What in the World Is a Cupping Note?
There isn’t much mystery in a bag of coffee. Reading the label, everything seems pretty straightforward. There’s the roaster—Fresh Roasted Coffee is our personal fav (go ahead, @ us)—the country of origin or blend name, the roast level, the type of body you can expect from the coffee, certifications, some branding mumbo jumbo like a URL, and what’s this? Cupping notes? Notes of? We taste? WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!
Here’s what we’re talking about. A cupping note is a word used to describe a coffee’s flavor, not its ingredients. In the case of our bestselling Organic Bali Blue Moon, our Roastmaster tasted notes of dark chocolate, vanilla bean, and anise, but there’s no dark chocolate, vanilla bean, or anise in the coffee. So how did he taste those flavors?
Cupping. Also known as cup tasting, cupping is done to determine a coffee batch’s quality, in terms of fragrance, aroma, flavor, body, sweetness, and balance. If you’ve ever seen people loudly slurping coffee from what looks like a soup spoon, you’ve already witnessed cupping! The deafening slurp isn’t just for show, though. Cup tasters inhale as they sip—this aerates the coffee and coats the entire palate, helping them get a better idea of the coffee’s makeup.
Not all coffees are created equal. Well, they all come from cherries, but so many factors affect those cherries and contribute to the coffee’s eventual flavor and body in the cup. Expert cup tasters can actually taste these factors!
Everything from elevation to harvest time to temperature to processing to roasting to grinding to brewing (and many factors in between) affects that sweet bean juice you’re drinking right now. Take a minute to look deep into the eyes of your coffee. What shade of brown are they? There’s a lot going on behind those eyes and coffee doesn’t talk, so we’ll tell you how those cupping notes came to be.
It all starts at origin—let’s say it’s Colombia, specifically Tolima, where our Organic Colombian is born and raised.
Elevation: This coffee grows between 1,300 and 1,900 masl. This elevation gives the coffee spiced berry wine notes.
Harvest time: It is harvested nine months out of the year, which increases its chances at being picket at its highest quality with the most flavor (cherries picked at the start of the harvest season tend to be underdeveloped, and those picked at the end are often overdeveloped).
Temperature: Tolima’s temperature averages between 17℃ and 29℃, with 83% humidity. At its height, the weather is muggy, which helps coffee mature faster. Conversely, colder temperatures make coffee mature slower, giving it additional time to develop more delicate, floral, and fruity notes. BUT because our Organic Colombian grows so high up where the temperatures are lower, it is still able to develop the notes it otherwise wouldn’t closer to sea level. Every single thing affects coffee. It’s crazy!
Process: The Association of Agricultural Producers and Marketers of Santiago Perez (ASOSPAC) fully wash and sun-dry this coffee to highlight its truest origin flavors. Fully washed is typical of high-quality coffee. Washed coffee is all about the seed, not the cherry. Most specialty coffees are washed because this process gives the most true-to-origin experience, as the mucilage can impart syrupy flavors if left intact during processing. Sun-drying speeds up the drying process, helping producers get their product to rest and to market faster.
Roasting: We medium roast our Organic Colombian to underscore the coffee’s nutty, smooth origin notes with a little chocolatey depth. This balances the brew and lends to its velvety mouthfeel. A medium roast is the best of both light and dark roasts.
Grinding: Believe it or not, how your coffee is ground (depending on your brewing method) affects its flavor, too! Say you’re brewing Organic Colombian in a Chemex. The grind should be medium-coarse. If it’s too coarse, your coffee may be underextracted and taste sour. Conversely, too fine a grind will produce bland, flavorless coffee.
Brewing: Let’s brew 50g of coffee to 700g of water in the Chemex we were grinding for. To get the most out of your brew, bloom 100g for 45 seconds, and then add water in concentric circles for an even brew up to 700g total, allowing your brew to filter through until the 4-minute mark.
And you’re done! As you can see, a lot went into that final cup—and we didn’t even touch on everything! But this still doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll taste the milk chocolate, almond, or creamy notes, or any cupping note in any coffee for that matter. Cupping notes are subjective and describe only the flavors, not the ingredients, so all we can really do is trust that top-tier coffee sommeliers chose words they felt people could relate to.
The best way to learn to detect cupping notes in your coffee is to try more foods. When we try something new, we scour our brains for words to put to the flavor. Like how people say squid or another uncommon meat tastes like chicken, that’s because they know what chicken tastes like more than they know what squid tastes like. In less meaty terms, nearly everyone has tasted chocolate, so we’re more likely to detect chocolate notes in coffees, even if it’s not listed on the bag. As you try new things, you’ll start adding those flavors to your memory bank of potential cupping notes. That’s how the pros do it.
So go try a mangosteen or butter rum candies or a hunk of baker’s chocolate. Before long, you’ll start finding those flavors in your coffee.