Person performing coffee cupping to evaluate flavor profiles for a comprehensive coffee cupping guide.

Coffee Cupping Guide for Beginners: Taste Coffee Like a Pro

Ever wondered how coffee experts distinguish between beans from Brazil and Ethiopia? Or perhaps why one roast tastes incredibly fruity while another screams chocolate?

Much of it comes down to coffee cupping – a tasting method that lays bare the intricate notes of your brew.

In this guide, we’ll strip down the professional jargon and complex techniques to give you a beginner-friendly approach to coffee cupping right at home.

What you’ll learn:

  1. Understanding Coffee Cupping: Dive deep into the world of coffee tasting, its significance in the coffee industry, and why it’s crucial for your brewing game.
  2. Essential Equipment: Most of what you need might already be in your kitchen. We’ll go through the list.
  3. The Brewing Process: A step-by-step guide on how to brew your coffee specifically for cupping.
  4. The Tasting Technique: Tips and tricks to identify and savor the unique flavors present in your coffee.

If you’re more of a visual learner, check out this video by Lance Hedrick who breaks down the whole process, equipment, and techniques for setting up a coffee cupping session at home. Be sure to subscribe and give his video a thumbs up!

What is Coffee Cupping?

Coffee cupping is a standardized process used throughout the coffee industry by roasters, buyers, enthusiasts, etc., where you grind beans, add hot water, and then taste the coffee to pick up on its unique characteristics like flavor profiles, aromas, and mouthfeel of different coffee beans that can be subtle and very easy to miss when you don’t know what to look, or taste, for.

It helps you develop your taste buds, compare flavors, and make decisions about the coffee you like and find coffee you don’t like.

During the cupping process, cuppers focus on various attributes:

  1. Aroma: The fragrance released by the freshly brewed coffee
  2. Acidity: The brightness or liveliness that adds vibrancy to the coffee
  3. Body: The tactile sensation and weight of the coffee in the mouth
  4. Flavor: The overall taste profile, including any specific notes or nuances
  5. Aftertaste: The lingering flavors that remain on the palate after swallowing

Each coffee is rated and scored based on these attributes, allowing cuppers to differentiate and compare the quality and characteristics of different coffees.

What Is The Purpose Of Coffee Cupping

Coffee cupping, at its core, is a bit like wine tasting for the coffee world. It’s not just a regular thing, but something you can really immerse yourself in and learn from.

But why do people actually do it?

Here are some reasons.

  • Evaluate Bean Quality: First and foremost, coffee cupping is used by professionals – think coffee farmers, roasters, and buyers – to evaluate the quality of coffee beans. It’s their way of assessing if the beans have been grown, processed, and roasted to perfection or if there are any defects that need addressing.
  • Discover Flavor Profiles: Beyond just quality, cupping dives deep into the unique flavors and aromas of coffee. Coffee isn’t just “coffee-flavored.” Depending on its origin, processing method, and roast, it can have notes of anything from berries and citrus to chocolate and spices. Cupping helps you uncover these intricate profiles.
  • Comparative Analysis: Cupping isn’t usually about tasting just one type of coffee. Often, several coffees are cupped side-by-side to compare and contrast their characteristics. This helps roasters and buyers decide which beans they might want to purchase or how different beans might blend together.
  • Build a Palate: For enthusiasts and everyday coffee lovers, cupping is a fantastic way to train your palate. Just like how wine enthusiasts can discern the nuances in different wines, cupping lets coffee lovers develop a deeper appreciation for the complexities of coffee.
  • Cultivates a Coffee Community: Lastly, coffee cupping often brings people together. Whether it’s professionals discussing trade or friends exploring new flavors, the practice fosters community and conversation around a shared love for coffee.

Why Cup Coffee at Home?

Okay so we’ve established what the purpose of cupping coffee is, but you’re probably asking yourself, why should I try this at home?

Discover New Flavors

For starters, coffee as a beverage is complex. Depending on where it’s grown, how it’s processed, and how it’s roasted, coffee can present a wide range of flavors. From fruity and floral to earthy and nutty, the spectrum is broad. Cupping at home lets you become an explorer of sorts.

You might find a bean from Ethiopia that hints at blueberries or a Guatemalan coffee that reminds you of chocolate and almonds. This adventure of flavor discovery can be incredibly rewarding and can ignite a newfound passion for the beverage.

I’ve had my fair share of experiences when drinking coffee from diners, fast food restaurants, and even some coffee shops where the only flavor I could taste from my coffee was either bitter, burnt, bland, or even too sweet.

But once I tried this technique to actually taste my coffee with quality beans, I’m now excited to fix my coffee in the mornings and taste the notes of chocolate, caramel, and hazelnut with a bit of a smokey taste. It also makes my apartment smell really good too!

Personalized Coffee Education

One of the most empowering things about cupping coffee at home is the education you give yourself.

Each cupping session is a learning opportunity, where you not only notice different flavor profiles but also begin to understand the effects of different brewing methods, grind sizes, and water temperatures on the end result.

