Coffee Cupping is an important stage in the journey of the bean from seed to cup. It is mainly done by Q Graders to assess the quality of coffee. It is also done by producers and buyers to determine the price of the coffee. However it can also be practised by anyone who is trying to observe the subtle flavours in different cups of coffee. Experts try guessing the origin of different coffees they taste.
Coffee tasting is an interesting process where one uses the sense of smell, sight and taste to notice different flavours, aroma and taste that a cup can give. It can be quite difficult in the beginning to detect all the flavours a cup of coffee has to offer but with practice it is easier to note the flavours.
One gets to experience coffee for what it naturally is – without any additives. Standard procedure is followed to taste several batches of the same coffee by smelling the aroma of ground coffee and brewed coffee and tasting the brew.
The mind is trained to recall tastes and smell resembling particular foods or anything that can be closely relatable. There is absolutely no right or wrong flavour a person detects in any cup. Each taster may find a different tasting note or flavour and at the same time all of them could be right. That’s because each of us has a different palate.
So with all the excitement contained within you must be wondering how is coffee cupping done? How do you identify different notes? Can I try doing it at home?
Well, the good news is anybody can try tasting coffee and look for varied tasting notes. Each brew holds a surprise of diverse aromas and flavours that is realised only when the senses are out to test. Let’s see how the cupping procedure is done.
Firstly, small samples of at least three different coffees are roasted. A light to medium degree roasting is done until the pop sound is produced. Beans are roasted a day before cupping. An 8 hour rest is given to the beans before the cupping procedure begins.
GRINDING & SNIFFING
The sample roasted beans are ground medium to coarse right before cupping. This grind size releases more volatile gases and aromatic compounds. These compounds are lost within 15 mins of grinding and hence cupping should be initiated soon after they are ground.
A small quantity of roasted beans is ground first and this batch is discarded to remove any grounds left from previously run batches. 10g of sample coffee is then ground and placed in a cup. Similarly five such cups are prepared for each sample for tasting.
The coffee grounds may be sniffed and notes of the fragrance are noted.
Next, water that is at a temperature just below its boiling point, around 200°F or 95°C is poured over the coffee grounds slowly. Cupping is all about the timing and all the cups should be filled up till the brim with 250 ml of water within 5 mins.
Now, a crust forms that holds the grounds with some gases trapped underneath. After 4 - 5 mins, the crust is carefully removed with the help of a spoon without disturbing the liquor.
It is at this point that the brew is once again sniffed. The aroma could smell entirely different from that of the dry grounds fragrance. The liquor is then allowed to cool to a temperature of 50°C before tasting.
The sample is tasted 8 -10 mins after infusion with water. The liquor is slurped into the mouth covering the tongue and the upper palate. At elevated temperatures, the vapours are at their maximum intensity reach the nasal cavity and hence the flavour and aftertaste are scored at this stage.
When the liquor cools down further the acidity, body and balance are scored.
The sweetness, uniformity and cleanness are evaluated as the liquor reaches room temperature. Evaluation is ceased once the liquor reaches 21°C.
The following attributes are considered while cupping.
Fragrance/Aroma – The smell of dry coffee grounds is described as fragrance. The smell of the brew is referred as aroma. The aroma of coffee is experienced during roasting, tasting and aftertaste
Flavour – The combination of smell and taste give a coffee its flavour
Aftertaste – It is the flavour that remains in the mouth, usually felt at the back of the tongue after the coffee is swallowed or spit out. Also referred to as “finish”
Acidity – A dry, bright, sparkling sensation felt at the tip and sides of the tongue that gives coffee its liveliness
Body – Also called mouthfeel, it describes how coffee feels in the mouth sensed by its weight, and texture
Balance – Refers to how well the flavour, aftertaste, acidity and body have combined to produce an even cup or if any/some of these attributes stand out clearly and still make a good cup
Sweetness – This attribute in a coffee could be perceived as a result of coffee growing in different regions (higher altitudes, higher sweetness) or the roasting process
Uniformity – Refers to the uniformity of all the different cups when tasted (usually 5 cups)
Cleanness – It is the lack of any off tastes in a coffee from the time of ingestion till it is spit out
Overall – This is the integrated rating given to a coffee based on personal taste. A higher score is given for coffees whose origins can be traced or are exhibiting a good cup even though its individual scores were not prominently high.
Defects – These are the unpleasant flavours that have an impact on the quality of coffee. It may be a taint (detected in the aroma) or a fault (affecting the taste) and an intensity of 2 and 4 are given respectively for the respective defects. This is repeated for all the cups and the values and multiplied and subtracted from the overall score of the coffee. A description of the defect is written down as phenolic, rubbery etc.