Cupping in Specialty Coffee
As a purely personal activity, tasting coffee for a specialty coffee enthusiast, home brewer, or home barista may be a matter of sheer sensory enjoyment. The social aspect of drinking and talking about coffee in the welcome company of family and friends heightens this enjoyment.
As a customary professional exercise, tasting coffee is referred to as cupping. It is an activity critical to assess a coffee’s quality, assign it a grade, and set its market value. Cupping is also instrumental in identifying and describing a coffee's tasting notes so these can be communicated to consumers of specialty coffee.
In a professional setting, the social aspect of cupping takes place as calibration, or the discussion among professional cuppers at a particular session, affirming their adherence to the established standards for evaluating coffee.
It must be said that professional cuppers don’t only taste and evaluate coffee. They’re also the ones responsible for organizing and orchestrating the success of the entire cupping exercise.
BARE BASICS FOR BEGINNERS
Your Home Community
We’ve all heard that the only way to know how to taste coffee is to taste coffee. To have an idea of how well you are able to do this and how much more you could improve, it definitely helps to be in the company of encouraging and knowledgeable coffee people you are comfortable with.
Roasteries and cafés commonly host coffee-tasting sessions. These events are typically called “public cupping.” But, for us here at Archers, we call them Producer's Talks when our long-time, trusted producing partners visit to meet, talk, and cup their coffees with us.
Public cuppings are complimentary, open to all comers, and set up so our specialty coffee-curious friends from different walks of life can become more familiar with the assortment of coffees we have on offer. It's also our way of helping our specialty coffee friends explore and possibly expand the range of their own preferences as they discover new favorites.
Set Up for Cupping Success
When you decide to join us at a public cupping or an Archers Producer’s Talk, you need only to come as you are, with an open mind and the willingness to try.
The logistics of cupping — from roasting, measuring, and grinding the specialty coffees you will taste, down to the way all the tools (e.g. spoons, cups, kettles, bowls, et al) and tables are arranged — will be taken care of by our team, led by a licensed Q Grader among our colleagues.
This arrangement and the conduct of cupping itself (i.e. the steps in sequence and the timings) are done according to the SCA’s standards and the CQI’s protocols and best practices. We follow these standards to ensure a smooth, efficient, and comfortable flow of movement that allows everyone to hygienically taste several coffees prepared in a consistent manner and to take note (even just mentally) of the coffees' different sensorial qualities as everyone perceives them.
Build Your Skills Base
As a starting point, having a good understanding of how our senses perceive flavors absolutely helps us when we cup.
In our world of specialty coffee, flavor refers to the basic tastes (i.e., sweet, bitter, sour, and salty) combined with smells. We make a distinction between the smell of dry coffee grounds by calling it Fragrance and the smell of wetted coffee grounds, which we call Aroma.
For recreational cuppers, it may be enough to mentally take note of some sensorial qualities found in the SCA Cupping Form. Apart from Fragrance/Aroma and Flavor, paying attention to Acidity, Sweetness, Body, Aftertaste, and Balance can enhance your understanding of your own preferences as well as heighten your appreciation of a given coffee.
As someone who attends public cuppings or Archers Producer’s Talks, it may be that your aim is sensory discovery or exploration to enhance your personal experience of drinking specialty coffee. In this case, the SCA Sensory Skills Foundation course would be of the greatest interest to you. Then, as you develop your sensory acumen, you may decide to progress to the Intermediate and Professional levels.
Walkthrough: Main Technical Bits
Cupping Materials & Equipment
The very first step in organizing a cupping session is to make sure you have the necessary materials and equipment. Here is a list of the standard items you will need and what they will be used for.
Preparing the Coffees
A lead cupper and the cupping team will first dose and grind the roasted coffees, one cupping bowl at a time, and taking great care not to mix or misidentify the coffees. Each cupping bowl containing ground coffee is then covered with a lid and arranged on the cupping table, like the photo below.
Table Set-up & Assessment of Dry Fragrance
At this point, all cuppers are invited to assess the dry fragrance of the coffees. This is done by lifting a bowl off the table, removing the lid, lightly shaking the bowl, taking sniffs of the dry coffee grounds, replacing the lid on the bowl, and the bowl onto the table, and using the cupping form to make the necessary marks and note key impressions.
Once all participants have assessed dry fragrance, the cupping team will proceed to brew the coffees by pouring hot water onto the coffee grounds in a synchronized manner, simultaneously immersing the coffee grounds across all the bowls evenly.
Brewing the Coffees & Assessment of Wet Aroma
At this point, the lead cupper may invite all cuppers to assess wet aroma. This is done by approaching the cupping bowls and sniffing the coffees from a safe but sufficiently proximate distance. The lead cupper may likely advise the cuppers to finish their assessment of the wet aroma within four minutes of hot water being poured onto the coffees.
At the 4th minute, the lead cupper may notify the group that the cupping team will break the crust. Breaking the crust means first, gently pushing the top layer of the just brewed coffees (containing foam and sediments) with the convex side of the cupping spoon, three times from the front to the back of the cupping bowl, and second, removing the foam and sediment on the surface by skimming the surface of the coffees with the edges of the cupping spoons. When using the same spoons to break the crust across multiple cups, it is important to rinse them in between.
The lead cupper may mention that wet aroma may again still be assessed after the crust is broken until the 10th minute from immersing the coffees.
