Welcome to the coffee alphabet, the quickest way to easily learn everything you need to know about speciality coffee, and the art of enjoying it! This week we look at the letter ‘C’ which is for ‘Cupping’.
We wanted to share even more speciality coffee knowledge with our customers and coffee lovers. But even if you do really love coffee, you don’t necessarily always want to read through an array of blog articles or descriptions when trying to understand it.
That’s why we’ve gone back to our early school days to relive our learning experiences, and deliver a simple glossary of coffee’s most important terms and concepts.
Welcome to Modern Standard’s ‘Coffee Alphabet’!
You may have seen our coffee alphabet posts begin to surface on our Instagram account, if you haven’t visited us on the gram, then check out our page. We’re now bringing those posts to our blog where we can explain them in a little more detail for those who do want to dig a little deeper.
Today we’ll be talking about a crucial step in the speciality coffee journey that helps farmers, roasters (like us) and baristas deliver amazing coffees to their customers. Cupping is a lot like wine tasting, or any other sort of food tasting for that matter. It refers to exercise of tasting coffees and critiquing them according to a set criteria. We also use this opportunity to detect defects or faults in the coffee beans, which isn’t always fun but still very important. Those who have had the displeasure of trying a coffee that tastes like a raw potato will know that pain! The questions that we aim to answer in this article are;
- Why do we cup coffee?
- When do we cup coffee?
- How do we cup coffee?
Even a basic understanding of these answers may open up an entirely new coffee drinking experience for you as you might begin to take that extra second to analyse each sip. With that said, let’s get cracking into cupping!
Why do we cup coffee?
Cuppings play a fundamental role in coffee production and consumption. The journey that the beans will take is almost entirely determined by the results of cuppings, as you’re about to find out. We cup to assess coffees for quality, to create desired flavour profiles, to make purchase decision and of course, for brewing.
When do we cup coffee?
Coffee, like most foods, is a natural product and as such can be highly variable. Even the same coffee plants with the same environment, and grown in the same place will likely vary year on year. That’s why it is important for potential green coffee buyers to try the coffee before they buy it, even if they have previously bought green coffee from the same farm year after year.
So, the first cuppings often take place on the farm or in the processing station where the coffee is grown. These cuppings are attended by green coffee buyers and importers from all over the world. The prices per kilo or container are often agreed here as a result of the cuppings that take place, certainly at least in speciality coffee. Unlike commodity or Fair Trade beans, prices of speciality coffee lots can vary dramatically depending on their quality.
To put it simply, the best crops attract the best price, often three-times that of a Fair Trade certified lot. It’s not just green coffee buyers that judge the coffee either, qualified Q Graders will cup all of the coffees and score the lots out of 100, anything that scores above 84 points is a speciality coffee. Once the coffee has been sold and imported it needs to be roasted, and cupping is an essential exercise for ensuring that your coffee tastes as good as it possibly can. Roasters create profiles to suit different brew methods, like a recipe from any cookbook or food blog you may have followed.
Before any real production is done, highly skilled roasters will cup sample roasts to create blends for espressos and roast profiles to make great filter options. Some coffees work great for espresso roasts, others don’t. Some, like a lot of Brazilian or Colombians, can work well for both with different roast profiles. Once the right profile and blend has been chosen, production can begin on a larger scale. Coffee roasters then use cuppings again to sample the coffee that has been produced to test it for quality and to ensure that it fits the desired flavour profile. Even at this stage cuppings are vital as the coffee can still vary due to ambient conditions, air moisture, and even the time of day the coffee was roasted. Coffee shop owners and wholesalers will cup the finished product to choose which lines they’ll serve to their own customers.
Some will want to create their own blends which takes us back to the profile creation stage we previously talked about. Even as consumers, we can cup coffees in our own homes, all you need is a set of scales, some cups, a kettle and a soup spoon! It’s a great way to discover new coffees, but perhaps a little overkill if you’re planning your next purchase from your local supermarket.
So, when do we cup coffee? The answer is, pretty much all through the coffee journey.
How do we cup coffee?
Coffees are cupped (tasted and assessed) based on key characteristics in flavours, aromas and mouthfeel. We say this a lot but if you’ve been to a wine tasting, then it’ll be easier to get your head around cuppings for sure.
Coffee professionals will use a scorecard to record their analysis in a way that can be easily understood, and also helps to remove descriptive thinking from the process - it’s lovely to describe “the rich honey and caramel aromas taking you back to your youth” but that doesn’t help a coffee roaster set their profile or an auctioneer to set the price! We asses flavours on acidity, bitterness and sweetness, and what we’re looking for is a pleasant balance.
This isn’t to say that all coffee should taste the same, some coffees can be naturally more acidic, sweet or bitter than others but it has to be in harmony with the other flavours. This is one of the reasons we create blends for espressos. Aromas are also important, and these are the terms that you will probably see more of on the packaging notes. Aromas are detected mainly through our noses but when combined with our brains recall processes create the bulk of what we might call a coffee’s character. Descriptors like red apple, peach, chocolate, nuts are often used to describe aromas.
If I wanted to make an espresso blend that was very sweet and chocolatey but still refreshing, I would probably choose a coffee from Brazil (chocolate, orange, nuts) and add some Rwandan (blackcurrants) or Ethiopian (stoned fruits) to brighten it up with some acidity.
The easiest way to think about mouthfeel is to imagine a three glasses of milk, ranging from skimmed to full-fat. If you drink them one at a time you would probably describe the skimmed as ‘light’, the semi-skilled as ‘medium’ and the full-fat as ‘heavy’. That’s mouthfeel, and you can also detect it my how it coats your teeth and hangs around in your mouth after you’ve swallowed it.
In professional environments, cuppings take place in a specific lab or production room, in sterile conditions if possible to negate any outside influences. On coffee farms, it may be hard to escape the influence of the tropical surroundings, which is where the cupping sheets come in handy. It’s not simply a case of making a few espressos and filter coffees, all of the coffees need to be brewed the same way (same dosage of coffee, ground the same way, with the same amount of hot water added), regardless of where they are from or how they’ve been roasted.
The cuppers (with a special cupping spoon, which resembles a soup spoon) then go around the table and slurp the coffee to ensure that it hits all areas of their pallet. First time slurpers will often end up doubled-over and coughing, which is highly entertaining for coffee veterans - at this point we must stress that no production staff are harmed during our cuppings!
Cuppers will go round the table a few times to try the coffees at different temperatures, because our pallets are better at picking up specific flavours at different temperatures. That’s why jamie Oliver always insists you leave your chocolate and your tomatoes out of the fridge.
And that’s a cupping! Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed this latest addition to our coffee alphabet. Why not grab a few different coffees and set up a cupping of your own! You can use the packaging label notes as a guide to what sort of flavours you should be getting, but we are all individuals so be sure to trust your own instincts too.