If you're beginning your journey into specialty coffee, with each new cup, you might be find yourself thinking, "I keep reading all these tasting notes on the bag, but these all just taste like coffee". We promise, those tasting notes are real and sometimes, when you first get started, it take a little comparison to make it apparent. When you taste three different cups of coffee side-by-side as you would in a cupping session, we guarantee, this is where the narrative begins to change and your cups begin to come alive.
So, what is cupping?
Cupping is a simple brew method used within the coffee industry to taste and assess multiple coffee samples side-by-side. Depending on the score that is given by this evaluation, the industry decides which coffees are considered specialty or not. This evaluation method is also used in many of the steps in the coffee production chain.
Want to get started and learn how? Here’s how to do it.
Whether you’re in the camp of knowing which coffee you prefer, you're adventurous and love trying something different, or if you’re just interested in developing your sense of taste (or all three!), we recommend playing with your sample selection and think about comparing coffees from the same region, trying out different processes, varieties, or even take altitude into consideration when choosing your beans.
So what equipment will you need?
- Kettle – any kind will work
- Water between 93 to 95C (200-203F); use the same that you used to brew coffee at home
- Coffee grinder
- Scale, we are going to use a ratio of 1:17; 12 grams of coffee: ~200 grams of water (2 tbsp per 7 oz)
- Spoons, at least three, it can be a cupping spoon or any kind of soup or dessert spoon.
- Small vessel, one per sample, it could be any kind of bowl, cup or mug that you have at home, preferably of the same or similar size and with a capacity between 210 to 250ml
- A couple extra cups with hot water – for spoon rinse water
- Different coffee samples, have at least two – but no more than five or six as you don’t want to overwhelm yourself!
Check out this graphic that’ll help you get going on your cupping journey and keep everything in order, and watch the video below for the full method. Learn to cup along with Rogue Wave barista Lissette Vega, she’ll lead you through everything you need to know.
Want your own cupping starter kit?
We got you, click here to see what we've put together.
Now let’s get going on assessing
Things to consider while tasting
We usually consider 5 elements while we taste and evaluate coffee: aroma, acidity, sweetness, body, and aftertaste.
To assess aroma, there are two key moments to smell the strongest aroma your coffee will produce: the first, when you grind the coffee and add it to your bowl (this is dry aroma or fragrance), and the second will be when you pour water into the bowl (wet aroma). These are the first instances you will have to notice the difference in coffees within your cups.
As you begin to taste your coffees, try to assess whether it is acidity or sweetness that is brought to the forefront of your first slurp. Acidity in coffee can be a great thing, and in the world of coffee, it creates the pleasant characteristics of a bright, clean, or crisp cup, and this makes for a nice contrast to sweetness, just like it would in a glass of lemonade.
On the other hand, the sweetness you taste in your coffee comes from the sugar content of the fruit – this characteristic changes throughout the process depending on the processing method, and caramelization through roasting will also affect the sweetness of the end product. Because each coffee is unique in its processing and roasting, this is how a large spectrum of varying sweetness can become present – for example, your coffee may have the sweetness of fresh fruit or it may have the darker well rounded notes of maple syrup. While this sounds great, it’s important to note that sometimes sweetness is not the most sought after character, and acidity may be what some roasters and coffee drinkers are searching for.
When it comes to the texture of the liquid, you might notice differences between the cups – this is know as the mouthfeel or body. Compare these textures to other items you might consume throughout your day-to-day life, like the differences between slim and whole milk, or even the viscosity between tea, cream, and maple syrup and how those feel in your mouth, respectively.
Now, at the very end of your sip, whether it’s hot, warm, or cool, let’s look at the finish or aftertaste. What is happening in your mouth once the coffee is gone? Is there a good or bad taste that lingers? Maybe there’s nothing at all – make note to what is going on.
Some questions you might ask yourself while assessing each coffee while cupping (aka tips!!)
- Do I like it? Why?
- Is it pleasant to drink?
- Does it taste like something that I know? What is it?
- If it’s sweet, is it like a fresh strawberry or is it more like a mango?
- Do you taste orange? Is that orange flavour fresh, candy-like or jammy?
- Is it thin like tea? Or does it feel rich and full bodied like whole milk?
- Is there any flavour stuck in your mouth after drinking the coffee?
- Are all those flavours completely gone after drinking?
During your cupping, you will go through three full rounds of tasting to understand its depths from the transition periods of hot to warm, and cool to cold; you’re looking for progression of taste. The reason we do this is to see how the coffee develops over time, and sometimes you’ll find different tasting notes depending on its temperature.
Flavour Notes & the Coffee Flavour Wheel
While you taste your coffee, you might find yourself wanting more accurate descriptors for what you’re experiencing. Is that candied orange you taste, or is it more jammy? Is that fresh mango or more of a dried one? To help categorize tasting notes, you may find something like the SCA’s Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel to be a helpful guide. This wheel is an illustration of flavour notes that could be present in coffee, and is used by categorizing taste and characteristics from the inside out of the chart.
Starting from the inside of the wheel, you can figure out if you’re tasting something fruity, chocolate-y, floral or otherwise, and from there work your way out for specification. An example question you can ask yourself as you work with the chart is if you taste chocolate, is it milky or dark, or does it taste baked? By asking these questions, you’ll be able to narrow down your tasting noted accurately.
In summary and final thoughts
When branching out to try new and exciting coffees for the first time, cupping may be an interesting way to approach it as it’ll allow for contrast and comparison to your current daily cup. As you incorporate a new bag of beans into your routine, if you previously cupped it, you’ll know what to expect from the coffee, and will allow you to tweak your cup further to either improve or highlight certain flavours and body characteristics.
We love hearing what you think about our coffees, and by you knowing what you like, tasting our coffees, and giving us feedback, we can continue to improve our roasting methodology and give important feedback to producers providing us with the highest quality products. We’re taking advantage to the connectivity of our world as we’ve started to send our coffee out internationally (hooray!), and we invite you to join us in tasting the variety we have to offer, read about the producers we work with, and become a part of our tasty and fun community that is the world of speciality coffee.
Looking to get going with your own cupping starter kit? No worries, we’ve already got it handled for you.