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Coffee Cupping: How Professionals Taste Coffee

[Photographs: Erin Meister]

In the coffee world, a cupping—despite sounding like something best done in private (especially if you're a politician)—is the specific, ritualized way that industry professionals taste, analyze and grade different beans for quality. Ever wonder what they're looking for, exactly, or what motions they go through to find it?

Kind of like the wine tasting for coffee beans, cupping is a methodical process with universally recognized parameters. It allows coffee growers, traders, roasters, and plain ol' lovers to approach the same beans on a relatively level playing field, no matter where they might be based—so a roaster in, say, North Carolina is able to taste the coffee the same way as one in San Francisco or London by following these procedures, despite how different their respective coffee cultures might be.

Weigh and Grind the Beans

First, the whole beans are weighed out, corresponding to the amount of water being used in the brew (1.63 grams of whole-bean coffee per ounce of just-off-boil water, according to Ted Lingle's guide, The Coffee Cupper's Handbook). They're ground directly before the cupping begins, and particle size is determined by calibration. (The grounds should be as coarse as possible without leaving "floaters" behind in the cup after they are skimmed for tasting.) Because the samples taken needs to be representative of what could be an entire lot or farm's worth of beans, multiple cups of each coffee get the cupping treatment at a time—usually at least three.

Smell and Brew

Smelling the dry grounds is the first step, and participants often gently shake the samples to release their aromas. Once everyone has experienced the cups dry, the leader(s) will add hot water to them, beginning the brew. When saturated, the grounds form a crust at the top of the cup, which can contribute a distinct smell of its own; during the steep time, participants sniff this crust and take note of any changes that may have occurred once the coffee has come in contact with water. After four minutes, participants will "break" the crust by drawing the back of a spoon through the grounds; this releases another burst of aroma, which can be more prominent or pronounced than what they got by just sniffing that top crust.

Taste

After the samples are "broken," each cup is skimmed clean of grounds to allow for tasting (nobody wants to find coffee specks in their teeth three hours later, know'msayin'?). From this point, cuppers taste the coffees by slurping them from deep-bowled spoons, being sure to aspirate and spray the coffee all over their mouths, as we have taste buds all over the place in there. Many professionals will spit the liquid out after tasting it, but swallowing is okay, too—just be careful not to over-caffeinate. Flavor notes are kept throughout, and shared at the end.

In a casual cupping (like the open-to-the-public ones I host every Friday, or others available to coffee lovers everywhere), we assure people there are no wrong answers when describing what they experienced, which of course leads to some funny contributions (e.g. "cat pee," or "my mother's Christmas fruitcake with a scoop of vanilla iced cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon"), but in a professional cupping each sample is graded on a scale of 1 to 100, with flowery descriptors tossed mostly by the wayside.

Have you ever attended a coffee cupping? If so, what was the most challenging or enlightening thing about it?

About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista and an audacious eater, but she remains a Nervous Cook. Her latest project is Eat This Neighborhood, wherein she attempts to eat at least one thing at every single restaurant in the vicinity of her Chelsea apartment.

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