Cupping: Consistency in Coffee Sensory Analysis
Keli Gilbertson, VP of Operations at Vitality Roasting
Roaster sensory skills are the foundation of coffee classification. As coffee professionals, our most important skills are sensory based and difficult to master. How do we taste and compare coffees? How do we improve our roasts and ensure quality in the product we produce? Bastistas and roasters alike need consistency in the way we taste coffee to ensure we are able to accurately assess the quality of the coffee beans themselves.
Cupping, or the act of brewing coffee to identify flavors (aroma and tastes) is used to quantify the intensity of the flavors and to record them on a sensory scale to use for analysis and sensory development. Because the brew method, water pH, or human error can cause defects in flavors, cupping is an important part of ensuring consistency in coffee grading. Roasters like Vitality cup our product often to check for roast defects and consistency, as well as to make informed decisions about any updates we might want to make to a coffee’s roast profile. That being said, anyone can cup coffee as a way to compare their favorites or hone in their sensory skills.
SPECIALTY COFFEE ASSOCIATION
Cupping protocols are set and adjusted periodically by The Standards Committee of the Specialty Coffee Association and are widely used and known to be the best practice for tasting coffees in an educational or professional setting. As coffee drinkers trying to learn about taste and aroma, it is important that we utilize these standards to the best of our ability, but the most important factor is consistency; however you taste your coffee, do it the same way every time.
In our cafe we don’t currently have a sample roaster, but we do roast our coffee samples on the same roaster each time, with a similar profile, ensuring we taste the coffees after a similar resting period. While meeting all the SCA cupping standards is ideal, if you are new to coffee, dont stress doing everything perfectly; just be consistent in how you cup. Developing strong sensory memories, learning to articulate those flavors thru spoken language, and without emotional bias takes time and a whole lot of practice.
EQUIPMENTS AND HOW TO CUP
Having solid equipment to utilize while cupping is key. Being sure you use the same equipment to taste coffee will ensure you maintain consistency in your cupping.
Cupping vessels are generally 7–9oz, 3-3.5 inches diameter, and either glass or ceramic. Ideally you want these to be identical, but if you ensure the water to coffee ratio is the same for each cup, it really doesn't matter if they match.
A solid burr grinder that can evenly grind your sample roasts to a coarse grind is also important. Be sure when cupping you always use the same grind, and clean out the grinder between each new coffee with a small sample of the new coffee.
There are wide, deep spoons specific to coffee tasting, but any spoon will work in a pinch.
Weigh your beans out before grinding, including a sample to clear the grinder before you begin grinding the new coffee. You will want a scale that can measure to one tenth of one gram (0.1g).
Any timer will work, including the one on your smartphone. Most kitchen timers have the option to “count up”.
Odorless, tasteless water heated to 200 degree fahrenheit is essential to cupping good, clean samples. While you don’t want to use distilled or softened water, using filtered water to remove particulates and ensure a neutral pH of 7 is best. Using a hot water tap at your cafe works, but you will want a gooseneck kettle to pour the water into the cupping vessels.
8.25 grams of coffee for every 150ml of water will produce the ideal ratio for cupping when ground properly. Be sure your sample is fresh, and ground just before cupping to extract the most intense aromas and tastes.
The SCA and many other organizations release cupping forms to grade coffee and most are available online. A notepad and pen work just fine as well to take notes on the coffee if you are tasting for sensory development or to compare coffees to one another.
HOW TO CUP
Be sure to gather everything you need to cup before you begin. A lot of the steps to cupping are time sensitive and you will want to be organized and prepared.
Weigh out your coffee samples to be ground, (8.25g/150Ml), get your water kettle heating and grind your beans, just a bit more coarse than you might use for a pour over or french press. Smell the grounds and take notes on the aromas.
Start your timer, and begin slowly pouring water into the coffee samples one at a time, being sure to fully saturate the coffee and evenly fill the vessels. Pour slowly enough that the coffee doesn't get splashed around; disrupting the coffee sample and causing more stirring in one vessel than the others will produce different flavors. Give the sample a good sniff after you fill them, as the dry fragrance of the ground coffee will be much different than the aroma of the brewing samples.
After 4 minutes, use two spoons to break the crust of the brewed samples, using the exact same method and amount of stirs for each cup. As you break the crust there will be something of an olfactory explosion as volatile aromatics get the chance to escape into the air.
Let the samples cool and then taste them each, making a strong slurping pull off the spoon to ensure the coffee coats the entire mouth and tongue. If you aren’t confident in your coffee slurp, swishing the coffee around your mouth will have a similar effect. Be sure to rinse your spoon between samples.
After you have all tasted the samples, talk about the coffee with others and compare notes. Cupping in groups is important to sensory development. Sharing insights and impressions of the coffee with your peers will help build your vocabulary and is a great way to learn how to tap into your own sensory memory. Blind cupping can also be beneficial, where none of the participants know which coffee is in each cupping vessel, helping prevent emotional bias.
Remember, every Q grader and coffee roaster likely began as a coffee enthusiast, doing cuppings to increase their sensory intelligence. Utilizing SCA standards to ensure consistency will help you learn faster and ensure quality samples, but there is no bad way to cup and taste coffee. If you would be interested in scheduling a private cupping with our team at Vitality Roasting, email us today!