Cupping

What is Coffee Cupping? Coffee cupping, or coffee tasting, is the practice of observing the tastes and aromas of brewed coffee. It is a professional practice but can be done informally by anyone or by professionals known as “Master Tasters” or “Q-Graders”.

A standard coffee cupping procedure involves deeply sniffing the coffee, then loudly slurping the coffee so it spreads to the back of the tongue. The coffee taster attempts to measure aspects of the coffee’s taste, specifically the body (the texture or mouthfeel, such as oiliness), sweetness (the perceived sweetness at the sides of the tongue), acidity (a sharp and tangy feeling at the tip of the tongue, like when biting into an orange), flavor (the characters in the cup), and aftertaste. Since coffee beans embody telltale flavors from the region where they were grown, cuppers may attempt to identify the coffee’s origin.

What is identified when cupping?

1. Aroma: Describe the smell of the coffee before tasting, and rate the intensity of the aroma.
2. Acidity: The pleasing brightness or sharpness in the coffee. Acidity can be intense or mild, round or edgy, elegant or wild, and everything in between. It is the high, thin notes, the dryness the coffee leaves at the back of your palate and under the edges of your tongue. It’s the pleasant tartness, snap, or twist, combined with an underlying sweetness; it is bright, dry, sharp, brisk, and vibrant. (An acidy coffee is somewhat analogous to a dry wine.) A coffee that lacks acidity tastes flat. Acidity should be distinguished from sour or astringent.
3. Body/Mouthfeel: The sense of weight, tactile richness, thickness or heaviness that the coffee exerts in the mouth when you swish it around; how it coats the palate; its balance. Can be very difficult for beginning cuppers to identify – it is useful to think about the viscosity or thickness of the coffee, and concentrate on the degree to which the coffee has a physical presence. It also describes texture: oily, buttery, thin, etc.
4. Sweetness Balance: The extent to which the sweetness provides balance and eases the finish. The degree of harmony between the acidic and sweet flavors.
5. Aftertaste/Finish: Describes the immediate sensation after the coffee is swallowed; the coffee’s finish in your mouth. Some coffees develop in the finish; they change in pleasurable ways. The ideal finish has enough endurance to carry the flavor for 10 seconds after swallowing, affirming with great clarity the principal flavor of the coffee, leaving a lingering, pleasant, non-bitter and non-sour aftertaste.
6. Overall Taste: The catch-all for all the actual “tastes” the coffee gives. What does it taste like? Describe any directly identifiable fleeting flavor notes you may taste.
7. Personal Preference: Do I like it? Does it taste nice?

