Words by Karen Fick
Coffee tasting, properly known as ‘cupping’, is a ritual involving numerous cups ranged across a large table, fast moving spoons, noisy slurping, spitting and furious sniffing. Etiquette plays an important role in a series of rigorously defined steps recorded on a specific tasting sheet. It’s an essential skill for anyone in the coffee industry and illustrates coffee’s complexity of flavour.
It's a method used by growers and buyers to evaluate and compare coffee harvests. It's used by roasters to determine how much roasting a batch requires, by baristas to decide which brewing method is best suited to a particular bean, in high flying international coffee competitions and for enjoyment. Really skilled cuppers take part in prestigious cupping competitions.
The cupping method was developed by coffee buyers for assessing the quality of a harvest prior to agreeing a purchase price. Tasting will always be a subjective thing but by applying a rigorously defined procedure, an attempt at an objective result can be made. The process and its terminology vary slightly from one place to another but the principles remain pretty much the same. The most widely used method is defined by the Speciality Coffee Association of America and for the purposes of this article we will refer primarily to the SCAA Cupping Protocol which tends to be the industry standard for buying green beans. There are however several other cupping forms available, depending on the main objective of the tasting, and many coffee professionals have evolved their own routines.
There are several stages to cupping, each of which will reveal a different aspect of a bean. The process begins with a visual inspection of the dry coffee and ends nearly an hour later, by which time the brewed coffee is quite cool. The best coffees will exhibit positive characteristics across the range of temperatures.
The Cupping Form
As there are so many steps in the cupping process and because specific traits are being looked for, standardised forms are used to record the cupper's assessment on numeric scales throughout the process. The form gives cuppers an objective way of recording defined sensory aspects. At the end of the process the cupper's scores can be compared: coffees that receive higher scores should be noticeably better than those that receive lower scores.
The SCAA cupping form is broken down into ten sensory parameters, each of which will be given a score out of ten - i.e. the system is based on a 100 point scale. The final numeric score equates to a classification of the coffee ranging from very low quality "Off Grade Coffee" to "Super Premium Specialty Coffee". A coffee that cups with a score over 80 points is considered "Specialty" grade.
The sensory aspects that are assessed and recorded during cupping are: Fragrance/Aroma, Flavour, Aftertaste, Acidity, Body, Balance, Uniformity, Clean Cup, Sweetness and Overall Impression. Defects and Taints are also given a numeric value which is deducted from the total score.
The Cupping Environment
Both dim light and excessive dryness are thought to depress the sense of smell so the perfect cupping room will be a comfortable temperature, have a comfortable level of humidity and be well (preferably naturally) lit. It should be clean and quiet with no interfering aromas or physical distractions. During professional cuppings there should be no discussion, though this is half the fun and perfectly acceptable if cupping for entertainment. Fully equipped cupping rooms are referred to as laboratories. These are equipped with specialist equipment and the temperature and humidity are maintained at levels recommended by the SCAA.
It's best to cup a few hours after a meal, but not when you're hungry.
Tables for coffee tasting are ideally circular, and swivel so that the coffee taster can move from one batch of coffee to another without moving.
During cupping the uniformity of a sample is assessed, so between three and six cups (arranged in a triangle) of each sample are prepared to expose inconsistencies. The SCAA recommends at least five cups of each sample.
Cupping vessels should be identical, be glass or ceramic with a top diameter of between 76-89mm, a capacity of between 207ml to 266ml and have a lid. Glass vessels allow for a visual assessment of the colour of the brew, the foam on top of the cup and sediments at the bottom.
Each cupper has their own deep cupping spoon (much like a soup spoon) made of either silver or stainless steel to minimize flavour contamination.
The coffee can of course be swallowed but to avoid caffeine overload it is usually spat into a spittoon which is traditionally held between the legs.
Each cupper has a cup of hot water for rinsing his cupping spoon and a cup of warm water for mouth rinsing between samples.
The Coffee Samples
Cloth covered trays with a sample of the whole green, whole roasted and freshly ground coffee are set out behind the cups for visual inspection. If the cupping is not a blind tasting the samples will be labeled with information that might include the lot number, region, type of bean and harvest year.
Samples should be roasted no more than 24 hours before cupping (though some cuppers prefer no less than two days) and rested for at least eight hours. They should be stored in airtight containers in a cool dark place.
The SCAA gives standards for roasting. A fully equipped tasting lab will have a low volume mini-roaster.
The beans are ground a little coarser than typically used in a paper filter drip brewer and the cupping should start no more than fifteen minutes after grinding. A cleansing quantity of the sample is run through the grinder before the weighed sample is ground. The sample should be ground straight into the cup.
