How to Improve Your Coffee Tasting Skills: Coffee Cupping

Every month, my wife and I have a coffee cupping date night, thanks to our Angels’ Cup subscription. Tonight is that night! What is coffee cupping? Coffee cupping is the art of tasting and smelling coffee. While this is a professional term, the exercises can be done by any coffee lover who wants to improve their tasting skills. So, if you want to become a “Master Taster,” coffee cupping is what you need to do to get there.

IMG_3688What You Will Need:

  • 2-4 Different Types of Fresh Coffee (at least 15 grams of each)
  • Scale
  • Coffee Grinder
  • Water Kettle
  • Timer
  • Friend(s) (optional)
  • 2-4 Identical Cups
  • 1 Cup and 1 Spoon for Floating Grounds
  • 1 Spoon per Person
  • 1 Cup for Rinsing Spoon(s)
  • 1 Cup per Person for Spitting (optional)
  • Pen and Paper for Each Person

Instructions:

Step 1: Begin Heating Water. As mentioned before, water temperature is an important factor when brewing coffee. For best extraction, use water that is between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit. If you do not have a thermometer, bring the water to boil (212F) and then let it sit for 30-45 seconds. As the water heats, move on to Step 2.

IMG_3687Step 2: Grind the Beans. For each coffee that you are cupping, you will use 9 grams for the actual tasting process. The remaining 6 grams (or more if possible) is for priming the grinder. Running extra coffee through the grinder before grinding the 9 grams for cupping cleans out any leftover coffee grounds from previous coffees. You do not want old coffee affecting the taste of the fresh coffee that you are cupping.

Now, professional cuppers will cup many different coffees at one time, but it is helpful to start with 2-4 when first beginning, as having a number of coffees to cup can seem overwhelming. Professional cuppers will also cup two to five samples of each coffee, for the purpose of eliminating error. Again, though, when first starting, this can be overwhelming.

Anyway, prime the Grinder with the extra beans from Coffee #1 and throw it out. After that, grind the 9 grams of coffee that will be used for cupping at a medium-coarse setting (similar to what you would use for a Chemex). Put this in Cup #1.

Repeat for each coffee (#2, #3, and #4) being cupped, making sure to prime the grinder before grinding each different coffee. Also, be sure to label your cups, so that you don’t forget which coffee is which. A dry-erase marker works really well for porcelain and glass cups.


Step 3: Smell the Dry Coffee Grounds.
 With your pen and paper nearby, smell each dry sample of coffee, make note of certain things that you smell. Rather than simply going one at a time, it will be much easier to compare and contrast. Maybe one smells extra floral, while one is more fruity. Or, maybe two smell fruity, but when you smell them beside each other, you are able to decipher one as having raspberry notes and one as having cherry notes.

Be sure to take notes every time that you smell and taste the coffees. And do not share your thoughts with others until the end, because as soon as you do, they will only think of what you said.

Step 4: Add Water to Each Cup. When the water is at the correct brewing temperature, somewhere between 195 and 205F, pour the same amount of water in each cup. Personally, I use the 16:1 water-to-coffee ratio, therefore adding 144 ml of water to each cup. Be sure to slowly pour in such a way that all of the grounds are saturated. Let the slurry sit for 3-5 minutes.

Also, pour water in another cup so that you can rinse off your spoon(s) between each contact with the coffees—this keeps from cross-contamination.

Step 5: Smell the Wet Coffee Grounds. While waiting for the coffee to fully extract, 3-5 minutes, smell the slurry. Write down any other smells that come to mind upon smelling each of them.

IMG_3694Step 6: Break the Crust and Smell Again. Breaking the crust is properly done by using your spoon to break through the coffee grounds in a delicate manner, gently stirring 3 times, releasing trapped aromatics. When breaking the crust, let the foam run down the back of the spoon while you are smelling each cup. Be sure to jot down every thing that comes to mind as you smell each one. Make sure to rinse your spoon between breaking the crust of each coffee.