Over time, you’ll become your own coffee expert, honing in on the precise variables that yield your own tailored recipe for your perfect cup.

And, there’s nothing better than saving a few bucks on your Starbucks budget every month, if you can fix your favorite drink at home, right?

Making Better Choices When Buying Coffee Beans

Choosing your next bag of coffee can easily be overwhelming and complicated. Light roast, dark, espresso? Single origin or blend? Organic or conventional?

Cupping can guide you in these moments. As you get accustomed to tasting and analyzing coffee, you’ll begin to understand what you like and what you don’t.

Maybe you lean towards the bright acidity of Kenyan coffees, or perhaps the creamy body of a Brazilian bean is more your speed. With this knowledge, you can make more focused buying decisions, so you always get a bag of beans you’ll love.

How to Set Up Coffee Cupping at Home

If you’ve made it this far, then you must be ready to try your own coffee-cupping experiment. Listed below are the tools needed to create your own cupping session.

Basic Tools You’ll Need

Before we dive into the setup process, let’s take a look at the basic equipment you will need for a successful coffee cupping session:

  • A Good Quality Coffee Grinder: One of the most crucial tools in coffee cupping (and in general brewing coffee) is the grinder. The consistency and quality of your grind can affect your cupping session. Burr grinders are typically preferred over blade grinders because they produce a more consistent grind size, which in turn affects the extraction and, ultimately, the flavors you’ll taste.
  • A Couple of Bowls or Mugs: Traditional coffee cupping requires a specific kind of bowl, but when you’re just starting out at home, a couple of regular bowls or mugs will do just fine. They should be similar in size and shape to maintain consistency when you’re comparing different coffees. To get a variety of tastes, start with 3 or 4 mugs for your different flavored coffees
  • A Spoon: Not just any spoon, but a deep-bowled one. This will be your primary tool for skimming off the coffee grounds and slurping the coffee during your tasting. Slurping (yes, it’s encouraged!) helps to aerate the coffee and spread it evenly over your palate (tongue), letting you pick up on those nuanced flavors.
  • Fresh Water and a Kettle: The quality of your water can influence your coffee’s taste significantly. Aim for filtered water if possible. When it comes to heating, you’ll want a kettle—either a stovetop or electric will work. The ideal water temperature for cupping is just off the boil, around 200°F (93°C). Too hot, and you risk over-extracting and scalding the coffee; too cold, and you won’t extract those flavorful compounds effectively.
  • Coffee Beans (Preferably Freshly Roasted): Freshness is key when it comes to coffee beans. Look for beans that have a roast date on them and aim to cup them within a month of that date. Freshly roasted beans will give you the most vibrant and truest flavors. If you’re new to this, start with a single origin to truly understand its unique profile before diving into blends.

How to Obtain Coffee Beans for Cupping?

Beans are obviously the most important part of this whole process, however, you don’t want to buy just any beans from your local grocery store. 

The beans that line the coffee aisle of your local grocer haven’t been roasted fresh and instead of having a “roast by” date, they instead have a “use by” date and there’s no telling how long they’ve been sitting there on the shelf waiting to be bought.

Below are a few ways to get your hands on some freshly roasted coffee beans.

  • Local Coffee Shops: Visit your local coffee shops and ask if they sell small quantities of different coffee beans. They might have specialty or single-origin beans that are perfect for cupping.
  • Online Retailers: Many online retailers offer sample packs or small quantities of coffee beans. Look for reputable coffee sellers like Blue Bottle or Bean Box that provide detailed information about the origin and flavor profile of the beans.
  • Friends and Coffee Communities: Reach out to your coffee-loving friends or join online coffee communities. You might find fellow coffee enthusiasts who are willing to trade or share small amounts of different beans for cupping purposes.

The Step-by-Step Coffee Cupping Process

Step 1: Measuring and Grinding the Beans

For a bowl that holds 240-250ml, or 1 cup, of water, you’ll want to start with about 12 grams, or about 1 tablespoon, of coffee. This ratio guarantees that the coffee isn’t too strong or too weak for cupping, but just right for extracting the true essence of the bean.

Your grind size should be similar to coarse sea salt. Grind your beans just before you’re ready to cup. Coffee begins to lose its nuanced flavors soon after grinding. Freshly ground beans help capture the full spectrum of flavors and aromas the coffee has to offer.

Step 2: Heat Your Water

For most coffee cupping and brewing methods, the sweet spot lies between 195°F to 205°F (90°C to 96°C). If you have a kettle with temperature settings, then you can get precise with your temperature. But if not, Simply bring the water to a boil and then let it sit for about 30 seconds before pouring.

Step 3: Add Water to the Coffee Grounds

Pour the heated water onto the coffee grounds of each mug or bowl until you reach your desired volume. The goal is to get all the grounds submerged, so they’re all extracting at the same rate. Pouring in a steady, circular motion can help evenly saturate the grounds.

Step 4: Wait for Your Coffee Samples to Cool

Set a timer (your phone will work) and let each brew sit for around 4 minutes. This will allow time for the flavors in the coffee to extract into the resulting brew in each mug. As the coffee sits and steeps, the coffees will release a bunch of aromatic compounds. This period is an excellent opportunity to lean in and breathe in each mug to observe the fragrances you smell.

