The art of coffee cupping
What exactly is coffee cupping all about? From sensory training to quality control, Raihaan Esat of International Coffee Traders explains the ritual of cupping and why it’s such an important part of the roasting process.
Describe a strawberry.
Think about what it tastes like. How many words can you use to accurately describe its flavour profile? This is a question that can freeze even the biggest food connoisseurs.
For example, you might say it’s fruity, it’s juicy and it tastes sweet. But is there acidity? Is the acidity sharp or almost sour? Where in your palate do you feel the acidity? How is it different from a mango?
“Part of the art of cupping is to be able to describe what you are tasting,” says Raihaan Esat, General Manager of International Coffee Traders. “When you understand how your palate works, you actually have the language to talk about different tastes. It is a skill because when you go to cup coffee, you can translate what you taste into words.”
Why cup coffee?
Coffee cupping has two main applications.
“The first is the more traditional sense, used for quality control in a professional setting,” Raihaan explains. “And the second is a more informal sense, where you just want to taste a bunch of coffee and explore what’s available.”
For quality control, coffee cupping is a process where coffee growers send samples of their beans out to potential clients – usually an importer or a roaster. Those clients will cup the coffee to check the quality and use the results to make a buying decision.
“It’s a good way to test multiple samples against each other so that you can get an idea of what you want to buy, in a fair and unbiased way,’ explains Raihaan.
“For example, if you are looking for a Colombian coffee, 10 different producers might submit their samples to you. Cupping means you can sample all 10 coffees against each other on the same table, side by side.”
Tasting them by espresso means you’ll likely have one coffee going cold while the others are hot – it’s harder to produce all 10 at the same time.
Queensland’s first ever SCA Laboratory at The Coffee Commune
There are rules in play
Coffee cupping is carried out the same way around the world. The process is governed quite strictly with protocols and procedures that are set by various leading industry bodies, such as the Coffee Quality Institute or the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA).
“This allows us to communicate on an even platform back to the producer,” explains Raihaan.
“For example, as a buyer and importer I want to taste coffee in the same format that the producer is tasting it. If I do espresso, but the producer doesn’t have an espresso machine, we’re not talking the same language. But everyone has access to a grinder and hot water.”
And that’s exactly how it’s done – ground coffee and hot water, brewed for four minutes and then tasted.
“It’s kind of simple like that, but it means I can say ‘This is what I tasted’ and the producer can understand the tastes because they did it the same way.”
What you need:
- A sample roaster to roast the beans
- A grinder to grind the beans
- A scale to measure the weight
- Hot water
From start to finish, you need a sample roaster to roast your coffee. Rai says this can be as simple as a little popcorn popper – “as long as it roasts the coffee evenly, and the same way every time.”
When you’re doing sample roasting, the idea is to reveal what’s there.
“You just need to achieve a light roast to see what the picture is. Later on down the track, it’s over to the roaster to bring out the best characteristics of the coffee.”
While cupping is quite an evolved process – the SCA have published a booklet that’s a protocol for preparing your coffee – in essence, you use a ratio of 16.6g of water to 1g of coffee. So, if you have 10g of coffee in your bowl, you should add 166.6g of water. That way you keep the coffee strength the same for every cup.
The hot water must also be brewed to the correct temperature, which is over 93 degrees.
1. Pour your water into the coffee and let it brew for four minutes. During that time, don’t disturb that coffee in any way.
2. Once the coffee has been brewed, the coffee forms a crust on top. That crust has to get cleared away. This is a good time to take a sensory evaluation of the aroma.
3. When you break the crust, you usually get a release of aroma. Capture the aroma with your nose, make some notes, then clear the crust away with the spoon.
Advanced technique: Use two spoons to clear the crust away in one movement.
One of the critical parts of flavour assessment is to keep a really neutral environment.
“You don’t want anything to bias your opinion of the coffee. In an SCA lab like the one we’ve got at The Coffee Commune, we’ve installed red lights in the room so that when they are dimmed, the colour of the coffee can’t steer you towards an opinion or an impression.”
Raihaan says silence is also important.
