Coffee Tasting - Coffee Cupping

Coffee cupping is part of the art of coffee tasting as an adjunct to professional buying, judging contests, writing reviews and so forth. But the joy of sitting before a half dozen cups of Tanzanian Peaberry, Monsoon Mysore and the rest is a delight anyone can experience. The cupper tastes (and smells) for aroma, flavor, body, acidity, finish and a wide variety of more subtle attributes. To reproduce the professional setting at home one can start with a simple arrangement.

Have an ample supply of fresh, filtered water. Even the best grounds are spoiled by tainted water. Water can become 'stale', by absorbing odors from the air, by excessive distasteful minerals such as sulfur or even by the growth of mildew in pipes. Avoid distilled or softened water that retains too much of the softening salts.

A tray that holds a dozen small glasses or cupping bowls is handy. An assortment of measuring scoops, spoons, etc completes the tools. Of course, don't forget the coffee!

Boil the water and grind the beans with a burr grinder set to different settings for the number of different trials desired. You'll be surprised what a difference the fineness of the grind makes to the final result.

Prepare the coffee, allowing any samples to steep for a few minutes. Filter the coffee or allow to settle and spoon out a sample, then smell. Take the aroma in, running it through the nose and concentrating. Then taste, by running the liquid over the entire tongue. Hold for a few seconds, then spit into a container.

Think about the coffee's profile. Is it woody or winey? Acidic or smooth? Syrupy or thin? Peppery or floral? It's amazing how varied different coffees are, but given the wide variety of climates, soil and preparation methods it shouldn't be too surprising.

Experiment with coffees of different countries - a Kenyan AA (darker, rougher) is quite different from a Colombian (more floral), which is different yet again from a Yemen Mocha (winey).

Try different roasts from light to very dark, American to Viennese. Change the grind from rough to very fine. Even with the same bean, modifying the roast and grind can make a big difference.

Generally you'll want to have about two tablespoons (10 grams) of coffee for each six fluid ounces (180 ml) of water. Adjust as you experiment. The water should be not very far from 200F (93C), but you can adjust this too as you try different 'recipes'.

Keep in mind some of the different attributes of the profile:

  • Acid - a tartness that tastes somewhat dry, noticeable in a Mexican, softer in a Sumatra brew. Aging can make a big difference here, as does the roast.
  • Aroma - the sensation produced by vapors, fruity or herb-like. Kona(s) are known for a floral aroma.
  • Bitter - From caffeine and other compounds, a robusta will generally be more bitter than an arabica. Sense by swishing on the back of the tongue.
  • Body - Degree of 'thickness', a light American roast will contrast sharply with a dark French, for example.
  • Nuttiness - Created by aldehydes and ketones, creates a sensation like roasted nuts. A sign, usually, of poor quality beans.
  • Sharpness - a sensation from the combination of acids and salts. Pronounced in inexpensive robusta.

Experiment with many different blends and brews and you'll soon find yourself a true coffee snob!