Coffee Knowledge Base

15 February 2024

Coffee cupping: what is it and how does it work?

Coffee cupping: what is it and how does it work?

1. What is Cupping?

Cupping or tasting coffee is a priority for the coffee roaster. You can see it as an art form or as science. One thing is certain: it is the ‘core’ of the coffee roasters’ work and an absolutely vital task in the purchasing decision process. In addition to that, it brings new insights into play. Cupping allows the coffee roaster to assess and select the coffee, and reveals a fascinating world. The coffee roaster not only tastes new coffees, but also uses cupping to guarantee the quality of familiar beans too.

Coffee cupping is close to wine tasting, even including the slurping (sipping while drawing in some air) and spitting it out, etc. Of course, cupping requires some practice and experience, but it enables the coffee roaster to give every bean a quality guarantee. Good coffee roasters are always proud that they cup every coffee type before purchasing it.

Coffee cupping

A sample roast is the first step in cupping coffee: this involves taking a 100-gram sample of the coffee and testing it. After roasting the beans in the sample roaster, they go into a pot without a label – but with a number – to ensure the cupping can be carried out objectively and blind. The coffee tastings are always held in the morning, and of course not just after brushing your teeth nor while wearing Chanel No. 5! Cupping is also always done in clear light so that the colour of the coffee is clearly visible. All factors that might hamper the smelling or tasting of coffee are excluded as much as possible. There is no talking during cupping. The silence helps the cupper to focus and to detect the maximum number of properties in the coffee. Cuppers give full attention to the cup and nothing else and important ones always adhere to the same repetitive actions to ensure that each coffee is subjected to a uniform tasting method.

Cupping is something you have to practice a lot and must learn to do properly. If you want to know more about how cupping is done, make sure to read our blog about it.

2. How Do You Cup?

Cupping is something you have to practice a lot and must learn to do properly. At first, it is difficult to place certain aromas into specific categories. But the aroma palette of coffee is something you can learn, and there are useful tools to help you with this, like 'Le Nez du Café' by Jean Lenoir, an aroma kit with 36 aromas that can be detected in coffee. It helps the coffee roaster achieve a correct coffee analysis. Defining the flavour of a coffee is a completely different story. A lot of practice is required here: tasting, exchanging experiences and comparing. Cupping many times enables the coffee roaster to recognize the different flavours. A coffee taster’s flavour wheel is another useful tool, it helps to give a technical description of a coffee’s flavour. We will explain the different steps underneath.

Looking

First and foremost, we look at the roast of the coffee. This can vary from a light roast to a darker colour.

Coffee cupping looking

Smelling

To properly perceive the coffee aroma, the coffee roaster sniffs the coffee twice (11 g). Feel free to take sniffing literally here.

Coffee cupping smelling

Add Water and Break the Coffee Crust

The coffee roaster pours 200 ml of hot water on the ground coffee. A coffee crust forms, and after two minutes we check the aroma of it again. After another two minutes, we break the coffee crust with a cupping spoon. By ‘breaking the crust’ we mean pushing away the coffee grounds that are floating on the surface. You do that by pushing the crust away with the back of the cupping spoon, starting at the front and pushing to the back of the cup.

Coffee cupping adding water

A cupping spoon is always silver-plated because silver lowers the temperature quickly. Tasting coffee that is too hot actually has a negative effect on tasting because the taste buds react as if they were numbed. After breaking the crust, you can smell the coffee again. The variation in aroma here is dependent on the variety and its origin. The intensity of the aroma is related to the time between roasting and cupping. The shorter the time after roasting, the more intense it is. After breaking the crust, the coffee roaster pushes aside the grounds on the surface of the coffee, so that he or she will not swallow any when cupping.

Coffee cupping breaking the crust

Coffee Cuppings at Different Temperatures

The actual cupping is done at three different temperatures: 71 °C, 57 °C and 37 °C. Each of these allows us to sense different characteristics and reveals a little more of the coffee’s profile. By letting the coffee cool and tasting it at different temperatures, the coffee roaster can ascertain the quality of the coffee and form an overall picture of its profile. A superior coffee retains its palette and remains stable until it has cooled. During tasting, the taster assesses the coffee according to different properties that are revealed at the different temperature phases.

Coffee cupping different temperatures

71 °C

Flavour: A combination of flavours (sour, bitter and sweet) and how well they combine with the aroma. The tongue and palate are coated as much as possible with coffee in order to achieve the optimal experience. Finish: The finish or aftertaste that a coffee leaves in the mouth after drinking. How long do the positive aromas remain in the mouth?

57 °C

Acidity: The liveliness or sparkle in the coffee. Positive acidity is described as sparkling, lively and fresh. Negative acidity is described as sour. Acidity should not be dominant or excessive, to the extent that it becomes unpleasant.

 

Body: This has nothing to do with the flavour; it is the mouthfeel. You can also describe the body as the syrupy effect or the thickness that you feel on the palate. Consider the difference in mouthfeel between water and full cream milk. Sumatran and Indian coffees are typically heavy-body types. Mexican coffees are good examples of light-bodied ones.

Balance: As the word suggests, this term refers to the balance or equilibrium of the coffee. Here the cupper evaluates how well flavour, aftertaste, acidity and body are in balance with the others.

37 °C

Uniformity: Every coffee is at least triple cupped – yes, it is not only double-checked but actually checked three times. This averts the chance of a coffee being downgraded based on a coincidentally bad cup caused by one poor-quality bean. In such a case, we can then decide that the uniformity is only one in three. When all three cups are identical, we refer to it as a uniform coffee.

Clean cup: The purity, correctness and clarity of the coffee.

Sweetness: The sweetness of the coffee’s flavour. The flavour quality links directly to the ripeness of the picked berry. The actual tasting is done by slurping a little coffee from the cupping spoon. Slurping (sipping while sucking in some air) adds oxygen to the coffee, which immediately spreads over the tongue. This way, all your taste buds can sense sweet, salty, sour and bitter flavours in one go. You keep the coffee in your mouth for three seconds and then either spit it out or not. Even slurping the coffee requires some practice, because we are all educated to not do that at the table. But if you are going to cup coffees, from now on you are allowed to do it again!

The Aftertaste

This is the residual flavour after you swallow the coffee. It completes your picture of the coffee you are tasting.

Coffee cupping

3. What is a Q-Grader?

The Q Grader program was started by the Coffee Quality Institute in 2004. Its goal was to create a globally uniform method for assessing coffees. You might say, it was set up to ensure that cuppers worldwide all speak the same language. The cupper cups/tastes the coffees and assesses them by awarding points for each category, we call this the cupping score. The sum of these points then gives an overall score for the coffee out of 100.

Coffee with 80 points or more, we classify as a specialty coffee from a technical point of view. This system ensures that cupping and assessing coffee are carried out objectively. The Q Grader program comprises a six-day training course focused on olfactory (relating to the sense of smell) and sensory training. Then the student must complete twenty tests and pass them all to acquire the certificate. He or she must renew the certificate every three years.

Coffee cupping