“When we cup as a panel, we try not to speak to anyone. If I say ‘Oh, I taste banana”, that’s putting the idea in someone’s head that there is banana there. We capture all of our notes, then at the end we turn the lights back on and compare notes afterwards based on what we wrote.
What are you looking for when cupping coffee?
“What we’re trying to do is capture what the coffee has to offer, record our observations and note any defects,” explains Raihaan. But he says it’s not about punishing the coffee.
“Our attitude towards [cupping] is really important. We’re looking for every possibility to say yes to that coffee, not to say no. We’re looking to reward the coffee as much as we can.
“It’s almost impossible to get coffee without defects – it just depends on what we’re willing to accept.”
There’s a whole guidebook on different defects in coffee, what they taste like and how they affect the cup. For a producer, this is all part of the conversation that happens before any beans are bought.
“If we’re buying from Colombia, you can buy European preparation, which specifies how the coffee should be graded and sorted. We might specify that we’re willing to accept five or 10 defects per sample.
“They might come back to us and say ‘You want a European prep with five defects, we can’t do that’. Or ‘It might cost us this much more to do that, because we have to employ extra people to sort the coffee and run it through the grading systems a few more times. Are you willing to pay for that extra quality?’ If the answer is yes, we can go ahead. If the answer is no, this is what they can offer for the price that we want to pay,” Raihaan explains.
Assessing the characteristics
Formal score sheets are used to help break down the different flavour profiles into multiple characteristics. While there are a few different types of score sheets available, the most popular is the SCA score sheet.
“It breaks the coffee flavour down into things like fragrance, aroma, acidity, body, aftertaste, balance, clean cup, uniformity and overall impression.”
Interestingly, there is a difference between fragrance and aroma. Fragrance is the smell of the coffee before you add water, and aroma is the smell of the coffee after you add water.
But Raihaan says all of the score sheets are good in their own way.
“Find the score sheet that works for you, depending on how you want to cup your coffee. You need to be able to capture the information in a meaningful way to communicate back to the producer. The SCA format is generally accepted as a good way of doing that.”
Like a fine wine
Coffee cupping is actually similar to wine tasting.
“We’re tasting for similar things, like terroir (where it was grown, the region and geography of the farm). We’re also tasting for variety. Different varieties of coffee from the same farm will have different flavours, so it’s similar to wine in that sense.”
Of course, with large cuppings you’re drinking a lot of coffee, so you need to be able to spit it out.
“It’s not unheard of to have a table of 50 coffees, so if you’re going to taste each one of them and swallow each one, you will be on a caffeine high very quickly. You need to have some way of spitting it out so you can assess the coffee without getting blinded by the caffeine.”
Cup like a pro
If you want to improve your cupping technique, Raihaan says it’s all about training your senses to describe different things.
“That’s really the skill. There’s no way to shortcut the process, you have to train.” But he says the good news is that you’re already training every day.
“Everything that you put in your mouth, eat or drink it consciously. If you’re drinking tea, how can you describe the tea? Find three words to describe everything you’re eating and drinking, and your development will go up very quickly.”
Things like attending Coffee Cupping competitions are also a great way to train your sensors.
“The idea is to help you understand how your palate works, so that when you go to cup coffee, you actually have a command of the language to describe what you’re tasting. It is all part of the art of cupping.”
You’ll be describing that strawberry like a wordsmith in no time.
How The Coffee Commune can assist roasters
For roasters to engage in coffee cupping for quality control, there is a lot of valuable time involved. The bean samples have to be roasted, rested and prepared, and the data needs to be captured before decisions can be made.
“What I would suggest is that roasters use The Coffee Commune as a resource,’ says Raihaan. “Use us as your quality control team. Of course, this takes trust because you’re turning over your quality control over to someone else. But I would really encourage roasters to do that and allow us to be part of their QC team.”
He adds: “If you want to be involved in the process that’s also fine. We have the accredited facilities and resources available to do that.”
Keen to learn more about coffee and improve your palate? Keep an eye on the upcoming events at The Coffee Commune and sign yourself up.