There is a technique to skimming that is better learned by observing a pro and through practice. You may wish to explore the range of Archers Academy courses, most of which include cupping — because the ability to properly taste coffee is central to performing well across all the coffee disciplines and definitely contributes to better enjoyment.
Tasting the Coffees, Evaluating Flavors & Scoring
At the 10th minute the actual tasting and flavor evaluation of the coffees begins. Tasting is done by scooping a small amount of coffee near the surface with a cupping spoon, and then slurping it. Slurping is recommended instead of sipping to distribute the coffee as extensively as possible throughout the tongue, upper palate, and generally the whole area within the mouth.
This is worth emphasizing because fairly, which is to say accurately, evaluating coffees requires adequate perception of every sensorial aspect that corresponds to a dimension that determines quality, as defined within the cupping form. And, adequate perception of every sensorial aspect involves gustatory and olfactory perception, which is facilitated throughout the entirety of the mouth and not any single part.
A Recommended Approach
While every pro cupper will have formulated their own, personal mental framework and built up the muscle memory to proficiently cup, here is our advice for novice cuppers.
- Open up to the sensory possibilities the cupping table may present to you.
- Approach the cupping table with a methodical mindset to effectively maneuver the multiple tasks of tasting several flights of coffee while simultaneously evaluating each and making the necessary marks on the cupping form.
- Try to focus first on identifying what basic tastes you can perceive: Sour, Bitter, Salty, and Sweet; how pleasant they are; and how intensely you can perceive them.
- You can also associate these tastes with flavors that are already familiar to you and note your impressions on your cupping form.
- Alternatively, referring to a coffee taster’s flavor and aroma wheel will be very helpful.
- Based on your experience with each coffee, assign a score for each dimension.
- An ideal sequence for scoring is to start with Fragrance/Aroma, and proceed with Acidity, Flavor, Balance, Sweetness, Body, Aftertaste, and Overall.
- Scoring will be according to a scale of 6 to 9+, where 6 means Good, 7 Very Good, 8 Excellent, and 9+ means Outstanding. You may refer to the scale below:
As for cupping etiquette, to help make the cupping session comfortable and productive for all participants, there are just two key points to remember. First, the whole exercise — tasting, evaluating, and scoring — should proceed without discussions or audible remarks among the cuppers. Second, for good hygiene, cuppers should rinse their cupping spoons in between cupping bowls.
It is absolutely reasonable for novice cuppers to find cupping in a professional setting somewhat overwhelming but we, at Archers, will be the first to tell you that you can and will definitely acquire the professional cupper’s skillset with the right guidance and enough practice.
POINTERS FOR ASPIRING PROS
Sensory Mastery & Cupping Expertise
Professional cuppers are decidedly rigorous and methodical. Apart from accurately identifying, describing, and assessing each sensorial quality, they must also quickly, fully, and precisely make the corresponding marks on the SCA Cupping Form.
Since professional cuppers work in teams and across different functions throughout the global specialty coffee value chain, with the ultimate aim of determining a coffee’s quality which then informs its value and directly impacts the livelihood of actors at origin, especially the farmers, it is crucial that they speak a common language of quality.
In many cases as well, like in our own coffee-tasting events and routine quality control, professional cuppers like the licensed Q Graders on our team direct the course of the entire cupping exercise. There are currently five licensed Q Graders at Archers. Foremost are three of our co-founders Frederick Bejo who is also Green Buyer and Head of Operations, Dave Peralta who is also Head of Archers Academy, and Kemal Risyad who is also Head Roaster; as well as Senior Roaster Purna Gaudel and Customer Relations lead Wilden Pretorius.
Due to the breadth, depth, and gravity of a professional cupper's responsibilities, they must achieve not only mastery of sensory skills but also expertise in using the SCA Cupping Form and performing the CQI and SCA Cupping Protocols.
The Coffee Quality Institute's Quality Evaluation curriculum empowers aspiring professional cuppers towards that mastery and expertise, signified by the pinnacle of specialty coffee qualifications, the Q Arabica Grader License, nicknamed the “Q.”
Transferable soft skills like collaboration and communication also come into play when professional cuppers calibrate with their peers.
Your Personal Pathway to the “Q”
Aware that all our friends aspiring to become professional cuppers have different learning styles, our co-founder and Head of Archers Academy Dave Peralta has been working closely with The Coffee Quality Institute to offer two learning pathways toward the mission-critical and prestigious Q Arabica Grader License.
Pathway 1, for our friends who prefer a gradual, stepwise approach to earning their Q License, we recommend taking these courses in sequence: CQI Understanding Taste and Flavors, Intro to CQI Cupping, and then the Q Arabica Grader course.
Pathway 2 is for auto-didacts or self-learners who prefer a fast-paced, intensive program, and can straightaway attend the Q Arabica Grader course. This pathway is also suitable for seasoned specialty coffee practitioners who have been cupping as part of their daily roles.
Let’s Cup Together Soon!
With practice, you will learn how to taste better and you will naturally come to enjoy your specialty coffee moments more. That said, we hope you make it to our next cupping events and Producer’s Talks.
Then, to get to know and fine-tune your inherent sensory skills more, it will be good to attend an SCA Sensory Skills course at Archers Academy. You could also begin to consider working towards sensory mastery and cupping expertise through the CQI Quality Evaluation Learning Pathway suited to your personal learning style.
Stay updated on our event and course schedules through our Instagram @archers.ae. If you need any assistance, don’t hesitate to reach out to us through WhatsApp +97165316869 or email email@example.com.
See you here at the roastery and Archers Academy soon!