Cupping: More than just taste testing
We all have thought at one point in our lives that the perfect job would be food quality control, I mean, paid to taste-test delicious food all day? Yes, please! The same goes for people when they hear about “cupping” in the coffee industry, and it’s easy to understand why. Who wouldn’t want to drink different kinds of coffee all day? However there is a lot involved in the process of cupping, it’s much more than sipping dainty cups of espresso all afternoon.
Cupping is an important skill to have, and just like learning any other skill, it takes practice. Lots of practice. You may be thinking, “sign me up!” except... you don’t get to drink the coffee. Now you may be wondering how that works. One of the intricacies of cupping is that you simply taste it and then spit it out. Catch and release coffee, if you will.
The standard coffee cupping procedure sees the cupper, or ‘Q grader’ sniffing the coffee’s aroma, then loudly slurping the coffee so it rolls over the tongue, and then it’s straight to the spittoon. The coffee taster is looking to detect and measure many aspects of the coffee: the body, sweetness, acidity, flavor and the aftertaste, but it’s a little more than that so let’s dive a little deeper, shall we.
First, you should know that cupping is done all across the supply chain to ensure the quality of the beans. It is regularly done right at the grower’s farm with the grower and the buyer. Cupping is essential for the buyer so he knows just what to expect when the beans arrive in port after being exported. Cupping is important to the farmer so that he gets a fair price for his product. The proof of a good crop is in the cup (that’s coffee’s version of “the proof is in the pudding.”) Cupping at this point will hopefully help with fair, equitable, and sustainable coffee buying. No one should be undercutting the farmers!
Cupping is also done by Q Graders. According to coffeeinstitute.org, a Q Grader is an individual who is credentialed by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) to grade and score coffees utilizing standards developed by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). They must pass twenty-two advanced level exams that relate to an individual’s ability to accurately and consistently cup and grade coffee to SCA standards and protocols, including a thorough understanding of the cupping form.
Roasters utilize cupping not only to guarantee the quality of the beans they’ve purchased either from an importer or that they cupped at origin pre-shipment, but they also use it as a means to dial in their roast profiles. So many variables go into roasting consistently, and cupping helps with strict quality control. Not all roasters have the luxury of being able to cup before they purchase coffee, but they will be extremely stringent with their roasts and spend a lot of time cupping to be sure they are only selling coffee that meets the highest standards.
Café owners cup to be sure the coffee they brew and serve to their customers is exceptional – and what they ordered from the roaster.
Secondly, there are very specific parameters that must be followed when cupping.
Specifically related to the coffee:
- Freshly roasted (with 12-24 hours )
- Medium level roast
- Uniform in color
- Air cooled
- Contain no quakers - (un-ripened beans that are hard to identify during hand sorting and green bean inspection, but typically discovered after roasting.)
- Brew formula ratio of 8.25 g of coffee:150 ml water (adjusted for volume of cup being used.)
- Water heated to 195° – 205° F (allows from proper extraction of flavor compounds)
- Steeped for 3-5 minutes.
Specifically related to the person cupping:
- Not having just eaten
- Not having just chewed gum
- No heavy scents or perfumes
- No talking while cupping
A little more about the roast level - the coffee to be cupped must be roasted to a medium level. Since cupping is done to determine the quality of the beans (as well as a getting a good roast profile) roasting for cupping is typically done on a small sample roaster which allows for greater control of the roast and little waste of the green coffee samples. Since “medium” can be subjective, the SCA has color cards to help with determining the level of roast that is required for cupping. Flavors can be masked when the beans are roasted beyond the medium level. (And a side note – that is why most specialty coffee roasters prefer medium roasts over dark French and Italian roasts levels.)
Cupping involves two basic steps – the first involves olfactory or smelling. Evaluating the “fragrance” of coffee is smelling the dry grounds, and evaluating the “aroma” is smelling the wet grounds. Once the grounds have been wet, steeped, and the subsequent bloomed "crust" broken, then the second step of tasting begins. With silver spoon in hand (yes, really) one slurps off the coffee and tastes it, letting it sit on the tongue for a moment before spitting it out into a spittoon. It’s the one time that slurping is considered perfectly acceptable! Typically there are three to five samples to be cupped per roast.
All the important information gathered from cupping is noted on cupping forms. The SCA has created a standardized form, but others have created their own. No matter the form used, they are a way to note the sensory aspects of the coffee in an objective way. These sensory aspects include fragrance/aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, uniformity, balance, clean cup, sweetness and the overall impression. The SCA system is based on a 100 point scale, which allows for the classification of very low quality "off grade" coffees to super "premium specialty" coffee. According to this system, coffees that score 80 and above and have passed physical grading are considered "Specialty" grade.
A cupping session can last for several hours as graders taste and compare flavor notes, however that doesn’t always have to be the case, you don’t need multiple roasts to cup. It is an exceptional way to help learn to distinguish the differences among coffees and learn the individual characteristics of each. With experience, it is possible to determine a coffee’s origin simply by its taste.
So the next time you see the flavor notes printed on your coffee bag, know that they’ve been identified through cupping with the result being the mug of deliciousness you enjoy.