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Understanding the Cup: Coffee Tasting

Simply put, a coffee cupping is the observance and recording of the various tastes and aromas a cup of coffee holds. Think wine tasting - but for coffees. Coffee tasting is the method green coffee buyers use when deciding which coffees they are interested in roasting and selling in their coffeeshops. Although it seems easy enough to take a sip of coffee and write down what one tastes, I learned that it's actually harder than it looks.

Dedicated coffee cuppers, called Q Graders, are trained in the tasting process, so they can give an unbiased and accurate reading of the coffee. Holding a coffee cupping is a great learning experience for those interested in diving deeper into the complexities of coffee, but it involves a lot of preparation to ensure a completely accurate representation of the coffee presented. DLG recently held a coffee cupping, and we wanted to share what that looked like for us.

To start with, one needs to know how to prepare the cup of coffee specifically for a cupping. This involves roasting the coffee 18-24 hours before the actual tasting, to ensure maximum freshness. Immediately after roasting the coffee, put it in an airtight container, as oxygen is the number one enemy of fresh coffee. Ten or fifteen minutes prior to the cupping, grind 8.25g of coffee (for every 150mL of water) to a consistency slightly coarser than what is used for a paper filter drip system.

Arrange three of these cups with the freshly ground coffee in a row for each coffee you are cupping. Having three of each is important in case one cup happens to have a defect. You will want to sample all three equally in order to ensure consistency. After arranging all of the coffees, smell the dry grounds. This is allowing for a good representation of what the dry aroma will smell like.

Record what can be smelled from the dry aroma, and then pour the water (heated to 195-201°F) directly over the grounds, allowing the coffee to brew for 3-5 minutes. When the coffee is ready, slowly break the crust of the coffee with the spoon, breathing in these initial fumes. This will allow for the wet aroma to waft upwards. Stir the coffee slightly so that all the grounds are incorporated in the cup. Smell all of the coffees and write down the odors you have found. (To avoid mixing any of the coffees, it is important to dip your spoons into hot water in between smelling each cup.)

Once you have finished smelling the coffees, clean any excess grounds from each cup in order to start the tasting portion of the cupping. Slightly dip your spoon into a cup and slurp the coffee. The slurping will help fully coat the tastebuds, so that an accurate representation of the coffee can be tasted utilizing every tastebud. Write down the characteristics of the cup of coffee. Remember to once again, dip your spoon in the hot water between tasting the coffees in each cup.

Using the right terminology to describe how coffee tastes, feels, or smells is so important when cupping. The four main tasting characteristics (bitter, sweet, salty, and sour) are used as a sort of jumping-off point when identifying the details of a cup of coffee. A great tool to use when trying to come up with the right descriptors is the cupping wheel. The cupping wheel helps a newbie cupper put words to what he or she is tasting. The wheel starts with general tastes and branches out into specific tasting notes, which are more complicated to point out. (Below: Cupping wheel from the Specialty Coffee Association of America)

Identifying and keeping a detailed record of different types of coffee is a great way to figure out what a person likes or dislikes in their cup - or to just simply appreciate the differences between coffees grown in different parts of the world. Just keep in mind that cupping is not a simple task, but a skill that needs to be practiced and refined.

Note: When conducting a cupping at DLG, we will take into consideration the level of coffee knowledge and tasting for all participants. When doing a cupping professionally, it is conducted blind so the participants don't know which coffee they are tasting so as to avoid biases and no talking is allowed in order to avoid influencing the opinions of others. However, if our participants have little to no experience, we will talk throughout the process in order to help educate the participants and make the process more enjoyable. 

Written by: Liz Hatfield, DLG intern