Coffee Cupping: The art of taste

By Jess Bernhart

Coffee Cupping: The art of taste

Cupping is the practice of observing the tastes and aromas of brewed coffee. At Revelator HQ, we cup our coffees each day to ensure quality and consistency – and it's also a great way to get to know the coffees you're brewing at home. Cameron Heath, our Head Roaster, and Benjamin Griner, our Quality Control Manager, step us through the process of having your own coffee cupping.

 

Jess Bernhart: What's the point of a cupping? 

Cameron Heath: We cup coffees to determine their tastes and quality. You might think you know what your coffee tastes like just by drinking it, but a proper cupping is a lot more than that. It's the specific, ritualized way that industry professionals taste, analyze and grade different coffees for quality and flavor. 

JB: Who performs cuppings?

CH: Cuppings are performed all along the supply chain, from growers, traders, roasters, to regular consumers. A cupping guarantees that everyone is approaching the coffee the same way, every time. By following the procedure, we can minimize variables, so we're sure we're tasting the coffee the same way at every part of its journey. 

 

Step 1: Weigh out 8.25g of each coffee, grind the beans into separate cups, then set the cups out on the table.

Benjamin Griner: We'll be cupping four different coffees today. The ratio of coffee to water in each cup os 0.055g : 1ml, so we weigh out 8.25 g of coffee for every 150 ml of water. And we weigh out three cups for each coffee sample, to allow for the variations between each cup.

CH:  It helps ensure consistency.

BG: Some beans might be hollow, some beans might be sour – much like myself. We also include a little side cup that we grind before switching coffees. It ensures our grinder is purged of excess grounds from the last coffee, and keeps the samples pure. After we have the coffee weighed out, we're going to start grinding. These little purge beans I'm using to clean the grinder? I'm also going to pour them out on a sheet to see how dark the roasts are next to each other. That way, if anything's particularly dark or light, we can see it in comparison to the rest of the coffees.

JB: What coarseness is the grinder set for? French Press? Espresso grind?

BG: That's a controversial subject.

CH: All that matters is that it's consistent. If you're doing coarser grinds, you're not going to get the best tasting coffee. But as long as you're doing a consistent test, that's really what matters.

BG: You can narrow it down yourself by trial and error. You want to let the coffee extract for about 4 minutes. If you try that and your coffee is tasting thin and under-extracted, fine up your grind. If it's tasting concentrated and thick, coarsen it. But in general, all you're really trying to do is make sure everything is consistent. Day-to-day, we want to make sure that the only factor that is different between each cupping is what happens in the roastery. The grind size day-to-day should be exactly the same, coffee-to-coffee should be the same, the brew time, brew temperature, all that kind of stuff should be the same, so that we can narrow in on the one thing that’s changing.

CH: We should note: there are different types of cupping. This cupping is a production roast cupping, and we do this every day. We're not evaluating the coffee, because we already know this coffee. What we're looking for is information about how it's roasting. A consumer might do a cupping kind of like a wine tasting - to try different coffees side by side, or see what notes they can pull from them.

 

Step 2: Evaluate the fragrance of the grounds immediately, taking notes. Fragrance refers to the smell of the coffee before brewing.

BG: Now that the coffee's ground, we're evaluating the fragrance. This is the place where a lot of defects are detectable and the aroma of the coffee is the strongest. So we'll check it out and see what kind of flavors we can expect and if there's anything wrong.

CH: Usually you have about 5 minutes before all the volatiles leave the coffee, so you need to move quickly. Write down whatever notes come to you. Right now we’re only noting the dry aromatics of the coffee. We'll do dry, wet, and then start breaking and slurping. In terms of identifying the notes, cupping is a muscle. Just go out there and interact with different fruits, different smells, and you’ll start to find that those things are within these cups.

JB: And this is coffee A, so you're writing your notes in the A column?

CH: We try to keep it blind so there's no bias.

BG: If you know what a sample is and think to yourself, “This is one of my favorites,” that will influence what you experience.

BG: Oh wow – blueberries.

CH: Come on, man.

BG: It's just a very generic note! I didn't even write that down.

JB: Are there some things you can't say? Things that are dumb? "Smells like coffee"?

BG: If I say a note while he's smelling something, it's going to implant that into his head and his cupping will be influenced. We try not to talk at all during a cupping.

 

Step 3: Pour 150ml of hot water directly over the freshly ground coffee beans, making sure they're all completely saturated by the water. Take note of the aroma.

Pour water into each cup

JB: What's important in this step? 

BG: You want to make sure you're pouring with the same amount of agitation every time. You don't want to pour one really soft and slow and then blast the next one.

CH: Just saturate the grounds quickly and evenly.

BG: Maybe I’m beating a dead horse, but the main thing with all of this is consistency. If you’re going to pour slow, pour slow in all of them. If you're going to pour fast, pour fast in all of them. Figure out what works for you and then replicate it every time.

BG: Now we wait 4 minutes to let it steep in full immersion.

CH: Generally you want to cup between 12 and 24 hours after a coffee is roasted.

