Cupping Coffee at Home
If you're any kind of coffee enthusiast, chances are you've come across this scene:
A round or long table taken up by more 5 oz. glasses than any home cupboard could hold. Spoons, placards, notepads, trays, pens, noses getting mad close to coffee, and a whole lot of slurping.
This, my friend, is the world of coffee cupping. Also called "cup tasting," this is how Q Graders—aka coffee sommeliers—score coffee based on the Specialty Coffee Association's (SCA) points of fragrance, aroma, flavor, body, sweetness, and balance.
But you don't have to be a pro to cup coffee. Anyone can do it! Even you! Yes, you! Chances are you even have most of what you'll need to set up your very own coffee cupping, so let's get started!
You will need:
- Weighing scale (with a grams setting, preferably accurate to 0.1 of a gram)
- Grinder (preferably a burr grinder for better grind consistency)
- A few soup/cupping spoons
- 2 - 5, 5 oz (150 ml) sized vessel (coffee mug, bowl, etc.)
- One mug or bowl to be used as a rinse or "dip cup"
- At least 20g of 2 - 5 different coffees to cup
You may be wondering where the brewer is. That's a rhetorical question—you are the brewer.
In all seriousness, though, the brewers are the mugs or bowls you just gathered. Brewing for your cupping extravaganza in a Chemex (or any everyday brewer) won't give you the purest look at the coffee you're cupping because of how much technique goes into it. With a Chemex, you've gotta pour at specific times in specific amounts, stopping the brew at a specific time, not to mention the paper filter, which takes coffee's natural oils right out instantly. Simply, pouring hot water over grounds in a cup using any ol' kettle you have is the best way to ensure repeatability.
Repeatability is important in cup tasting because we want every single one of the coffees we're cupping to be made the exact same way, so no coffee is unnaturally any sweeter or more acidic. You can adjust your pouring and timing with a V60 to sweeten your brew. We don't want that. Well, we'd like sweet, but we have to go into cupping with an open mind, so we're not skewing the results. Speaking of results—plural—we're cupping 2 - 5 different coffees.
While cupping one coffee is okay, it doesn't really give you anything to go off. A set of 2 - 5 coffees allows you to pick out certain notes in each and weigh them against each other. For example, if you think Cup A's body is full, comparing it to Cup B's body may give you a different, more accurate result.
If you have a lab coat, put it on, because we're about to set the mood for this cup sesh. Yes, we need to make sure the atmosphere is just right.
Because cupping is all about taste and smell, we want to make sure these senses are tack-sharp and uninhibited. The best time to cup coffee is 2 - 3 hours after you wake up, when you are the most alert and focused. To prepare, avoid brushing your teeth, chewing gum, eating oily and/or wildly flavorful foods, and smoking. Keep your outfit free of colognes, perfumes, and cigarette smoke. Also, it's important to use fragrance-free dish detergent for any of your cupping equipment. Really, steer clear of everything that could impart unwanted flavors or scents.
Now that you're all set, let's get to actually cupping.
How to Cup Coffee at Home
- Gather your equipment.
- Cupping Score Sheet
- Boil clean, soft water (such as filtered) to 200°F / 93°C. It's SCA standard practice.
- While that's getting hot hot hot, toss a small fistful of beans into your grinder to purge it of any lingering coffee. Weigh out 8.25 grams of each of your coffees, grinding each a tad finer than medium-fine. Do your best to get all the coffee you put into your grinder out. We want each cup to be exactly the same. Hide your coffee bags. Don't let the tasting notes printed on their labels influence you. If you are cupping with someone, don't discuss what you are tasting during the cupping. This is your moment.
- Prior to pouring the water over the ground coffee, take a moment to savor the fragrance. I find this is a very important part of the cupping process and one that is often underappreciated and/or neglected.
- Allow all of the cups to brew for 4 minutes. Again, ensure you are taking the time to smell the aroma of the coffee (dry smell: fragrance / wet smell: aroma).
- Grab one of your spoons to break the “crust” that has formed on each of the cups. I place my nose close to 7 o'clock on the first cup and swirl the coffee counter-clockwise 3 times and sniff as the spoon passes your nose each time. Make sure you swirl the coffee slowly as you don't want to lose any of the precious liquid. You may develop your own technique—just ensure that you don't agitate the coffee that has settled on the bottom of the cup. Whatever technique you use, just make sure you are consistent.
- Pick up two of your spoons. With both of your spoons, skim the top layer of foam, oil, and/or remaining grounds off your cups. This is called "cleaning the cup".
- Because we're looking for flavor, not heat, we're going to let our cups cool for at least 8 minutes. Pour hot water into a separate glass (dip cup) for rinsing your spoon while you wait. Take up the whole 10 minutes pouring one glass of water if you want.
- After those ten agonizing minutes, dip your spoon into the dip cup then into the first coffee and slurp it into your mouth. This might seem goofy the first few times you do it, but it actually magnifies the coffee's flavor. Imagine you're pouring a cup of coffee. Pouring close to the cup doesn't aerate the coffee a whole lot but doing a @jerney high pour will shake things up for sure, just like how swirling highlights the notes of wine. Adding air to coffee turns it up.
- Dip your spoon in the dip cup and then on to the next cup. Compare and contrast those first two coffees, dip your spoon, and cup the next coffee, and on and on and on, taking notes the whole time.
- Analyze different aspects of the coffees at different temperature points. First and second sips: flavor and aftertaste; third and fourth sips: acidity and body (acidity is much easier to perceive at cooler temps).
- Continue dipping, slurping, and noting until your coffee cools down to room temp.
Congratulations! You've officially completed your very own coffee cupping! Here's a Fresh Roasted Coffee Certificate of Achievement. Feel free to print it off, sign it, and frame it on your wall. You've earned it. If you cup any of our coffees (and we hope you will), let us know what you find!