By James Gallagher For Steampunk Coffee
Why should you cup coffee at home? It is a great way to find the subtle differences in coffees and to train your palate in order to better appreciate those beans.
Coffee professionals use a technique called "cupping" to evaluate coffees. In a cupping, two or more coffees are presented side-by-side, prepared in exactly the same way. The cupping process has set standards so that you can taste the unique characteristics in each coffee you try without your brew method tainting the results. Roasters use a form of cupping to see which roast tastes best. Green buyers cup to see which coffees they should buy.
I have cupped at home three times. My first-ever cupping was hosted over Zoom by Steampunk, an hour-long session where I got to taste five coffees side-by-side. The biggest lesson I learned in that session was that it is acceptable to make mistakes when you are cupping. This is something I continue to see when I cup. I made a lot of mistakes today, but I can see that I am getting better at cupping.
Why should you cup at home? Cupping is a great way to find the subtle differences in coffees. When I taste one cup, I can only talk about what is in front of me. What is the body of the cup? What flavours do I detect? I cannot compare any individual cup I make to any other because I cannot be completely sure of my comparisons. Cupping, on the other hand, lets you compare and contrast. You taste a few coffees and can say "this one is acidic, but this one is even more acidic." Or you can say "the first two taste like chocolate, but one has a berry flavour."
My first lesson from my home cupping was to be prepared. Before I cupped, I put some labels on the bottom of the cups from which I was drinking. I then put the coffee beans from the cupping in the corresponding cups. This made it easy for me to keep track of my cups. I also made labels to put in front of each cup, labelled 1, 2, and 3. These labels were used in my notes. I would say "1 is like..." So, I knew which notes correspond to which cup. In my last cupping, I was not prepared and I lost track of two coffees. I think I knew what each coffee was but I cannot be sure.
Today I was reminded that I should write down everything that comes to mind about each coffee, even if I am not entirely sure about what I am tasting. I am still learning that anything I taste is valid. In this cupping, I noted down "chocolate" and "nuts" for one coffee. It turns out that coffee did not taste like nuts, at least from my perspective. But I had the note anyway. I did get a nutty aroma from that coffee but I could not taste nuts. Perhaps I should write myself a note that says "write down everything" before I cup.
Cupping at home is supposed to be a fun activity. It does involve a fair bit of preparation and cleaning up (although I had help from a member of my household in cleaning up, a pleasant surprise) but the main goal is to taste coffees and write down what you see in each coffee. I wrote down what I saw in each coffee and I missed out a lot. I did not comment on the sweetness or body of one of the coffees I tasted, even though that is something experts look out for in cupping. In a cupping, there is so much going on.
At the end of the cupping, I wrote down what I thought each coffee was. I was able to correctly identify one coffee, the Steampunk Ugandan currently on offer. This coffee was delicious and distinct. The coffee has a lovely tropical fruit flavour I have not seen in any other coffee yet. I was unable to identify the other two, the Steampunk Guatemalan and El Salvadoran coffees. I was somewhat surprised because I started to feel confident in my judgement. But, both of the coffees were similar to me. I got clear notes of chocolate in both of them and I found it hard to distinguish them.
This is a result of being an amateur taster. While I am usually able to pick out a few characteristics of an individual coffee, I was evaluating three at once. During my first cupping, I cupped five coffees which I quickly found was too much. A story I sometimes tell people is that I ground five samples with a hand-grinder within about fifteen minutes of the cupping. My arm was tired but my excitement for tasting kept me going. While you can cup with two coffees, I like to do three. This is not too much to make me feel overwhelmed and I find preparing three samples takes just the right amount of time.
If you have two coffees in your cupboard, try out a home cupping and see what you think. Alternatively, brew two cups of coffee using your favourite brewing method and drink them side-by-side. Can you detect any differences? You do not need to write elaborate descriptions for each coffee you taste. Write down what feels right to you, anything that you think represents the coffee you are tasting.
Contributed by James Gallagher, a home brewer and coffee enthusiast. View his excellent blog at jamesg.blog
If you are interested in joining other coffee enthusiasts of all levels for a virtual coffee cupping, then please check out our online event on 31st January - Cup With Us.