What Is Coffee Cupping?

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You might have heard about coffee cupping, but might be a little confused as to what it is, exactly. Hmmmmmm….

This confusion is warranted, because coffee cupping isn’t something that your average coffee drinker is really going to need to know about, or come across, as they hit the drive thru to grab a quick cup of joe.

The people that need to know about coffee cupping are the people who decide what coffee they will be serving to you at the café or restaurant.

Although a truly great café most likely has experience with cupping, in fact, it must be said that most places that serve you coffee out there in the wide world do not go through the rigorous process that is coffee cupping.  Hark, what’s that you say??

Yes, it’s true.  Your favourite café or java joint may not even do cupping at all.

Hence, these coffee houses, or cafés, greasy spoons, or whatever you deem to call them, may end up with a lesser product precisely because those in charge of choosing the coffees being purveyed didn’t bother to perform any cupping rituals prior to selecting their products.

And so, your average coffee drinker knows naught of coffee cupping, because they are at the end of a long chain of events, whereas coffee cupping is somewhere closer to the beginning of this chain.


What Is Coffee Cupping?

coffee tasting

Basically, coffee cupping is a process where coffee experts decide on which type of coffee they will be choosing to sell at their establishment, by smelling and tasting various types of coffees in a controlled environment where every variable is the same except the coffee itself.

The variables which must be held constant include, but perhaps are not limited to: the roasting process, the grinding process, the serving process, such as how the coffee is served and in what vessel it henceforth is brought, and the spoon that comes into contact with the coffee itself. 

Indeed, the more variables that are held constant, the better the cupping campaign will be for those seeking to decide on what coffees they will choose.

private cupping

What these coffee tasters choose, and then buy, in terms of coffee, is based on their preferences towards aroma and flavour, and what they feel their customers will enjoy the most. 

Basically, cupping is an important process that helps coffee merchants to decide what to sell to their patrons, and it has been around for over a century.

In practice, coffee cupping resembles more of a science experiment than what you might normally associate with drinking a cup of coffee like a regular person.  🙂

Indeed, charts are often used to score and keep track of certain specific aspects of the coffee being cupped or shall we say tested. 

It can be a very involved process, actually!

Watch this video to gain an understanding of what coffee cupping involves, featuring Kean Coffee Artisan Roasters.

As you can see from the video, cupping is a very meaningful, practical, and even spiritual process.


Who Cups?

It is necessary for various people in the coffee industry to experience, so that they may better serve the customer, ie. you, the coffee drinker.

Those who need to ideally experience coffee cupping include the business owners who visit various coffee farms or plantations, and who need to know what they’re buying.

76-coffee-cupping-add-water

As well, those who are roasting the coffee should also be part of the cupping experience, not to mention the baristas, who are generally the ones talking to customers about coffee. 

So, in order to explain to customers the language of coffee, in terms of smells and tastes, who better than baristas to take part in this process?

There are also plenty of coffee drinkers who take part in events where cupping is the main event.

Check out this event in the following video, which features coffee cupping and education for those interested in experiencing a more involved side to coffee tasting.

If you didn’t watch this whole video, that’s ok…it’s rather long.  But it does have some good coffee cupping takeaways to consider….


One False Move…

For instance, at one point, Bola Omodara (the guy from the video) is talking about how the coffee making process is long and anyone who makes an error along the way, even a minor one, can basically botch the whole thing, leading to a bad cup of coffee.  Eeesh!

For instance, you may start with a promising bean, selected by the person in charge because of its many virtues, but by the time the coffee is brewed and served, it’s ruined for one reason or another.

Maybe it roasted too long, maybe the barista was on their phone and not paying attention.  Criminy!

worst barista ever

Yes, folks cupping helps to ensure that at least the coffee promises to be good in the first place.  Imagine all of these coffee chains that basically don’t even taste their own product!  Scandalous!


Can Coffee Cupping Be Done Wrong?

Yeah, it can.  Of course.  At the same time, no, it can’t.

Even though coffee cupping is a science, it is an art form as well, which means no matter how snobby someone is about their coffee cupping technique, there will always be variation in the process, which is what makes it fun for people. 

That said, those who cup are generally considered (or consider themselves) coffee experts, and it is at this point where they seek to teach others who are less in-the-know the ways of the wild coffee bean.  

The key word here is “wild”, in that coffee, grown in wild jungles under certain tropical conditions, is like anything else in the culinary realm, which is to say that it should be handled humbly and with reverence, not with highfalutin airs as some sort of omnipotent expert to lord your mighty knowledge over others.  

This is, of course, why coffee snobbery exists. We may think we know things, moreso than others, and we often let them know it. Your more practiced cupping expert may indeed argue that there is such as thing as an objectively bad cup of coffee, just like a chef can burn a steak to a crisp.  

Snobby though this view may be, it is also true, and some coffee snobs are proud to be labelled as such because who wants to stand behind a bad cup of coffee?

Art Vs. Science / Chaos Vs. Standard Practices

Regardless, the coffee tasting experience is different for everyone, and even in a more refined practice such as coffee cupping, human error and wildly unorthodox creativity does exist.

So even if coffee cupping has a strict set of rules to the pros, which it does in the sense that consistency in the variables surrounding coffee cupping is essential, and should, to some degree, be followed, less experienced cuppers can change the script in a myriad of different ways that will either ruin everything, or yield some curious results.  

what is coffee cupping?

