Coffee Cupping

Cupping is one of the most important skills anyone in the coffee industry can develop. Invented by green-coffee buyers, cupping provides a consistent methodology for evaluating a coffee’s quality before determining a price on a lot. Cuppers use a strict set of tasting protocols to assess quality.Cupping is one of the most important skills anyone in the coffee industry can develop. Invented by green-coffee buyers, cupping provides a consistent methodology for evaluating a coffee’s quality before determining a price on a lot. Cuppers use a strict set of tasting protocols to assess quality.

The practice, however, is relatively subjective and subject to the likes and dislikes of potential buyers, but it is nonetheless the de facto practice when discussing coffee quality. Cupping is usually done both in countries of origin and in consuming countries, usually before and after a shipment arrives.

To understand the minor differences between coffee growing regions, it is important to taste coffee from around the world side-by-side. Cupping is also used to evaluate a defective coffee or to create coffee blends. Any serious coffee buyer should take the time to invest in setting up a cupping lab. It is not difficult to set up, and the lab should be in a clean, well-lit area, free of excessive noise.

Cupping Terminology
Much like learning a new language, cupping is a ritual of its own and as such has its own set of terminology. Understanding what these terms mean, along with repeated practice, will set you on the right path towards becoming a competent cupper. Although the terminology is relatively straightforward, you will see that many terms differ in meaning from country to country. For our discussions here, we will be using the SCAA Cupping Protocol which is the most commonly used within the specialty coffee industry.

The chart below summarizes some of the most commonly used terms during cupping.
Fragrance: Aromatic aspects of dry ground coffee.
Aroma: Aromatic aspects of ground coffee when infused with hot water.
Acidity: Brightness and/or sourness of coffee.
Body: The mouthfeel/heaviness perceived on the surface of the tongue.
Flavor: Defined as taste and aroma, mid-tones of coffee.
Sweetness: Subtle pleasant sweetness in coffee.
Clean Cup: Transparency in the cup, it should be free of off-flavors and defects.
Balance: Overall rating of coffee, no one parameter should dominate.
Aftertaste: Duration of positive flavor attributes in coffee.
Overall: Your overall rating of this coffee.

Coffee Table Preparation
In a coffee cupping session, the table is usually set up with 6 to 10 cups per coffee. These are fashioned in a triangular manner. At the top of this triangle you should place a sample of the roasted coffee and a sample of the green coffee. In the center of the table place a cup of room temperature water and an empty cup containing the cupping spoons. Cover both the green sample and roasted sample until the cupping session is over and the coffee aroma, fragrance, and flavor profile have been documented. After this time, the coffee samples could be uncovered and additional comments can be written based on appearance.

The Cupping Form
Within the coffee industry you will find a number of cupping forms in use, but within the specialty coffee world, the standard is the SCAA’s Cupping Form. The SCAA cupping form provides cuppers with an objective way of capturing some of the most important sensory aspects in coffee. The form is broken up into ten parameters, allows a panelist to rate and penalize for any defects found in the cup(s). The system is based on a 100 point scale thereby allowing for the classification of very low quality “Off Grade” coffees to “Super Premium Specialty” coffee. According to the system any coffee which has passed physical grading and cups with a score over 80 points is considered “Specialty” grade.

Coffee Sample Preparation
The first step is to ensure that the coffee to be “cupped” is of a light to medium roast. Typically a small sample roaster is used as these roasters provide for greater control and consistency with minimal use of samples. Roast the coffee to a light to medium roast, typically corresponding to an Agtron value between 55-65. The SCAA specifies an Agtron value of exactly 58 for whole bean, but as long as you’re within this range your fine.

For those without access to an Agtron, the SCAA offers color discs that serve as great points of reference during roasting. It is imperative that a coffee not be roasted past a medium roast, as important flavor notes and potential defects can easily get masked, obviously defeating the point of cupping. All coffee used should be freshly roasted with no more than 24-48 hours in age, be uniform in color, air cooled, contain no quakers, and have no scorching or tipping present.

Preparing the Infusion
Once the coffee has been roasted allow it to rest overnight. Weight out approximately 12-12.5g of coffee per cup. This will vary depending on the cup size, but so long as you’re using the standard brew formula of 8.25g per 150mL of water you can easily adjust to your needs. A minimum of five cups needed per sample to ensure uniform representation of the coffee sample. Once all the cups have been weighed out, grind the coffee to a coarse grind and cover the top of the glass with a small sheet of paper. It is common to have samples of both green and roasted coffee present on the cupping table during the actual cupping. As this allows cuppers to visually inspect for any defects and lack of uniformity before the cupping process.

The Cupping
Now that the coffee is prepared, we begin with the first step in cupping assessing the coffee’s “fragrance”. Although “fragrance” and “aroma” are used interchangeably they are quite different. Fragrance refers to the olfactory characteristics of the dry grounds themselves, while “aroma” is in the wet stage. To asses fragrance, simply raise glass to your nose and deeply inhale the coffee’s fragrance, being careful not to inhale any coffee grounds. Rate the coffee’s fragrance along with any notes that you pick up on your cupping form.

The next step is to assess the coffee’s “aroma”. Before adding hot water, ensure that the water has reached a temperature of 92-96C (195-205F), as this will allow for proper extraction of all flavor compounds. Pour hot water into the cup and allow it to steep for 3-4 minutes. Once the time is up, gently take your spoon and break the top layer of coffee otherwise known as the “crust”. As you break the crust, place your nose as close to the top of the grounds and inhale. As soon as the crust is broken, it will release a large number of volatile compounds.

Once recorded, continue stirring the coffee two to three times allowing the foam to run down the back of the spoon. At this point the coffee will probably be too hot for most people to cup, wait another 3-5 minutes and allow the coffee to cool before proceeding. Using a rapid suction motion, aspirate the coffee over your tongue and write down your observation for every one of the ten parameters.

Defects, Taints and Faults
Even though great care is taken to select and process only the best beans at origin, mistakes do happen. And as such, the type and intensity of the defect can manifest itself in a number of different ways in the cup. Luckily, the SCAA Cupping form allows for this assessment in two ways.

The first is called a “taint” and is any defect that is noticeable but usually not overwhelming in aromatic aspect. Any taints present in the cup are penalized 2 points.

Another defect called a “fault” is an overwhelming defect typically characterized as a sour, ferment, or phenolic. Faults are subject to 4 points of penalization.

To determine the total number of defects, simply multiply the number of cups that contained the defect by its intensity. Record this total pointage, as it will be subtracted from the overall score.

Classification Scale
Once all the parameters have been assessed, we subtract any defects that may have been present and get a final score.

Final Score Classification
95-100 Super Premium Specialty
90-94 Premium Specialty
85-89 Specialty
80-84 Premium
75-79 Usual Good Quality (UGQ)
70-74 Average Quality
60-70 Exchange Grade
50-60 Off Grade

Copyright Coffee Research Institute

Click here to add your own text