What’s the Deal with a Coffee Cupping?

(Image credit: Anna Brones)

A coffee what? A cupping. Let’s start with the basics: Coffee cupping is a fancy way of saying “tasting.”

On the professional side of things, cupping is what the coffee world does to determine the quality of coffees and analyze their aromas. But coffee cupping isn’t just for the pros. Here’s a little more about a coffee cupping and how to get the most out of one yourself.

Ever noticed that your bag of coffee beans says “notes of blackcurrant and cherries?” That’s because someone cupped it and identified those flavor profiles.

Just like you might attend a wine tasting, a coffee cupping allows you to try several different coffees in the same sitting and assess them all. This is a great way to get to know the differences between coffees, and to train your palate to get used to those differences.

“Going to a cupping is a fantastic way to try a bunch of coffees side by side. Normally our experience with tasting coffee is simply a single cup at a time, so it’s difficult to compare different coffees enjoyed at different times,” says Jason Scheltus, director of coffee at Melbourne’s famed Market Lane Coffee in Australia.

While you might find that a cupping may differ slightly from one place to another (you might get to enjoy an overly talkative roaster for example), in general, coffee cuppings are fairly straightforward with universal guidelines, and therefore very similar no matter where you find yourself. In fact, because a cupping is intended to evaluate coffee, it’s important that the cupping process is standardized. There are in fact recommended coffee-cupping protocols set up by the Statistics & Standards Committee of the Specialty Coffee Association of America to ensure a good cupping experience.

How Does a Coffee Cupping Work?

At a wine tasting, the product to be tasted is prepped and ready to go, but at a coffee cupping, you work your way from bean to cup. That means you start with the aroma, smelling the different coffees and noting down the fragrances that you pick up. Yes, you’re going to be encouraged to write them down; when you’re cupping several types of coffee and noting aromas and tastes at different stages, it’s hard to keep it all in your brain.

(Image credit: Anna Brones)

Next comes the actual coffee part; water is added to the grounds, forming a crust of coffee at the top of the cup. You’re still focused on the aromas, and before tasting the coffee you want to smell it. To do this, you use a spoon to “break the crust” of coffee that has formed (thanks to the water), allowing more of the fragrance of the coffee to escape. Get that nose in there and take a smell!

At this point in the cupping, things get a little more exciting. If you’ve ever heard anyone talk about attending a cupping, certainly they mentioned the slurping part. While you may sip your normal cup of morning coffee, at a cupping, you aspirate — or slurp — the coffee. Using a spoon (they’re big and round, kind of like soup spoons), the goal is to suck the coffee in and almost spray it into your mouth so that it covers your whole tongue. Getting the coffee all over your tongue and even into the back of your throat allows you to experience more aromas.

If you’re tasting a lot of coffees, you may want to slurp then spit; it can be overwhelming to consume that much caffeine all at once.

4 Words to Know at a Coffee Cupping

During your cupping, you may hear some buzz words (yes, pun intended) thrown around. Here’s what they mean:

  • Acidity: While calling a food “acidic” might be a bad thing, in coffee it’s not the same. Coffee with favorable acidity is often defined as “bright,” and coffee with unfavorable acidity is often defined as “sour.”
  • Flavor: What are you tasting when that coffee hits your tongue? Caramel? Chocolate? Something nutty? Or something a bit lighter … citrus perhaps? There are no wrong answers here, simply what you’re tasting. If you think it tastes like Thanksgiving leftovers, then you have the right to think so.
  • Body: How does the coffee feel in your mouth? Does it feel thin or heavy? You can compare this to the differences in what drinking skim milk versus a heavy cream would feel like.
  • Aftertaste: You want that coffee flavor to linger for a bit. Is it sour? Bitter? Silky smooth? The aftertaste of a coffee is just as important to the overall quality of the coffee as the initial taste.

Don’t Be Intimidated!

Some people can feel intimidated at the thought of a cupping, particularly about how they are going to identify flavors and smells. Scheltus recommends that first-time cupping goers “simply start out by picking their favourite and least favourite on the table, and encourage them to explain why. Usually this raises questions as to why they prefer one over the other, and whether other tasters agree or not.”

Nowadays, many cafes and roasters offer public cuppings, and they are a great way to explore the world of coffee. What I love about coffee cuppings is that even if you know exactly what you like in your morning cup, it allows you to go further. Tasting different coffees side by side truly allows you to compare them and have a better understanding of why some coffees taste chocolatey and others fruity. Through comparison, you pick up on more flavor differences than if you just brewed one cup at home, and you learn more about coffee in the process.

While all this may sound a bit complicated, remember that coffee cuppings are about tasting, exploring, and having fun. “There is nothing to be scared of in a cupping, no right or wrong answers, it’s just a chance to have a new experience and maybe learn something new,” says Scheltus.

I am reminded of another famous quote about coffee cupping, from Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia Coffee, and it just might be something to keep in mind when you consider going to your first cupping: “There is no mystery to cupping, only endless intrigue.”

I think we can all raise our coffee cups to a little intrigue.