At times, it takes a lot to train your tastebuds before you can enjoy the delicious aroma of a fragrant cup of coffee. And that’s where cupping comes in! Coffee cupping is the professional tasting of coffee.
Professional quality graders (called Q Graders in the industry) evaluate the quality of the coffee in terms of taste, aroma and sensory properties - i.e. the texture of the coffee and its effect on the palate and tongue.
Usually more than one coffee is tasted in order to have comparative values, and to be able to classify the various flavor attributes more easily. A cupping test form helps to evaluate and classify the various aspects of the coffee using a point scale.
There are two companies that have promoted the use of cupping to evaluate the quality of coffee:
Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA)
These two companies play an extremely important role in connection with a quality coffee that meets the highest standards. The SCAA has existed since 1982 and, with almost 2,500 corporate members, is the largest coffee trade association in the world.
For more than 30 years, the association has supported its members with services, events and many other measures, including the development of standards and guidelines to promote the growth and sustainability of the coffee industry.
The SCAA introduced the “Coffee Cupping Protocol” and the “Coffee Cupping Form,” which are used by professional testers. Usually more than one coffee is tasted in order to get comparative values and to be able to classify the various attributes more easily.
The aforementioned cupping form helps to evaluate and categorise the various aspects of coffee in the form of a point scale. The quality of the coffee is tested in terms of taste, aroma and sensory properties. The texture of the coffee and its effect on the tongue and palate are also tested and evaluated.
Alliance for Coffee Excellence (ACE)
The American non-profit organisation “Alliance for Coffee Excellence Inc.” or “ACE” for short, which is supported by coffee roasters and farmers from more than 50 countries, should also be mentioned in this context. With all of its activities, it promotes the respect and appreciation that outstanding coffee deserves worldwide.
Since 1999 it has organised the renowned Cup of Excellence competition, during which coffee cupping creates objective evaluation standards and thus ensures groundbreaking transparency and integrity in the coffee industry.
Taste and aroma: a science in itself
The human tongue can only distinguish four flavours, namely sweet, sour, bitter and salty. However, the unique coffee taste, which begins in the nose and ends with the finish, is created through more than 1000 aromas in the roasted coffee. This means the totality of all taste and aroma sensations in the nose, mouth and throat area.
A “flavour wheel” is used during coffee cupping by professionals, which is issued and sold by the SCAA. The aim of the wheel is to enable a simpler visual representation of the different aroma groups and typical coffee characteristics.
Who carries out the cupping?
Anyone in the world of coffee can generally host and perform a cupping. Professionals typically hold them, such as green coffee buyers and quality graders, to assess the quality in order to be able to assign a price to the coffee.
Coffee roasters also conduct cuppings to compare different roasting profiles. This approach helps them to find out which profile best suits the coffee. But some roasters also organise cuppings to enable their customers to make a direct comparison between the range of their coffee varieties.
How does one perform a coffee cupping?
First, the tasters smell the freshly ground coffee in order to evaluate the dry aroma. Then they pour hot water on the coffee and leave it to stand for about 4 minutes. During this time they can observe how a crust forms on the surface of the infusion.
They then break this with a "cupping spoon," which is a very large and deep tablespoon. This will allow the aromas that have formed under the crust to release. In order to be able to perceive it particularly well, the tasters' noses are particularly close to the cup when the crust is broken.
This is how they assess the wet aroma of the coffee. Then they use the spoon to skim off the coffee crumbs floating on the surface. After cooling off for a while, they try tasting some of the coffee with the cupping spoon.
During this step, it is particularly important to ensure that the coffee is sucked into the mouth from the spoon as vigorously as possible so that the aromas can be distributed throughout the mouth.
What do the tasters have to consider when cupping coffee?
During cupping, it is advisable that all coffees have the same grind size, and the taster should work with one brew ratio between coffee and water. The tasters should also not consume any food such as garlic, chili or basil immediately before the coffee cupping, as these can impair the sense of smell and taste.
What wine tasting is for the sommelier, coffee cupping is for the coffee professional. With the help of this procedure, the quality of the coffee is checked against a multitude of criteria. However, it’s not strictly only for professionals.
Nothing stops you from organising a coffee cupping with your friends or doing it by yourself in order to train your palate. Soon enough, you will be able to differentiate between different flavours and aromas!