of what went into their taste is achieved. That’s where the visual reveal comes in.

Coffee Cupping Preparation

One often overlooked aspect of sampling a variety of coffee is that the grinds need to be done separately for each cup. Don’t let this detail go noticed, although we might be eliciting snores from the audience, there’s a very good reason for this practice.

Since, different ratios of coffee to water can change the taste, the grinder should be cleaned between grinds, not only to prevent cross contamination, but to ensure that each sample cup is as close to scale as possible.

Coffee is rich in oil and the grinder can sometimes get extra buildup of grinds and dust.

To prepare your coffee samples, place your predetermined weight of freshly ground coffee into your glasses or cups. Different experts will report varying weight of coffee grounds for cupping but a common practice would ideally be 55 grams of coffee per one liter of water. The grind should be between a French press size and a drip coffee size.

Make sure to work fast, coffee grinds are said to stale after thirty seconds to a minute, so this could take some practice.

Now you’ll want to have some water ready, pouring should also be attempted quickly and carefully.

Pouring methodically will make for a successful cupping session. Meaning the grounds are being covered soon after the grind and all the coffee grounds are saturated equally. When filling you can move or angle the cup or pitcher (depending on what you’re using) to ensure that coffee doesn’t go uncovered and nothing rises to the top.

We’ve reviewed the pros and cons of an insulated coffee carafe here, check it out to determine if this would be a good addition to your cupping sessions.

Remember to use the appropriate amount of water per sample. This can be easily determined before hand with a dry run. Measure your water and pour it into one of your cupping glasses that contain the ground coffee. Note the level visually, about how full is your sample glass or cup.

When you’re doing the real pouring for the real cupping, just pour to the same level.

During the actual cupping session, you may find that having many arms, or an assistant, is helpful. Once the water starts pouring, a timer should be set. The wizards of cupping sessions say to wait four minutes but slightly less is acceptable. A visual pass on your table should reveal that the coffee grounds are starting to settle. Now this is the time to start evaluating the coffee.

Now it’s time to command your participants to get up close with the cups. It’s time take notes on the aromas and color profile, as well as break the crust.  After about four minutes of interaction between the coffee and water, we tend to notice (some coffees act different than others) a thick crust of grounds will form at the head of the cup.

Probably one of the most enjoyable and important aspects of the cupping session experience is to take your cupping spoon and puncture this upper layer while the aromatics waft up. Instruct your cuppers to make notes on these smells and describe them in great detail. The action can be done repeatedly, breaking up the top layer and taking in the complexities of the brew.

The reason this step is crucial to the process as to start the settling of the grinds to the bottom of the cup for proper drinking.

Next we take two cupping spoons, arranging them towards the back of the cup. Using a fluid motion, push them forward towards the front edge of the cup, then scoop upward to remove the remaining grounds that plague the samples.  Obviously you’ll want to perfect this technique to get the most grounds out while preserving the most liquid.

Now it’s time to get ready to taste!

Coffee Tasting Techniques

Begin with your tasting spoon and proceed a spoonful at a time. Slurping, which can be quite loud with a room full of tasters, is the technique to apply here. This is done by taking the sample into your mouth while inhaling gently. Each liquid sample should coat the entire mouth but mostly should focus on the tongue.

Although you may recall the tongue map from elementary school, which shows different areas of the tongue being responsible for different flavors, this is actually a common misconception.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the tasting with all the preparation and pressure involved but do remember that inhaling allows aromatic elements to exert their full effect.

Rinse your tasting utensils in between each sample, and proceed to enjoying the different samples while taking notes on flavor profile and aromas. Maybe it sounds a bit scrutinous, however noting the flavors as the samples cool can be a great way to hone in on different characteristics of the beans.

Creating Tasting Notes

If you haven’t had time to print off a template for making notes, and perhaps you’re just jotting things down while performing the cupping session, then it’s best to just focus on several tasting factors.

  • Acidity: Most coffee has an acid like taste, whether it be highly pronounced or more nuanced is what you’ll want to evaluate. Fruity and floral flavors come through with greater acidity. Because many find the general appearance of acidity in their palette unappealing this is by and large the most scrutinized characteristic of the coffee. It is important to let samples cool because the appearance of acidity is best evaluated once the coffee has cooled.
  • Body: This is a tricky category for beginners but is easily defined as the mouth-feel of the coffee, which equates to how thick or viscous the coffee is. When slurping coffee properly this trait becomes easy to define.
  • Sweetness: One might not think of sweetness when dealing with coffee but some of the best coffees in the world display this characteristic. While acidic coffees aren’t thought of as being sweet, it’s actually the combination of acidity and sweetness that lends to the complex profiles of sought after beans. Sweetness is critical to allowing the other tastes to flourish and be appreciated.
  • Finish: The last impression of your drink has a huge impact on how you’re left evaluating the coffee. The aftertaste can be harsh or one that keeps you coming back for more. The idea of a bad lingering taste long after the coffee has been swallowed is obviously not going to be well received. A great finish will affirm your enjoyment of the coffee.

Now that you’ve become acquainted with the cupping session and how to perform it, it’s best to go out and find some rosters that are holding sessions of their own and pickup on the subtle or not so subtle practices of these fine coffee enthusiasts. With some practice you could be holding your own cupping sessions with friends or families, for entertainment or business.

As always you can check out our gear and see what would improve your own coffee cupping session, as well.

Brian Mounts

Head blogger, editor, and owner of "Top Off My Coffee", a website that has been educating readers about coffee brewing techniques and equipment since 2012.

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