Common Language to Describe Aroma, Taste and Mouthfeel

A. Aromas

  • Animal-like – This odor descriptor is somewhat reminiscent of the smell of animals. It is not a fragrant aroma like musk but has the characteristic odor of wet fur, sweat, leather, hides or urine. It is not necessarily considered as a negative attribute but is generally used to describe strong notes.
  • Ashy – This odor descriptor is similar to that of an ashtray, the odor of smokers’ fingers or the smell one gets when cleaning out a fireplace. It is not used as a negative attribute. Generally speaking this descriptor is used by the tasters to indicate the degree of roast.
  • Burnt/Smoky – This odor and flavor descriptor is similar to that found in burnt food. The odor is associated with smoke produced when burning wood. This descriptor is frequently used to indicate the degree of roast commonly found by tasters in dark-roasted or oven-roasted coffees.
  • Chemical/Medicinal – This odor descriptor is reminiscent of chemicals, medicines and the smell of hospitals. This term is used to describe coffees having aromas such as flavor, chemical residues or highly aromatic coffees which produce large amounts of volatiles.
  • Chocolate-like – This aroma descriptor is reminiscent of the aroma and flavor of cocoa powder and chocolate (including dark chocolate and milk chocolate). It is an aroma that is sometimes referred to as sweet.
  • Caramel – This aroma descriptor is reminiscent of the odor and flavor produced when caramelizing sugar without burning it. Tasters should be cautioned not to use this attribute to describe a burning note.
  • Cereal/Malty/Toast-like – This descriptor includes aromas characteristic of cereal, malt, and toast. It includes scents such as the aroma and flavor of uncooked or roasted grain (including roasted corn, barley or wheat), malt extract and the aroma and flavor of freshly baked bread and freshly made toast. This descriptor has a common denominator, a grain-type aroma. The aromas in this descriptor were grouped together since tasters used these terms interchangeably when evaluating standards of each one.
  • Earthy – The characteristic odor of fresh, wet soil or humus. Sometimes associated with molds and reminiscent of raw potato flavor, a common flavor note in coffees from Asia.
  • Floral – This aroma descriptor is similar to the fragrance of flowers. It is associated with the slight scent of different types of flowers including honeysuckle, jasmine, dandelion and nettles. It is mainly found when an intense fruity or green aroma is perceived but rarely found having a high intensity by itself.
  • Fruity/Citrus – This aroma is reminiscent of the odor and taste of fruit. The natural aroma of berries is highly associated with this attribute. The perception of high acidity in some coffees is correlated with the citrus characteristic. Tasters should be cautioned not to use this attribute to describe the aroma of unripe or overripe fruit.
  • Grassy/Green/Herbal – This aroma descriptor includes three terms which are associated with odors reminiscent of a freshly mowed lawn, fresh green grass or herbs, green foliage, green beans or unripe fruit.
  • Nutty – This aroma is reminiscent of the odor and flavor of fresh nuts (distinct from rancid nuts) and not of bitter almonds.
  • Rancid/Rotten – This aroma descriptor includes two terms which are associated with odors reminiscent of rancidification and oxidation of several products. Rancid as the main indicator of fat oxidation mainly refers to rancid nuts and rotten is used as an indicator of deteriorated vegetables or non-oily products. Tasters should be cautioned not to apply these descriptors to coffees that have strong notes but no signs of deterioration.
  • Rubber-like – This odor descriptor is characteristic of the smell of hot tires, rubber bands and rubber stoppers. It is not considered a negative attribute but has a characteristic strong note highly recognizable in some coffees.
  • Spicy – This aroma descriptor is typical of the odor of sweet spices such as cloves, cinnamon and allspice. Tasters are cautioned not to use this term to describe the aroma of savory spices such as pepper, oregano and Indian spices.
  • Tobacco – This aroma descriptor is reminiscent of the odor and taste of tobacco but should not be used for burnt tobacco.
  • Winey – These terms is used to describe the combined sensation of smell, taste and mouthfeel experiences when drinking wine. It is generally perceived when a strong acidic or fruity note is found. Tasters should be cautioned not to apply this term to a sour or fermented flavor.
  • Woody – This aroma descriptor is reminiscent of the smell of dry wood, an oak barrel, dead wood or cardboard paper.

B. Taste

  • Acidity – A basic taste characterized by the solution of an organic acid. A desirable sharp and pleasing taste particularly strong with certain origins as opposed to an over-fermented sour taste.
  • Bitterness – A primary taste characterized by the solution of caffeine, quinine and certain other alkaloids. This taste is considered desirable up to a certain level and is affected by the degree of roast brewing procedures.
  • Sweetness – This is a basic taste descriptor characterized by solutions of sucrose or fructose which are commonly associated with sweet aroma descriptors such as fruity, chocolate and caramel. It is generally used for describing coffees which are free from off-flavors.
  • Saltiness – A primary taste characterized by a solution of sodium chloride or other salts.
  • Sourness – This basic taste descriptor refers to an excessively sharp, biting and unpleasant flavor (such as vinegar or acetic acid). It is sometimes associated with the aroma of fermented coffee. Tasters should be cautious not to confuse this term with acidity which is generally considered a pleasant and desirable taste in coffee.

C. Mouthfeel

  • Body – This attribute descriptor is used to describe the physical properties of the beverage. A strong but pleasant full mouthfeel characteristic as opposed to being thin.
    To an amateur coffee taster, body can be compared to drinking milk. A heavy body is comparable to whole milk while a light body can be comparable to skim milk. Also think hot chocolate versus tea.
  • Astringency – The astringent attribute is characteristic of an after-taste sensation consistent with a dry feeling in the mouth, undesirable in coffee.

At the end of the day cupping is a very subjective experience. The industry works hard to “calibrate” each other to a standard of objectivity but taste is a preference. Most cupping is used for quality control and may not have as much a bearing on a customer’s decision at the retail level. The truth is yours to find and let your taste be the only thing that guides you…Cheers!