BG: Before 12 hours it's going to be a little fresh. You'll taste a lot of the gasses that come off the coffee right after the roast. After 24 hours, you lose some of those gasses that also give you the aromatics. So coffee is ideal to cup in the 12-24 hour time frame.

CH: With that said, our coffee is usually at its best in the seven day range.

BG: As far as being brewed, definitely. Brewing and cupping, you have different goals.

 

Step 4: After letting the coffee sit for 4 minutes, use a spoon to break the crust. Use the back of the spoon to push into the crust and clear a small area on top. While you break the crust, evaluate the aroma.

Break the crust

BG: Now we're breaking. We're pushing the grounds away from the top to stop the brewing, and smelling the gasses that were trapped in there. This is when they're going to pop off, and it's the only time when some of the aromas in the coffee are present, so get your nose down in there deep.

CH: This is a full-immersion brewing method, so there's no filter, and there's no way any imperfections can hide. If there's age or defects, you're going to find it here. That's a pretty cool aspect.

 

Step 5: Using two spoons, remove any remaining grounds from the top of the cup. Grounds settled at the bottom of the cup can remain.

Remove the grounds

BG: Just by gravity, the other grounds fall to the bottom of the cup.

JB: And you only take grounds off the top. You let the rest settle to the bottom?

BG: Yes. And really, once that happens, there's a minimal amount of extraction happening. Most of the extraction occurs while that crust is on top. So we're just skimming the top, letting the coffee cool, and then we'll have a chance to taste everything. Without grinds in our teeth.

CH: Did you ever see the Cafe Imports ad? It was Noah, the VP of Sales, and they were pouring coffee on him like that beautiful...what's that one? The movie with the girl that's naked and she has roses poured on her.

JB: American Beauty.

CH: American Beauty, yeah. They did the same thing with Noah.

BG: With coffee?

CH: Yeah, with coffee.

BG: I really hope they used cold coffee and Photoshopped in the steam afterwards.

CH: No, with green coffee.

BG: Green coffee poured on him! Is he naked?

CH: He looks naked. I mean...

BG: That's hysterical.

CH: It's fantastic.

BG: So now we're just waiting for it to cool. We like to start tasting around 135 degrees, down to 130.

CH: Otherwise it's super hot. Your tastebuds will not thank you.

 

Step 6: Using a clean soup spoon, taste each of the coffees. Between coffees, dip the spoon in hot water to prevent cross-contamination. For each coffee, take note of the acidity, complexity, flavors, and body.

CH: Now we aspirate the coffee, which is basically slurping it across your palate.

BG: Basically, you're sucking in and spraying the coffee across your tongue, including the back of your tongue near your nasal cavity. That allows you to really taste. It's not as simple as Elementary school textbooks make it seem, but there are parts of your tongue that taste different elements. By spreading it across your whole mouth, you're able to taste the sweet, bitter, sour – all the distinct tastes that will come from the coffee, rather than just letting it hit your tongue and swallowing it.

CH: A couple more tips: before diving in, you want to calibrate yourself to that particular cupping. Every cupping is different. So we go through and taste each coffee once and dive back in from there.

BG: That also gives you a chance to identify anything that's going to overpower your senses, so you know to leave it to the end. Otherwise it can really dry you out or overpower the flavors of more subtle coffees. Another thing to note: we're going to be spitting. When you taste coffee, usually you're tasting around 4 cups. And if you're drinking all the coffee you're tasting, you're going to be pretty wired up and your taste buds will be affected. So we spit most of the time.

CH: Alright, it’s at 134 degrees.

BG: So just a simple spoonful – and slurp.

CH: When you're cupping coffee, you’re looking for notes from it, or memories. Like, “Hey, that tastes like my grandmother's pie!” and from there, you start building your notes.

BG: You try to get as specific as possible. So if it does taste just like Grandma's apple pie, try to dial in on the specific flavors. Is it baked apples? Nutmeg? Cinnamon? Because no one else knows what your grandma's pie tastes like.

CH: There are a lot of grandmas out there.

BG: But that memory is totally fine as a starting point, and the SCAA Flavor Wheel is a great resource. 

CH: As you go through, you're getting the notes, but also pay attention to the story of the coffee from hot to cold. We'll go three or four times through all the coffee, and that should give us enough data. For example, maybe this coffee tastes like peaches when it's hot, and apricots when it's cold.

 

Step 6:  Compare your tasting notes with other cuppers.

CH: This is the part when we talk about our experience in the cups. It's different for every coffee company, but everyone has an internal scoring mechanism. At Revelator, the cupping is done by the roasters and the two of us, and we just see how our scores lines up. If anyone has an outlier calibration, we talk about it and see if we can move closer together, hear what that person is tasting.

BG: Everyone's scoring will be a little bit different, but if you're way off, we definitely want to talk about why. As we talk about it, maybe you'll come our way, or we'll come your way.

CH: And it's always objective. Not, “This is the best one,” or “This sucks.” It's why you enjoyed this cup, or didn’t enjoy this cup.

JB: And when you say scoring - you assign numbers?

BG: It's a scale to 100. That's an SCAA thing – it's across most specialty coffee companies. Generally, anything above an 80 is considered specialty coffee.