Step 5: Break The Top Crust of Your Coffees

As your coffee steeps, grounds naturally rise to the top and form a crust. This crust acts as a barrier, trapping gasses and the aromas within the brew.

After the 4-minute mark, break the crust formed on the top using a spoon either in a back-and-forth or circular motion.

When broken, the coffees should release a burst of scents, offering a preview of the flavor profile.

After breaking the crust, there might still be some floating particles or bubbles on the surface. Using the side of your spoon, gently skim these off for a clean-tasting experience.

Let the brews sit for another 10 to 11 more minutes to cool further before tasting.

Step 6: Taste Your Coffee Samples and Compare

Once the brew is cool enough, slurp the coffee using a spoon. It sounds obnoxious but slurping actually helps aerate the coffee. Slurping helps “spray” the coffee over your tongue to give you the best possible taste assessment.

To slurp effectively, take a spoonful of coffee, and draw it into your mouth with a forceful inhale. Think of it as pulling the coffee in with a gust of air. It might take a bit of practice, but it’s well worth the effort.

Once the coffee is in your mouth, roll it around to coat every part of your mouth and then swallow. Analyze what you taste and compare it to the other coffees you have in this experiment.

When comparing your samples, focus on the differences in acidity, sweetness, body, and flavor profiles. One coffee might strike you as particularly bright and citrusy, while another might be deep, rich, and chocolatey.

Bonus Step: Record What You Taste

Keeping notes can be priceless, especially when cupping multiple varieties over time. Jotting down your impressions will not only help you remember the nuances of each coffee but also track your palate’s evolution over time. Start with broad terms that come to mind and as you start developing a palette you can get more specific.

This is currently helping me identify new flavors of coffee when I get bored of the favorites I’ve grown to love. When I’m in the mood to add a new flavor of coffee to my routine, I’ll get a few new samples and go through this process to help me pick a new bag to add to my mornings.

Understanding Basic Coffee Flavors

You might’ve just done your first coffee cupping experiment and you may not have had a clear idea of what to look for. That’s okay! I didn’t understand a lot of it on my first couple of cuppings.

To help you get started here are some places and characteristics to get you started on your next cupping.

Common Tastes to Expect

  • Sweet: Often the first taste you’ll recognize, a well-brewed coffee should have a certain degree of sweetness. This sweetness can remind you of sugary syrups, ripe fruits, or even honey, depending on the coffee bean and its roast.
  • Sour: Don’t be alarmed by the term. In coffee lingo, sour often translates to ‘acidity,’ which, when balanced, gives coffee its brightness and liveliness. High-acidity coffees might remind you of certain fruits like berries or citrus.
  • Bitter: Bitterness in coffee provides depth. While an overly bitter cup might indicate over-roasting or over-extraction, a balanced bitterness can lend richness and complexity to the brew, reminiscent of dark chocolate or toasted nuts.

Basic Aroma Profiles:

  • Nutty: Think of the warm, comforting aroma of freshly toasted almonds or hazelnuts. A nutty profile is common in many medium-roast beans and is often associated with smoothness and a medium body.
  • Fruity: If your coffee reminds you of the zesty tang of citrus fruits or the sweet allure of berries, you’re getting a fruity aroma profile. Such profiles are often found in lightly roasted, high-altitude beans.
  • Chocolaty: It’s a joyous moment when your coffee exudes the rich, velvety aroma of cocoa or dark chocolate. Often found in medium to dark roasts, a chocolaty aroma is associated with depth and decadence.

These aren’t the definitive flavors and aromas of every coffee you’ll come across. As you taste more, you’ll begin to detect subtler notes. That generic ‘fruitiness’ might evolve into specific fruits or you may begin to taste a bit more nuances like cinnamon.

Conclusion

Coffee cupping is an immersive experience when developing your palate for coffee flavors, aromas, and mouthfeel. There is no perfect method when developing your personalized flavor profile and each experience is different for each person.

FAQs:

What’s the significance of coffee cupping?

Coffee cupping allows professionals and enthusiasts to identify and describe the flavors, aromas, and general characteristics of coffee beans.

Can I do coffee cupping with instant coffee?

While possible, it’s not recommended. Freshly ground beans provide a more authentic and diverse range of flavors while Instant coffee processing can diminish some of the distinct flavor profiles you’d find in whole beans.

Is there a preferred water temperature for brewing?

Ideally, water should be just off the boil – around 200°F (93°C).

How long should I let the coffee steep?

Let your coffee steep for about four minutes before breaking the crust and tasting.

Why is slurping important during cupping?

Slurping helps spray the coffee over the palate, enabling you to evaluate its entire flavor profile.

Do I need a special spoon for cupping?

No, you don’t need a special spoon for cupping. While there are spoons designed specifically for coffee cupping, any deep-bowled spoon, like a soup spoon, will work just fine for beginners. The goal is to effectively slurp and assess the coffee’s flavor profile.