The cupper first makes a visual inspection of the coffee looking for signs of inferior beans such as beans that have not been dried enough at the farm, beans that show signs of age and beans with indications of over fermentation, insect damage, disease and drought. He will make a note of the roast colour, which may be used as a reference during the rating of specific flavour attributes.
Fragrance and Aroma
The cupper next assesses the coffee´s fragrance and aroma. Fragrance is defined as the smell of the dry ground coffee. Aroma is defined as the smell of the coffee when infused with hot water.
No more than 15 minutes after the coffee was ground, lids are lifted from all the cups in the first sample and the fragrance of the dry grounds in each cup is inhaled.
Any identified fragrances are noted on the cupping form and the intensity of the Fragrance is marked on a scale (labelled dry) from one to ten but no score is given at this stage.
The cupper now moves to the next sample and repeats the process.
Infusing with Water for Aroma
The grounds are now infused with water. According to SCAA guidelines, 8.25 grams of coffee (measured whole not ground) should be used per 150ml of water. Water used for cupping should be fresh, clean and odour free, but not distilled or softened. It should be poured at a temperature of about 93°C filling the cup to the rim, making sure all the grounds are wet.
The grounds are left to infuse undisturbed for three to five minutes. The crust of the grinds floating on top of the cup is then broken with the spoon held perpendicular to the cup, with the cupper´s nose close to the cup so he can ingest the aroma. This is the Break. The brew is stirred three times, away from the cupper, with the back of the spoon facing upwards. It should not touch the bottom of the cup. After the last stir the foam is allowed to run down the back of the spoon and the cupper continues to ingest the aroma. All cups in the sample are stirred and smelt in this way.
The cupper marks the intensity of the Aroma (labeled Break) on a scale.
A final score for Fragrance and Aroma is now given on the basis of a combined evaluation of Fragrance and Aroma (dry and break). As in all cases that will follow, a score is awarded out of ten.
Some eight to ten minutes after infusion began, once the brew has cooled to about 71°C, the actual tasting begins. Taking a spoon in each hand, the coffee is swept completely free of all traces of crema and floating grounds - any remnants will have an impact on flavor.
The cupping spoon is filled with coffee. This is sucked powerfully off the spoon (aspirated) to cover as much surface area of the mouth as possible, particularly the palate and tongue. The resultant coffee vapour stimulates the part of the sense of taste that is actually the sense of smell.
The taster is now assessing the sensory categories defined on the cupping form as Flavour, Aftertaste, Acidity, Body and Balance (balance being the synergy between Flavour, Aftertaste, Acidity and Body). Each of these categories has its own scoring section on the cupping form.
After tasting all the cups in the first batch, the cupper makes a mark on a scale for each category, but doesn't yet award any scores. In the case of Acidity and Balance a mark is made on an intensity scale. Any specific flavours that are detected are recorded in the notes section of the form. If any inconsistencies are noticed in any one cup, the block corresponding to the cup on the Uniformity section of the tasting form is marked. Each cup marked as having an inconsistency will incur a deduction of two points from the final score. Any cups that do not qualify for Clean Cup are treated in the same way and any cups that exhibit any off flavours such as phenol, are blocked out in the Sweetness section.
All cups in the first batch are tasted. The cupper then moves to the next batch and repeats the process.
Flavour perception changes with temperature so the tasting continues as the coffee cools. The cupper moves back to the first cup batch and repeats the tasting process, again making a mark on the scale for Flavour, Aftertaste, Acidity, Body and Balance, but this time with an arrow from the original mark to indicate the direction of change. Again any cups that do not exhibit Uniformity, Sweetness or Clean Cup will be blocked out for a two point deduction.
Once all the cups in all the batches have been tasted again (tasting should stop when the sample temperatures falls to 21°C) the cupping is complete. Bearing in mind the information he has already recorded, the cupper now gives a score out of ten for each of the categories.
If during tasting the cupper has noticed any cups that are either Tainted or have Faults, the number of Tainted or Faulty cups is marked on a section of the form. The number of cups is multiplied by either two for Faint or four for Fault and this total is recorded as a negative score.
Any negative marks that appear in the Uniformity, Clean Cup and Sweetness categories are deducted as two points per cup from the full ten marks that each category starts with and a final score is written down for each of these categories.
The individual scores for each section are now summed and this combined score, which takes into account all the combined positive and negative attributes of the coffee is referred to as "Cupper's Points"
The SCAA form is a great tool for the coffee professional, for organizing thought and giving a common vocabulary. It should never be forgotten though that there is much more to the flavour of coffee than the form, that there will always be disagreements and many professionals have chosen to completely disregard this form in favour of their own cupping system.