Coffee cupping definitely has an association with the people who do it being more or less coffee experts. 

And for good reason, most would say, with the reason being that cupping can almost be considered a science and it is often best to keep those who want to simply disregard physics entirely away from the coffee-cupping process.

It is true that in order to do coffee cupping more or less effectively, if not “correctly” so to speak, you need to know what you’re doing, and why.  You can’t just willy nilly pour coffee into cups and have people drink it and call it coffee cupping.

As we mentioned before, it is like a science, with tried and true techniques to go along with it, and it has noble intentions, just like science, which includes getting the best possible cup of coffee in the end.

Or maybe “best” isn’t the ideal word here.  The results that coffee experts seek are still, and will always be somewhat mysterious – not necessarily predictable and straightforward. 

That said, quality control is a major goal of coffee cupping and essentially what it is done in the first place, not simply to “taste the rainbow”.

Watch this video to gain a further understanding of the art of coffee cupping.  This video touches both in good technique and philosophy.

Phases of Cupping – Dry Aroma

One key takeaway from this video above is the idea of the “dry aroma”, which some people wouldn’t assume would be that important, or might skip entirely.

Once the coffee is ground up, it is put into the serving cups dry, and, at that stage, the aroma of the ground beans must be experienced, before water is even added.

As he explains in the video, you can get your nose right in the cup, and without sniffing coffee up your nose, smell the aroma and try to detect the various smells and potential flavor characteristics that a fully brewed cup might offer.

cupping dry aroma

One thing that we love about coffee cupping is how “in the moment” it is. 

Everything that you experience when it comes to coffee cupping is all about that fleeting moment, where the dry coffee grinds or brewed coffee offers you, and which you must then interpret.


From Bean To Cup

Each batch of coffee beans that is obtained by a coffee purveyor will have a distinctly different flavour and smell that changes based on where it’s from and the conditions surrounding its growth.

chiapas mexico coffee farm

Before the beans are even harvested, it’s worth noting that everything can be a factor in how they will taste later.  The soil, the weather, the sun, the rain, the animals and bugs in the vicinity, the way the farmers harvest the beans…it all makes a difference in the end.

coffee cupping

If you are an experienced cupper, you will know, or can at least surmise, where exactly a coffee is from just by smelling the dry grounds.  A little taste here and there, and details become clearer to the sleuthing tongue of a pro taster.


Coffee Cupping Supplies

If you are the person in charge of setting up the coffee cupping environs for others, there are a few things you might need, and these include:

  • 6 – 10 cups or small bowls or cups that are approximately 6 ounces each
  • Cupping spoons
  • Timer
  • Beans
  • Grinder – Burr grinder is recommended
  • Scale

Here’s a great video that shows some of the supplies needed and how you may wish to set them up around a table that is useful to watch.


What is a Coffee Cupping Spoon?

The spoon you choose for cupping will perform a few duties.

It’ll be used to break the crust on the cups, scoop out the wet grounds after brewing, and for slurping the coffee when it’s ready to be tasted.

It should be quite deep like a good soup spoon. coffee cupping spoon


How to Perform a Coffee Cupping

First, you’ll need to measure out 2 tablespoons of freshly roasted grind into each cup. You can use the scale to ensure that you have the same amount in each cup.

Swirl the grind around in the bottom of the cup before placing your nose in there to really inhale to get the aroma.

Make note of whether the grind smells fresh, stale, under-roasted or over-roasted. The smell could be spicy, nutty, sweet, or malty, too. Actual note-taking is encouraged.

A kettle of water should be brought to just below boiling. Start the timer and pour water into each cup until it’s at the very top of the rim.

Once all the cups are filled, you’ll wait two minutes and place your nose close to the crust and inhale deeply. Note the differences between the dry and wet grounds.

coffee cupping how to

Once the timer hits 4 minutes, you’re going to use the cupping spoon to break the crust on the first cup. You’ll want to place your nose directly over the cup as you break the crust.

Circulate the spoon three times to push down on the wet grounds. You’ll want to note how the aroma has changed between the dry and your first smell of the wet grind.

Between every dip of the spoon from one cup to the next, it’s vital that you’re rinsing the spoon. You want each cup to stay pristine and separate from the next.

It’s important to wait 15 minutes before tasting the coffee. The timer should still be running as you remove the grounds from the tops of the cups. Use the cupping spoon to skim the used grounds out of the coffee.


Identifying Flavors

Use the spoon to scoop out a bit of coffee from the first cup and take a sip. Swirl the coffee in your mouth and consider whether it tastes sour, acidic, fresh, tart, or delicate.

identifying coffee flavours

You’re looking for 4 things when you’re tasting the coffee.

Acidity/Liveliness -Not all acidity in coffee is a bad thing. Some coffees without it can be boring and flat. Consider the words that would describe the acidity. Is it mild? Neutral? Soft?

Body – The body is how full and rich the coffee is in your mouth.

Flavor/Depth – Flavor is the tastes it has. There could be flavors like caramel, chocolate, honey, or fruits.

Finish – The finish or aftertaste is how it develops on the tongue after being swallowed or spit. Not every cupper will swallow the coffee, especially professionals who will taste coffees all day.

You can have your own coffee cupping parties and invite friends over, or you can do a tasting yourself as you try to find the best coffee beans for your morning coffee experience.

It’s important that you keep notes of what you like and dislike about each bean, so you’ll have a detailed record of the coffees you’ve tried.

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