Let’s get hands-on! Let’s cup and drink some coffee!
Learning the protocol to cup a coffee is easy and after several times that you’ve done it, it will become like a habit.
The part where you have to spend more time on is to train your palate and find those flavor descriptors.
Knowing descriptors is dependent on your sensory memory and your ability to memorize new flavors.
You will probably not get that neither the first nor the second time. This is part of a learning process and should be trained every day by simply starting to become more aware of the flavors we’re taking in through our food and beverages. And, of course, practice, practice, practice ;)
How to do cupping at home?
As coffee cupping is not only reserved for the coffee pros in some laboratories, coffee companies/roasteries or coffee shops, you can easily walk through the process at home.
Usually, cupping a coffee means to follow a determined standardized process. The process helps you to analyze and understand different aspects of coffee separately. Let’s walk step by step through this together.
#1: The necessary cupping equipment
To make cupping work for you at home, you only need some basic equipment:
- A coffee bean burr grinder
- Small cups or glasses (volume of 150-180ml) for the coffee samples
- A cupping spoon (can be a normal spoon, but a “deeper” spoon is better)
- A kettle to heat up water (can also be an electric one with adjustable temperature)
- A scale, which can be any kitchen scale
- A timer (you can use also your mobile phone)
- A cup or glass to spit in
- 1-2 glasses with hot water
- 1 empty bowl for cleaning purposes
- Some post-its or any piece of paper to mark the coffee sample
- A coffee cupping form (in specialty coffee the SCA(A) standard is used) if you’re going to evaluate the coffee with scores or just a white paper to note down your “observation”
- A pencil with an eraser
Moreover, it is recommendable to cup in a bright, odor-free room, where you can avoid distractions of any kind.
As a general advice, I recommend you not to use any strong perfume before the cupping session starts in order to avoid any interferences with the coffee flavors.
Furthermore, you should not eat any spicy food before cupping, otherwise you could struggle to perceive the tastes of coffee. If possible, cup in the morning hours, when your mind and palate are still “fresh”.
#2: Set up the cupping table
Setting up a cupping table means to prepare it so that you can focus completely on cupping your coffee with all necessary tools at your reach.
The coffee cups should be placed close to the table’s edge. I recommend you to put a small napkin in front or behind each cup so that you can keep the table around the cups clean.
Moreover, you should take a small piece of paper or post-its to “mark” your coffee. Therefore, you can either write down the name of the coffee or number the samples you’re going to cup.
Furthermore, you should place 1-2 glasses of hot water in front of the coffee cups so that you can clean the cupping spoon.
As to the official SCA(A) cupping protocol, usually five cups are used per coffee. But in our case, we will start with just one so that you can get used to the timing and you don’t have to struggle with too many things at a time.
For my home cupping I usually never use more than three cups per sample.
#3: Prepare the coffee samples
Now it’s time to prepare the coffee samples. Take the cups or glasses, which are placed on the table and start to fill them with the coffee beans.
Here, you can use the scale to weigh the beans. As the coffee-to-water ratio recommended by SCA(A) is around 1:18, try to get cups or glasses with 180ml of volume so that you can use 10g of coffee. SCA(A) recommends to use around 8.5g of coffee with 150ml (5.07 fl oz) of water.
Fill all the cups that you’re going to use during your cupping session. After you’ve done that, grind them one after another. Try to grind your beans as fast as possible so that you can get most of the volatile aromatic compounds of the beans at the beginning of the cupping session.
Before grinding the coffee, take some beans of the sample you’re going to grind and put it into the grinder so that you can “purge” and “clean” the grinder from any residual coffee grounds from the past so that those particles won’t interfere with the samples you’re cupping.
Do this step every time you’re going to grind a new coffee. Grind the coffee at a medium grind size in order to avoid over- or under-extraction. After you have ground the coffee, position it again on the table.
#4: Let’s cup coffee!
Now you can start with the actual cupping of coffee. First off, the aromatic compounds of the coffee samples are evaluated and then the coffee tastes and the texture.
Before doing so, you can start to heat up the water in a kettle, which you will need in some minutes. The following explanations go along with the previous article in which every basic taste is explained.
The Aroma Part
When to start: directly after grinding
The fragrance in the coffee cupping process describes the most volatile aromatic compounds of the dry coffee grounds right at the beginning of the cupping session.
Take one cup of the dry coffee grounds, shake it a little bit and smell the fragrance. As most of the aromatic compounds in this stage are volatile, it’s important to do this in the first 15 minutes after having ground the coffee.
Start to perceive the aromas and write down whatever you can relate to them. Try to find a descriptor rather than saying “it smells like coffee”.
In addition, you can also write down the intensity (low, medium or high) you perceive and the color of the grounds (light, medium or dark brown).
Meanwhile, you should have warmed up your kettle. If you have a thermometer, wait for the water to cool down to 93C as this is the recommendable temperature to pour onto the grounds.
