Have you ever read the tasting notes on a bag of coffee and thought, “I don’t taste any of that!” We’ve been there, and the good news is you can improve your tasting ability with practice. Professional roasters use a technique called cupping to evaluate their beans and fine-tune their roasts. Customers like you can use cupping to help you recognize what flavors are present in your coffee. Once you taste them in a cupping, you’ll have an easier time tasting them in an ordinary cup.
If you only taste coffee in your coffee, this article is for you. We’ll teach you all about coffee cupping and how to improve your taste so you can appreciate the subtle notes that the roaster worked so hard to produce. There are many similarities between wine tasting and coffee cupping, and a lot of the techniques are similar. If you have a wine tasting background, you can use what you already know as a sommelier to inform your coffee tasting. Without further adieu, let’s get cupping!
What is cupping?
Cupping is a great way to learn how to taste the subtle notes in coffee, but what is it exactly? Cupping refers to making small, slightly weaker than standard cups of coffee with the express intent of tasting several – at least two – coffees side by side.
A key principle of coffee cupping is that the brew method should be very simple and repeatable. How a particular coffee tastes can depend on technique if you use a pour-over style method. An immersion-style is easier to reproduce since there is no human involvement after you pour the water. Making coffee for cupping is essentially making a tiny cup of French press just without the pressing part.
Another essential element to cupping is comparison. At the very least, you should taste two different coffees together and compare and contrast their flavors. We recommend that you start with two and work your way up to four or five as you become more experienced. Comparing two coffees makes it much easier to pick out flavors since one coffee gives you a baseline for the other.
A Simple Cupping Recipe
Now that you have a little background, let’s talk specifics.
1. Boil water.
Start by boiling water. This recipe calls for 200 mL of water per coffee. If you’re cupping two coffees, make sure to boil 400 mL.
2. Weigh the coffee.
Use the kitchen scale to weigh 12 g of each coffee separately.
3. Grind the coffee.
If you’re using whole bean coffee, grind each coffee separately into its own mug or bowl. Use a medium-fine grind size slightly coarser than you would use for a pour-over. A grinder is optional but recommended. We’re using the Hario Skerton Pro in this guide. If you don’t have a grinder, don’t worry. You can still do a cupping with pre-ground coffee; it’s just not ideal.
4. Pour hot water over the coffee and let steep.
Pour 200 mL boiling water over each coffee. Let them steep for 4 minutes.
5. Stir carefully.
You should notice a crust of coffee formed on the top of each mug, just like in a French press. Use a spoon to break the crust and gently stir the coffee. Once the crust has been broken, scoop any floating grounds away with the spoon and discard them.
Now that you’ve made your cups, it’s almost time to taste them. Before you dive in, you should let the coffee sit for ten minutes or so. Coffee that is too hot can be hard to taste. By allowing the coffee to cool off a bit before tasting, you give yourself a better chance of tasting the subtler notes present.
Once your coffee has cooled, it’s finally time to taste. But wait! Rather than pick up the mug and take a swig, grab a spoon, scoop up a small amount of coffee, and give it a slurp. We’re not being facetious or trying to make you look silly in front of your cat. You actually want to slurp in some air with your coffee. Slurping your coffee aerosolizes it slightly, which makes it easier to taste. The theory is that slurping produces an even spread of liquid around your mouth and tongue, and let’s all of your taste buds participate.
Alternate sips and focus on similarities and differences between the two coffees. Many people like to keep a notebook nearby and write down what they taste. As a coffee cools, it becomes easier to taste, and what you taste can change dramatically throughout the course of the cupping. We like to write down our tasting notes with the time to track how our taste changed over the course of the cupping.
Helpful Coffee Cupping Tips
The best tip we can give you is to relax. You can’t taste any more by trying harder, so just let the coffee do the talking. There are no right or wrong answers in coffee cupping. What you taste is entirely personal, but over time you will develop the ability to distinguish certain kinds of coffee from others and start tasting the notes the roaster suggests on the bag.
Another tip is to start with broad categories and work your way down to specific flavors. You’ll drive yourself crazy if you start by looking for dried cherry and raspberry notes. Choosing coffees with very distinct flavor profiles makes the comparison easier. If you’re not sure where to start, choose coffees with different origins from different continents. South America and Africa produce much of the world’s coffee, and choosing one coffee from each is a good starting point.
We like to start by deciding which coffee is maltier and which is fruitier. Common malty notes are chocolate, caramel, and tobacco, which are easier to distinguish from cherry, mango, or orange than they are from each other. You can graduate to specific notes once you are comfortable distinguishing malty and fruity coffees.
Acidity also plays a major role in how coffee tastes and is another feature to look for. Coffee with high acidity might taste citrusy like a lemon or orange. Some people even describe acidic coffee as having an almost sour quality. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to distinguish two coffees that have very different levels of acidity. You might also be surprised to discover that you have a preference for one or the other. Cupping is all about discovering new tastes but also your own preferences.
One final aspect of the coffee to pay attention to is the mouthfeel. This is a bit nebulous, so don’t overthink it. People talk about a coffee having a full body or being thin, and it can be hard to get more specific than that. Our advice is simply to write down what you think. If the coffee tastes watery and thin to you, write that down. If it’s big and bold – whatever that means to you – write that down instead. Remember, there are no wrong answers, and your taste will change over time.
We hope you’ve found this article helpful! Coffee cupping is a rewarding experience that we think really enhances the overall coffee experience. Tasting is a skill that can be trained with practice, and cupping is the best way to practice. As your taste improves, you’ll start to notice differences between different origins and different roasts. Before you know it, you’ll be able to tell a Kenyan from a Tanzanian and spot a peaberry from just one sip.
Coffee is an incredibly rich hobby that only gets better as your personal experience widens. Cupping is a fun way to taste new coffee and improve your tasting chops. Next time you have a few bags lying around, grab some friends or family that love coffee and give cupping a try!
Image Credit: cocoparisienne, Pixabay