Step 7: Remove Floating Grounds. After each coffee’s crust has been broken, use a clean spoon to scoop the remaining grounds off the top of each cup and put them in an extra cup. Many of the grounds will sink, and should not be removed. Generally, the lighter the roast, the more grounds that sink.

Again, make sure that you are cleaning your spoon between each coffee.

Step 8: Taste Each Coffee. After each coffee’s crust has been removed, it is now time to taste each one. Scoop up a spoonful of coffee and slurp it up. The louder the better. Slurp like you always wanted to when you were a kid. The better you slurp, the better the coffee will cover your palate. Swish it around a bit before consuming or spitting.

There are many things that your are seeking to recognize when tasting the coffee. If you are just now starting to get into tasting, focus on these three: sweetness, acidity, and mouthfeel/body. Once you feel confident with those, it will be easier to analyze specific flavors, aftertaste, and whether or not the cup is balanced.

Ask yourself these questions: Does the coffee taste sweet? Is the coffee acidic? If so, is the acidity pleasant or unpleasant? How does the coffee feel? Does it feel like water/tea or like whole milk?

If you are new to coffee cupping, analyzing flavor can be the most intimidating and the most frustrating part of the entire process. The reality, though, is that while it feels challenging or overwhelming at first, it will get easier. The more you practice, the better you will get at analyzing the flavor notes. So press on!

IMG_3670Step 9: Continue to Taste and Smell. After tasting all of the coffees, go around and taste them again, and again, and again. As many times as you would like. As coffee cools down, different tasting notes often arise. I recently had a wonderful coffee that had strong chocolate and caramel notes when the coffee was hot, but once it cooled down, citrusy fruit notes were quite strong.

Again, be sure to write down all of your thoughts, and be sure to clean your spoon.

Step 10: Share Tasting Notes. Coffee cupping can be a great social gathering, and it is quite fun to compare tasting notes. If you subscribe to Angels’ Cup, you can compare your tasting notes with the Roast Master who roasted that particular coffee.

A Simplified Version

If this entire process seems too daunting, simply buy two French Presses and make a cup of coffee in each with different kinds of coffee. It will be helpful to have two very different coffees. Personally, I would maybe start with one cup from Africa and one cup from Indonesia. Be sure to brew the coffees in the exact same way. Compare and contrast in the same manner as above, specifically taking note of the sweetness, acidity, and mouthfeel/body.

Other Tips and Links

One helpful tool for coffee cupping is a tasting flavor wheel, like this one. It is helpful to have this beside you while you are smelling and tasting each cup. Having one handy allows for you to put a word to what you are thinking. Also, there are quite a few cupping forms available online.

If you are looking to buy cups for cupping, you can buy professional cupping cups, like these, or simply buy matching mugs, like this white stackable mug set from World Market (be sure not to get the espresso cups though). The mug set from World Market is nice, because it only holds about 8.5oz, whereas regular mugs are usually bigger (10-12oz). Also, white cups are especially helpful for recognizing visible differences between coffees.

And, as mentioned in a previous post, Angels’ Cup is a great resource for improving your tasting skills. For only $8.99 a month, you will receive four 1 oz bags of fresh roasted coffee for the purpose of cupping and improving your skills. The Angels’ Cup App is also extremely helpful, and is available for those who subscribe and those who do not.

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5 thoughts on “How to Improve Your Coffee Tasting Skills: Coffee Cupping

  1. This is awesome!! Alas my wife finds ‘the precious’ (ie coffee) rather repulsive so I will have to do this with some of my friends. This seems like a lot of fun though. My best friend is coming out from San Diego this summer and we might have to do this one night! East African and Indonesian would be great contrasts!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Helpful Coffee App: Angels’ Cup | Manthano Coffee

  3. Pingback: Manthano Coffee 2016 in Review | Manthano Coffee

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