CH: We source above 85 for single orgins, above 83 for blenders.

BG: But most of our single origins cup at 87 and above.

CH: Alright, let's talk. Coffee A: 87.

BG: 88.

CH: Sick. What's your notes?

BG: Strawberry, milk chocolate, cooling to oolong. A little bit of apricot, lychee. and kind of a mandarin orange acidity. Like a fruit cup, kind of syrupy. You know, one of those orange Del Monte cups. And a little bit of jasmine in there on the finish.

CH: I've got peach syrup, golden delicious, oolong aromatics. Honeydew, green apple, a malic acidity. Kind of a watermelon rind twist in there. As it cooled, there was more of a butterscotch note to it, but there was a weird middle cup. There's something going on there. It was thicker.

 

BG: It's not as acidic, for sure.

CH: It's just a smidge....

BG: It’s flat.

CH: Yes. It's flat. But it's sweet.

CH: Coffee B?

BG: 89.

CH: 90.

BG: Ok. So we both preferred B. I got a thing that I thought was going to go away, but it was still there when it was cool. It's justˆ like an Andes mint chocolate candy.

CH: Looking at my notes, I should have given it a lower score. Because it has a weird metallic finish, like iron. Did you notice that?

BG: Maybe that's the mint? Because i'm just tasting....it's not quite metallic, but it has that evaporative quality. It evaporates on your tongue.

CH: I think it kind of has a you're-sucking-on-a-copper-penny situation going on. Especially in these two cups. This one, not so much. I thought it was pleasant though. Golden raisin, prunes, apple cider fragrance, blackberry jam, honeysuckle. Soft body, floral. Lemon drop candy, metallic finish. And kind of buttery. I think this one cup came back and got really buttery, but these two...

BG: It's definitely something that's evaporating on the tongue, but you're right. There's something weird. It's not too bad. This had more lychee, more stone fruit, a little bit of raspberry, a little strawberry sweetness. Not quite as syrupy. 

CH: Whatcha got there? You got the answers?

BG: Yeah, I grabbed the crib sheet. Do you want to guess which one was de-stoned and which was not?

CH: Was B destoned?

BG: B was actually straight out of the tray.

CH: Really?

BG: A is de-stoned.

JB: What does that mean?

CH: After a coffee is roasted, there are occasionally particulates in coffee that come from the source. Rocks, sticks. Scissors.

JB: Copper pennies?

CH: Copper pennies. Someone's found car keys before. The de-stoner gets rid of those foreign particulates. And we're trying to figure out exactly how that process affects the coffee. There are so many variables. First, these coffees are from Friday, which we don't do for production. We always cup within 24 hours. Second, when you're sucking coffees through a destoner, you have air cooling the coffee.

BG: It's cooling more quickly.

CH: So maybe we should try taking coffee out a smidge hotter, because if it's cold in the coffee tray, it could start staling in the de-stoner.

BG: You want to keep cooling in the de-stoner? Pull it a little hotter?

CH: Exactly. Not so that it's piping hot. In the roastery, if you have it in the cooling tray for longer than five minutes or so, it starts to stale the coffee. So what I'm thinking is if we have cool coffee in the cooling tray and put it through the de-stoner, it might be cooling too much. Tomorrow we can pull samples at certain temperatures and run them through the de-stoner.

BG: That'll be fun.

CH: Yeah, we'll get real nerdy. But we're getting distracted, let's keep going. Coffee C: 88.

BG: 88. But.

CH: But?

BG: I thought I smelled a potato defect.

CH: Yeah. In this cup here? [slurp]. Wow. That's a ride, man.

BG: [slurp] That has like a...nacho cheese thing going on.

CH: It’s like Velveeta.

BG: There's definitely a weird bean in there.

CH: Maybe an over-fermented bean in there or something, but man. That is cheesy as hell!

BG: That's why we sample three cups of each coffee. That cup would be a fail. If that's what all of our coffee tasted like, we'd want to shut it down. But we have two other cups next to it.

CH: These are clean. Super pristine. Tasting notes: white grape, baked apples, thyme, Meyer lemon, apple rings. It has a round body, lingering anise. Kind of dry. and that baked fruit thing ramped up as it cooled.

BG: I was noticing baked apples for sure, white grape. It's nutty – nuttier than I expected it to be, from the aromatics. Peach.

CH: Last but not least, D

BG: 87.

CH: 87. Calibration, baby! Jammy, with Frosted Mini Wheats aromatics. Milk chocolate, cherry limeade, Golden Delicious, dry, simple, clean, sweet. A very simple coffee, I think, but as it cooled it opened out a lot.

BG: Didn't have a defect, but I agree it's a little more simple. Milk chocolate, salted caramel. Cools to more berry notes. Fig, brown sugar, lemon-lime when it's hot.

CH: So these two are...Santa Isabel?

BG: Yeah. Here’s the weird thing though. A is Gutiti de-stoned. B is Gutiti straight out of the tray. C is Santa Isabel straight out of the tray, D is Santa Isabel de-stoned.

CH: Wow. We are definitely playing with that tomorrow.

Do you have a coffee you know and love? Challenge yourself with a cupping and see what you can pull out of it.