Coffee cupping is industry speak for smelling and tasting freshly brewed coffee and evaluating how and what it smells and tastes like. Cupping coffee is quite possibly one of the most fun coffee activities you can participate in, so get excited!
What you’ll need to cup coffee
- One person (friend, family member, colleague, stranger) who isn’t yourself
- Good quality water
- At least two distinct freshly roasted, single origin whole bean coffees*
- Burr grinder
- One small bowl for every coffee you plan to cup
- Tall glass with clean soup spoons submerged (you’ll need one soup spoon for every person who will be cupping)
- Pen and paper
*You shouldn’t be cupping dark roasted coffee because most of the flavor notes and aromas will be masked by the roast level. The coffee should be a single origin (only comes from one producer, not a blend) and it should be no older than 2 weeks past the roast date.
Coffee cupping steps outlined
The great thing about cupping coffee is that you can adapt it in any way that you like. It may be cliché, but the most important thing about cupping coffee is that you and the other participants are having fun.
So feel free to follow these steps as you see fit. This is simply how I cup coffee.
1. Get set up and organized
Once your coffee has been ground, it’s really going to be a race against the clock to brew all of the coffees you will be cupping as quickly as possible. The sooner you add your hot water post-grind, the better.
This is to ensure that your coffee will be optimally fresh and thus give off the most aromas and flavors it is capable of producing.
So to get to the point, you’ll need to have everything setup and organized before you grind your coffee.
First, place your bowls on your table with a paper label for each bowl. I like to simply label each of the bowls with a #1, #2, #3, etc. You can also write down the names of the coffees, but make sure you aren’t including any identifying factors like the coffee’s origin.
Most single origin coffees have names that pay tribute to the origin itself though, which is why it’s probably best to simply label the bowls with numbers. Just don’t lose track of which coffee is represented by which number.
Next, place a tray or similar receptacle behind each bowl. This is where the “coffee crust” will be discarded later in the tasting. Don’t worry about this part quite yet.
Set your clean tasting spoons in a tall glass of water. The more spoons the merrier if you ask me. I use soup spoons.
Make sure everybody has pen and paper to take notes on. All set? Good!
Now it’s time to weigh out the coffee and start heating the water.
2. Weigh your coffee
Each coffee should be weighed out in 2 portions. One of the portions is for priming your grinder, the other is for the actual coffee you will be cupping.
You will want to weigh out 9 grams of each coffee for priming purposes, you can keep it in a small cup in front of each bowl.
Next, weigh out 18 grams of each coffee and place it in its respective bowl.
3. Heat your water
Fill your kettle with as much water as it can hold and bring your water to a boil. Once the water is boiling, you can start grinding your coffee. But first, it’s prime time.
4. Prime your grinder
Priming your grinder is all about cleaning out any residual/old coffee grounds from your grinder. It’s also about locking in your grind setting to ensure the most consistent grind possible for your cupping.
Before adding the 9 grams of coffee from your first sample to the grinder, set your grinder to a medium-coarse grind setting (somewhere between french press and drip coffee).
Once your grinder has been set to the correct grind setting, grind the 9 grams of your first coffee sample.
5. Grind your first coffee sample
Grind the 18 grams of your first coffee sample and add it to its respective bowl.
6. Prime your grinder with the next coffee sample
Once you’ve ground your first sample and added the coffee to its bowl, prime the grinder a second time, but this time with the second coffee sample.
You will repeat this process for every coffee you plan to cup.
7. Grind the second coffee sample and so forth
Grind your second coffee sample. You will repeat steps 6 and 7 for every coffee that you want to cup.
Now, we get to the actual cupping
All of the previous steps were for setup alone. Don’t be overwhelmed, everything is easy from here on out and this is where you get to actually start having some fun.
8. Smell the coffee
With mouth open, take a nice big sniff of the freshly ground coffee from the first sample. What are you picking up, if anything? Burnt rubber? Cinnamon? Jasmines?
Write down anything and everything that you smell. Then smell the next coffee and take notes on it. Continue this until you’ve smelled and taken notes on every coffee.
9. Add water
Once the hot water has been off the boil for about a minute, add 150 grams of hot water to each bowl of ground coffee. You can measure the volume with a measuring cup, but it’s better to pour the water directly into the bowl (which should sit, tared on top of a gram scale).
Pour the remaining hot water into your tall glass of soup spoons. Set a timer for 4 minutes.
10. Smell again
Smell each coffee sample now that the water has been added. Take notes. Any differences?
11. Break the “crust” and smell again
Take one of the spoons and push the floating coffee grounds at the surface to the side of the bowl and smell again. Take notes.
Make sure you “de-contaminate” your spoon by adding it back to the glass of water before you break the crust on the next sample you smell.
12. Take a spoonful of the brewed coffee and sip
Ah, it’s the moment you’ve been waiting for…tasting the coffee!
Take a spoonful of the brewed coffee, making sure to avoid as much of the ground coffee as possible, and slurp it up. Observe the flavor, take notes.
Repeat for each coffee.
13. Compare notes with other participants
Evaluating and reviewing coffee is a whole other topic in itself, but here’s some things to pay attention to and share with the other cuppers:
- Flavor – the most obvious, yet most difficult. What does the coffee taste like?
- Aroma – what does the coffee smell like? Whole bean? Ground? With crust? Without crust?
- Body – how thick (or syrupy) does the coffee feel in your mouth? Is it heavy or thin? The thicker it feels, the more body the coffee is said to have.
- Aftertaste – what do you taste after the coffee has been swallowed?
- Complexity – are there a lot of flavors and/or aromas? You’ve got yourself a complex coffee if the answer is yes.
- Balance – does the coffee taste neither too weak nor too strong? Neither too sweet nor too bitter? Is it just right according to Goldilocks? You have yourself a balanced cup of coffee.
- Acidity – is the coffee citrusy? Lots of fruity kick to it? Too acidic can be sour, but the right amount can be very sweet.
See how descriptive you can be when you talk about the coffee you are cupping. This guy has some hilarious ways of describing the coffee he is tasting (side-of-the-road cantaloupe anyone?):