Coffee Cupping 101

The following article comes from Eric Mullins and was posted on his blog. I thought the article was great and wanted to re-post it here. Great job Eric!

When I first started in the coffee industry I didn’t drink coffee. Well, I drank coffee, but had thought that all coffee tasted so bad that it was pretty much undrinkable. So, like most all other coffee drinkers I added syrups, sugar, and milk to it anytime I wanted a cup. I had worked in the Highland, MI location of the chain coffee house “Its A Grind” where I was a manager, and ironically did not really know a thing about coffee. I must confess if it was not for Josh Longsdorf, (then of the Ugly Mug in Ypsilanti, MI and now of Ritual Coffee Roasters in California) I would probably not be working in coffee. I most likely still would not know a thing about coffee and frankly, I would not be living in Milwaukee. It was Josh who walked into our small coffee shop and found a few people who were like sponges waiting for the knowledge of coffee to be dripped on them. He first helped us learn the quality of espresso over corporate standards and practices, that coffee was one of the most important functioning parts of the world economy, and that above all it was delicious, beautiful and dynamic beyond most peoples’ comprehension. It was also Josh who took me to my first cupping and helped me understand the importance of cupping. It was this first cupping that I went to that helped me realize that coffee was by itself, as a single origin, amazing. It didn’t need additives, it didn’t need milk, it didn’t need to be dark roasted, it needed to be just coffee.
Which brings me to my focus: What is cupping and why is it important? Well, as you can find cupping defined on the search engine Wikipedia.org, it is loosely defined as “the practice of observing the tastes and aromas of brewed coffee.” Or basically just tasting the coffee and seeing what flavors you can taste in the coffee. But as a precursor to actually cupping, a few things must be defined in order to properly understand the depth of this unique practice.

‘Taste’, a term that is often confused with the term ‘flavor’ is actually the ability of your tongue to detect flavor. Whereas flavor is the chemical reactions upon your senses, and what we are talking about are those chemical impressions left by roasted and ground coffee beans. In other words, you taste things with your tongue, and flavors are what you taste. There are some other basic terms that are most often referred to when cupping that will be helpful to know:

1. Fragrance- in our case the odor or scent that is found when coffee is ground.
2. Aroma- the odors that are found and defined when breaking the crust of the coffee while cupping.
3. Mouth-feel/ body- the tactile sensations the coffee gives to the mouth.
4. Brightness- referring to the level of acidity in the coffee.
5. Finish- How the coffee stays and reacts on your pallet over time after it leaves the pallet

So cupping as a practice goes basically as follows:

1. You have a pre-weighed amount of ground coffee that you find in cupping bowls. Holding the cupping bowls in your hands and spinning the coffee inside it gives off the fragrance of the ground coffee. Most of the time you will find cuppers comparing different coffees, and the flavors in the coffees. Sometimes though, you will find people cupping the same coffee origin but different roast profiles to find which profile best suits the flavors that could be pulled from the coffee.
2. Once all of the bowls are set with the pre-determined weight of coffee, you add near boiling water directly to the coffees, filling the bowls and then let them brew for approximately four minutes. This is to allow the coffee to fully extract all the flavors in a very concentrated form with all the oils, fats and flavors. This method allows the coffee not to be tainted by a bleached filter or other method of processing. Although you can find resources stating different ways to cup this should be sufficient for a basic level of cupping.
3. After approximately four minutes you ‘Break the Crust.’ This is where you hover very closely over the cup, almost to the point of your nose touching the crust of the coffee. At this point you use a spoon to push the grounds that are floating on top to the side and inhale both with your nose as well as your mouth in order to pick up any aromas that the coffee might be giving off . The crust acts as an aroma inhibitor, and agitating the grounds at this point releases the aromas from the brewed coffee underneath.
4. You now remove the remaining grounds from top of the cup with a spoon. Most of the grounds should have fallen to the bottom of the cup from the agitation with the spoon while breaking the crust. This step is done more as a precautionary step so that while tasting the brewed coffee your are not getting a large amount of grounds in your mouth.
5. At this point you can begin tasting the brewed coffee in the bowl. You do this by putting your spoon in the coffee letting it fill up your spoon as if you were about to eat soup. You slurp the coffee into your mouth, spritzing your pallet with the brewed coffee. Slurping allows the coffee to properly penetrate your taste buds and at the same time aerate, and stimulate your pallet. This allows you to pick up more flavors of the coffee as well as better experience the brightness and body of individual coffees. It’s common in a basic setting that you would take notes of the specifics of the coffee throughout the cupping and when finished collaborate with other cuppers on the specifics of what everyone experienced with the coffees cupped.

So why do we post cupping notes and what if you don’t taste what we posted in our cupping notes? Well, cupping is very subjective and our cupping notes are meant more as a general guideline of what we tasted in the coffees. So don’t be upset if you don’t happen to pick up some high-notes of ginger-spice and blueberries that we tasted, instead look for flavors you could identify with. I have been working really hard to develop my pallet and flavor definitions over the past year in order to pick out more aspects of coffee profiles. Cupping is a very great tool to increase your flavor vocabulary, it gives you an opportunity to focus on specific coffees, compare them to others, and really just give yourself a better threshold for tasting coffees in a general setting.

As far as I am concerned, I fell in love with coffee at my first cupping. I don’t remember what the coffee was, but I do remember tasting full on sweet blueberries and not the harsh, bitter, over-extracted coffee that you will find at almost every coffee shop and diner around the world. After that day, I began researching coffee and all its aspects. I wanted to find out what made it tick and why it held such insane flavors for my tongue to discover. A few times of week, I spend my mornings, afternoons and nights cupping, diving deeper into the flavors and roast profiles from coffees around the world.

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~ by The Espresso Lounge on June 13, 2009.

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