Coffee cupping and coffee tasting are not exactly the same! One of the first things I got to know when I made my first steps as a roaster was that coffee cupping would become an essential part of my skillset. The second thing I learned was that coffee tasting is also important, but it’s done differently and with another purpose.
Independently, whether we’re talking about cupping or tasting, I like to describe both as overarching disciplines in the coffee sphere. No matter if you want to evaluate green coffee quality, a roast profile (how a coffee is roasted) or a cup of brewed coffee, cupping and tasting should be part of your skillset.
I like to remark for those coffee enthusiast, who may feel kind of intimidated about the fancy, descriptive language of some coffee pros (e.g., smells like blackcurrant, apricot or cucumber :P) that coffee cupping and tasting is not limited only to those working in a professional environment, but is perfectly applicable to you, coffee lovers at home. In the end, it’s all about enjoying and discovering the flavors of coffee and appreciate this great product.
So let’s figure out the differences between coffee cupping and coffee tasting:
What is coffee cupping?
Coffee cupping is a standardized coffee evaluation system based on a specific protocol. It has the clear purpose to evaluate the quality of coffee beans and was originally introduced to allow green coffee buyers to assess the flavor profiles of coffees before buying. These flavor profiles depend on the coffee bean varietal, the specific terroir and the production and processing at the origin.
Professional cupping follows a methodical path in which certain parameters - such as several tastes and aromas - are evaluated based on their intensity and quality. Each of these parameters gets a certain score, which is summed up resulting in a final score. This final score classifies the coffee as specialty or non-specialty coffee.
The final score serves the green coffee buyer, but also the seller as a point of reference for price negotiations. Furthermore, it can be used to track the development of a certain coffee over time and make a more objective sensory analysis.
Nowadays, you find some coffee roasting companies, which do not only place the flavor properties on their bags (e.g., chocolate, sugar cane, winey etc.) but also the cupping score (86.5 points) to guide the potential customer and to point out the specific quality.
Probably the most famous coffee cupping form out there – although there are some others too - is the one used by the SCA (Specialty Coffee Association, former SCAA & SCAE). It’s important to remark that this evaluation is focused entirely on the quality of coffee beans and not on the roasting because for the quality evaluation usually a specific roast degree (roast color) is used across different coffees.
However, the great thing about the protocol is that you can also use it when you want to evaluate coffee roast profiles. When you get new coffees or want to know your roaster better, coffee cupping is the “tool” to go with.
Although the SCA form is not made for this purpose specifically, you can use the same procedure and protocol. You can stick to the same form or change some parameters so that they can fit to the purpose of your cupping session better.
For instance, when I roast a coffee, especially when roasted on a new roaster, I like to evaluate my roast by cupping, because it gives me important indications of what I have to improve to get to the desired roasting profile (e.g., more acidity or more mouthfeel).
Another advantage of a standardized coffee cupping system is that it makes results comparable, which is useful especially when you cup the same coffee over time or if you want to compare different coffees. In addition, cupping lets you analyze the pure essence of coffee beans because it uses only coffee and water and the absence of variables such as filters or brewing technique, among others, do not impact the final result.
What is coffee tasting?
Coffee tasting follows no specific protocol and it gives us more freedom in evaluating a coffee. It’s really about drinking coffee and enjoying the flavor profiles of a brewed cup.
Yeah, that’s right, now we’ll talk about the brewed cup. So you can taste an espresso, you can taste a coffee made with a french press or you can taste any kind of coffee prepared with any kind of brewing method. It really does not matter which method you have used to prepare the coffee.
I like to think about coffee tasting as a procedure to evaluate a coffee beverage which is the result of multiple variables such as brewing technique, filters or the design of the brewing method, among many others. Thereby, you can use the same flavor parameters (e.g., acidity, aroma, aftertaste etc.) as used in coffee cupping to assess the final cup. But there is no specific score or grade which you have to give to the different parameters.
Coffee tasting techniques allows you to analyze the flavor profile and intensity of the final brew. It reveals to a certain point how a coffee was brewed, the freshness of the beans and also the roast profile. This also allows you to improve your brewing technique, the storage conditions of the beans or work on the roast as some undesired flavors can be related directly to these factors.
You are probably asking yourself now:
“But when I cup a coffee, I’m also tasting it, don’t I?!”
You’re absolutely right. The differentiation rolled out in this post focuses mainly on the different purposes, the time of evaluating and finally the different procedures involved.
While cupping is a standardized process in order to evaluate coffee bean quality, coffee tasting is used to assess a coffee beverage. By cupping a coffee you can map your coffee’s origin and the process it has run through as well as analyze roast profiles. Coffee tasting reveals how a certain coffee behaves in a brewing method, how fresh the beans are and how a roast profile performs in a specific brewing method.
No matter what kind of cupping protocol you are using, it is important to stick to one so that your results can be comparable. Also, for coffee tasting you should use a certain individual protocol which can be adapted from the cupping protocol.
Finally, both “tools” give you a better picture about how coffee is behaving from origin to the final cup and will serve you as the ultimate quality assessing methods, which can help you to understand your coffee, roast and brew better and obtain consistency. Rather than being different, they are complementary processes.
I hope this post could help you to get a better picture about cupping and tasting. In the second part of this series, I’ll show you how to taste coffee.
What’s your experience with coffee cupping and coffee tasting? Do you use it at home or in a professional environment? I’d like to hear your opinion in the comments section below.
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Coffee Cupping. [Blog] Coffee Research Organization. Available at: http://www.coffeeresearch.org/coffee/cupping.htm (Accessed on 2017, May 16)
Coffee Cupping.Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coffee_cupping (Accessed on 2017, May 27)
Cupping Standards. Specialty Coffee Association of A merica. Available at: http://www.scaa.org/?page=resources&d=cupping-standards (Accessed on 2017,May 27)
Title picture by 1302479 on Pixabay
Corrected & Revised by Andrea Letzner