Coffee cupping: how to taste like a pro

Just like wine, coffee comes with a whole host of flavour notes and aromas, and a vast array of quality levels. So it’s important for roasters like us to be able to grade and categorise coffee so we can establish all the information you need when you’re choosing your next coffee, and make sure we’re selecting the very best quality coffee too.

This process is called cupping and involved lots of precision, slurping and note-taking to map out the characteristics of each coffee. While you might imagine a leisurely afternoon spent sipping coffee and comparing notes, it’s much more scientific than that. You need the right equipment to hand and there are some strict rules to follow to make your cupping a success.

Want to host your own cupping at home? Here’s what you’ll need:

  1. A clean, relaxed space with minimal noise and no strong smells
  2. A selection of freshly roasted coffee beans
  3. Filtered water boiled to 200F
  4. A good coffee grinder – a conical burr grinder is best
  5. A selection of coffee cups – 5oz is a good size
  6. Two spoons for every person at your cupping, plus a few extra
  7. A scale for measuring out your grounds
  8. A timer to make sure every coffee’s given the same time to brew
  9. A copy of the coffee taster’s flavour wheel (you can read more about it in our blog)
  10. Pens and paper to make notes on what you can taste and smell

As we mentioned, cupping is a science, so there are a few ground rules to set out before you start.

First, ask your guests not to wear strong perfume or aftershave so as not to detract from the aromas of the coffee. They’ll need to keep quiet while you taste too, to let everyone concentrate on what they can taste and smell.

It’s best if they haven’t eaten or drunk anything for a while too, and avoid cleaning their teeth or chewing gum right before your begin. Smoking’s also a big no-no, for their palette and your other guests’ noses.

How to cup coffee

Once everyone’s arrived and you’ve got all the kit you need, it’s time to start cupping. Follow the same process for every coffee you try as consistency is key.

If you’re using the same grinder to grind lots of different coffee, grind a small amount of the next coffee you’re going to try, discard it and then grind your weighed out beans, to prevent contaminating the flavours.

You might also want the coffee taster’s flavour wheel in front of you, to prompt you on what you’re smelling and tasting.

  1. First, weigh your coffee as whole beans in the cups you’ll be tasting from. We’d recommend 8g of coffee to 150ml of water
  2. Grind all of your coffees. Aim for a grind that’s slightly coarser than you’d use for a filter method – similar in consistency to sea salt. Place it back in the cup you weighed it in.
  3. Have a good smell of the freshly ground coffee and take notes on what you can detect (the dry aroma)
  4. Pour hot water into all of the coffees you’re cupping and set a timer for four minutes. When the time’s up, you’ll see a crust has formed on the surface. Break it with a spoon and push it back, having another smell and noting down what you can detect (this is the ‘wet aroma’). Do this another three times for each coffee, going round in the order you poured the water in
  5. Next, use two spoons to skim off the grounds, any foam and oils. After another four minutes, taste the coffee and jot down what you can taste.

    TOP TASTING TIP: Fill your spoon with coffee and slurp it, leaving space between the roof of your mouth and your tongue as it travels backwards, letting it aspirate over your tongue to taste.

  6. Wait another four minutes, then taste it again. Can you spot anything different?
  7. Finally, wait another four minutes and taste for a third and final time.
  8. If you’ve got guests, the finally step is to compare notes and see what similarities and differences you can spot.

Coffee cupping is a great activity to enjoy with your coffee loving friends, but it’s also a great way to understand your own coffee preferences and explore the characteristics of a range of different coffees. Why not try it with the next coffee you buy and practice your professional coffee cupping skills?

Want more insight into the science of great coffee? Browse our blog for inspiration.

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