If you don’t have a thermometer, wait for 1-1,5 minutes. If you want to take more control of the temperature, start to use a kettle with adjustable temperature.
When to start: after 4 to 5 minutes
Now you can start to pour the water without creating too much turbulence. That means that you should fix a point on the coffee grounds and pour the water.
Usually, the coffee grounds start to swirl automatically. If you see that there are any dry grounds left, then you can pour some drops of water onto them. It’s important that you start your timer as soon as you pour the first drops of water.
Now, you’re going to perceive the aromas of the coffee, which will partly differ from the fragrance. The aroma in cupping refers simply to the stage when coffee grounds and water come together.
After 4 minutes (look at your timer), it’s time to break the so-called “crust” (wet grounds on the surface of the coffee in the cup). Take your cupping spoon (can be a normal spoon) and go through your crust about three times.
While you’re doing this, get closer to the cups and smell the aromas which are coming from below the crust. Great!
As with the fragrance, note down what you’re perceiving. After you are finished, it’s time to clean the crust.
Take two spoons and take the floating coffee grounds from the cup. After that, it’s time to wait until minute 10 approximately so that the coffee can cool down a little bit. Now it’s time to slurp loudly and taste the coffee :)
The taste evaluation - taste the liquid
When to start: after 9 to 10 minutes
Take your first sips of coffee by slurping it with your spoon. Be careful at this stage, because the coffee can be still hot.
When we talk about slurping, I really mean slurping. If you just “drink” the coffee like a soup, you won’t get all the flavors because slurping allows you to take in some oxygen, which allows to get a better feeling of the tastes.
Following the SCA(A) protocol, the first thing you evaluate is the overall Taste of the coffee, which can be seen as the overall perception of the coffee in your palate including all basic tastes.
After that, you usually drink the coffee and you will be left with some Aftertaste, also evaluated by the SCA(A) protocol.
After that, the SCA(A) gets more specific and starts to evaluate the Acidity, its quality and intensity. Following the acids, you will come to what is called body or mouthfeel or the texture of coffee in your mouth.
Thereafter, the SCA(A) protocol digs deeper in some more specific categories to understand and analyze whether the coffee is revealing some taints or if the different cups show uniformity. These last points help to determine the final score.
The whole cupping process should last around 15 minutes, maximum 20 minutes.
#5: My recommendation to cup at home
The SCA(A) protocol is an excellent starting point for home cupping. But as our main goal is not to classify the coffee whether it is a specialty grade or not, but rather find out its unique flavor profile through specific descriptors, I recommend you to slightly change the procedure.
The change regards mainly how you taste the coffee flavors. Therefore, I recommend you to follow my advices in the previous article ("How to Taste and Describe Coffee Flavors?") to "decompose" the coffee flavor in its basic tastes (e.g., sweetness, acidity etc.) and to focus on each one of it. This allows you not to be overwhelmed by having to define to many things at once.
The main requirementes for setting up a cupping table and the times explained above remain the same.
How to do coffee tasting?
Coffee tasting has the purpose of evaluating the flavors of a brewed coffee beverage.
The focus of this analysis can be, for instance, to assess how the coffee was brewed in a specific brewing method, how a certain coffee varietal and roasting profile behaves in a certain brewing method and to find the sweet spot to know when a coffee is ready to be brewed after a certain amount of days.
Coffee tasting as distinct purpose starts from the brewed cup and thus from the aromas. If you prepare your own coffee, you can also take into account the fragrance.
After that, you can start to taste the coffee as I've explained in the previous post. If you want you can take notes and create your own scale for quality and intensity, go for it.
When you taste your coffee over time, it’s important to use always the same brewing parameters - especially when you brew the coffee - so that the results can be comparable.
For instance, if you want to try a coffee over five to six days and observe how it changes over that time, you should use the same quantity of water and coffee with the same grind size and the same brewing technique.
As a rule of thumb: if you really want to test differences it’s always important to change one parameter at a time so you can determine which change provoked a certain change in the flavor profile.
Let’s wrap this up
Now, you know how you can roll out a cupping session at home and how you can adapt this to coffee tasting. As you really don’t need any specific equipment, you can almost perform a cupping session rapidly and easily everywhere.
Cupping and tasting are great tools to understand better a coffee and improve the quality of your final brew.
So make cupping and tasting coffee a super power of yourself and you will be able to master the beans.
I hope this post can help you to put in place your own cupping session and to enjoy this product profoundly.
Like and share this post on facebook and leave me a message below about your challenges with cupping or about your general experiences with coffee tasting.
Cupping Standards. Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). Available at: http://www.scaa.org/?page=resources&d=cupping-standards (Accessed on 2017, June 10)
Cupping Protocols. Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). Available at: http://www.scaa.org/?page=resources&d=cupping-protocols (Accessed on 2017, June 10)
Title picture by pixel2013 on Pixabay
Corrected & Revised by Andrea Letzner