By James Gallagher for Steampunk Coffee
Cupping is a scientific coffee industry standard for assessing coffees. By removing as many factors as possible aside from the bean (water temperature, concentration, grind size, time) is aims to make is possible to compare coffees against each other and also objectively determine their quality by assigning a score. Why on earth would someone outside the industry want to do a cupping? What are the benefits to a coffee enthusiast? Our guest blogger James shares his thoughts.
Have you ever wondered how professionals evaluate if a coffee is good or bad? How do they write tasting notes? The answer lies in cupping.
You may have heard professionals in the coffee industry talk about "cupping." Cupping is a way that professionals taste coffee. Usually when a professional tastes coffee, they will use a detailed checklist that outlines exactly what the professional is looking for. The industry-standard cupping form asks tasters to score coffee out of one hundred. There's a reason cupping is so common in coffee shops, roasters, importers, exporters, and farms around the world: it gives the taster a better idea of what it is they are tasting.
You can cup at home, too. Although when I cup at home I do not score my coffee on an official checklist. Instead, I like to take notes of what I taste in the coffees in front of me and see how they compare. I keep my setup informal so I do not feel intimidated by the cupping table -- well, a table in my house -- and so that I can feel free to write whatever it is that comes to mind. You do not need to be trained to taste coffee; you just need some practice.
Over the last few weeks, I have been practising my cupping skills at home. I have ground three different coffees, prepared them according to a very similar set of steps as the ones used by professionals, and then tasted each one. It takes a little while to set up a cupping. I spent about fifteen minutes getting my cups prepared, water boiled, samples ground, and my notes ready for the cupping. But, this time is worth it.
So why do I cup at home? I cup at home because cupping helps me learn about the flavours in the coffees I am drinking. When I cup coffee, I focus on the tastes in front of me. What do I taste? What tastes are easier to discern than others? I am now doing this blind so that I have no idea what coffee I am drinking. I may have a hint but I will never know for sure until I check the label on the bottom of the cup. Because the tasting is blind, I write down everything that comes to mind.
It turns out that my opinions are often different to the flavour notes on the bag. Cupping has taught me just how different coffee can taste. Coffee tastes different when brewed on a Kalita Wave than it does on an Aeropress. My taste buds are not the same as those who wrote the tasting notes on the bag so I may detect something that the roaster did not detect. Nobody is right or wrong. Tasting is subjective.
By tasting more, I can build up a vocabulary of flavours and see how these flavours compare in different coffees. I had two fruity coffees on my cupping table this morning. I was able to identify blackcurrant in one and raspberry in the other. I went back and forth between the coffees and eventually came to a conclusion. It is not just the flavours I can compare. I can see how coffees differ in terms of their acidity ("zingyness"), sweetness, and body (i.e. tea-like, full body, juicy).
Cupping coffee at home helps me diagnose issues in my brewing, too. I just purchased a V60 and I have yet to produce what I would call a delicious cup of coffee. Some coffees have been "okay" and others have been bordering on undrinkable. I used my cupping this morning to remind myself what flavours I should be looking out for. This is much better than just reading the flavour notes on the bag. As I said before, tasting is subjective. I now have a better idea of what the coffee I'm brewing with tastes like so I can figure out what is wrong with my V60 brewing. I also know for sure my current recipe is not doing the coffee justice.
I also think cupping coffee at home is a good way to position yourself for a career in coffee, if you are interested in doing so. This is because cupping is used everywhere in the coffee industry -- from the farm all the way to cafes -- and almost every person related to production will taste coffees. If you have cupped at home, you'll have a better idea of what is involved in this process. Of course, there will still be so much to learn. I feel like I am just getting started in building my cupping skills even though I've done quite a few now.
Trusting your gut is the key to a good cupping. I wrote down some flavours on my notes this morning that were not on the flavour notes on each bag of coffee. Was I wrong? No. I just got a different impression of the coffees I was tasting than those who wrote the flavour notes. Some flavours I was only able to identify once and then I could not taste them again. Sometimes I got confused and just scribbled down the first thing that came to mind. All of this information was valuable in helping me form a conclusion about each coffee. There are hundreds of aromatic compounds which contribute to flavour in coffee which begs another reminder that there is no real right or wrong when it comes to flavours, as long as you trust your gut and keep tasting.
How should you get started cupping at home? That topic deserves its own article. If you want to learn more about cupping, Steampunk has you covered. Each month, Steampunk hosts an at-home cupping session to help you learn what you need to do to taste coffee.
Contributed by James Gallagher, a home brewer and coffee enthusiast. View his excellent blog at jamesg.blog
Our next virtual cupping event will be held on Sunday 14th February, details below.