Cupping: evaluating the quality of coffee


How to systematically determine the quality of coffee? How can cupping help home brewers?

You might do this daily. Or you probably have seen this somewhere. Maybe in the corner of your favorite third wave coffee shop where roasters and baristas were testing their latest roast. You might not immediately figured out what they were doing. But you probably remember the sound they made: the awkward and somewhat disturbing sound of slurping, sharply; Cupping is used by professional graders to access the quality of coffee. It is also a great practice to improve one’s sensory comprehension.



Cupping is a method designed to accurately assess the flavor, taste, and aroma of various coffee beans so that roasters and coffee professionals can judge their relative merits and make buying decisions.*

Traditional coffee cupping is said to have originated at Hills Bros. Coffee in San Francisco.** Although you can (I certainly had) use this method to brew coffee, cupping is mostly conducted to minimized brew variables, so cuppers can access the quality of coffee without the influence from baristas. There are officially recognize coffee evaluators called Q grader.**


The method

See SCA website for detailed protocol. Search “SCA cupping form” for alternative scoring sheet.


equipment:

  • cupping glasses/bowls with lid (6 to 9 fl oz cups, 3 to 5 cups per coffee)

  • cupping spoons

  • grinder

  • scale

  • hot water kettle/heater


steps:

1. Grind coffee:

Grind size are slightly coarser than typically used for drip coffee. Coffee should be ground immediately before cupping, no more than 15 minutes. Cover coffee ground immediately after grinding. Use 7g to 9g of coffee per cup. The SCA standard is 8.25g of coffee per 150ml of water. Adapt this ratio to the maximum capacity of your vessels.


2. Dry aroma:

Smell the ground coffee. What does it reminds you of? Do you smell lemon, strawberry, vanilla? Slightly shake the coffee ground. Do you notice any other notes? When encountering sensory fatigue, try smelling the palm of your hand to “reset” your nose.



3. Brew:

Heat water to 200°F. Decisively and quickly fill cupping vessels with water to the brim, making sure to saturate all coffee ground. Try to pour in water in circles to encourage even saturation.



4. Wet aroma:

At 3’00” mark, using the back of the cupping spoons to delicately “scrap” the “crust” formed on top of the brew with a forward movement. This process is referred to as “breaking the crust”. Avoid agitating the coffee beneath the surface. Smell the back of the spoon. Can you pick up any aroma now? Jasmine? warming spice? tobacco? After grading wet aroma, use cupping spoons to carefully remove the rest of the crust on the surface of the brew.



5. Tasting:

Once samples cool down to 160°F, which is normally about 7 to 10 minutes after the beginning of infusion, brews are ready for evaluation. When sampling the brew, make sure liquor is aspirated into the mouth to cover as much area as possible. imagine you’re turning your mouth into an instant mister. Flavor and aftertaste are rated first. How is the flavor profile? Does it have a nice finish? As the brew continue to cool down to 140°F to 160°F, next to be rated are acidity, body and balance. Other than grading the coffee by points, try to write down whatever notes you can pick out. Does the acidity reminds you of stonefruit? pineapple? Is the texture creamy? As the brew approaches room temperature, sweetness, uniformity and clean cup are rated. Does the sweetness like honey, brown sugar or cane sugar?


The bowl of the cupping spoon can accommodate more liquid. It also helps to cool down coffee for sampling.

6. Tally:

Add up all the points. Subtract any defects. The final number is the grade of the coffee. Coffee scores more than 80 is considered specialty coffee.


Specialty coffee refers to coffee rated more than 80 points according to SCA protocol.

If you are interested in improving your sensory skills in appreciating coffee or be better at picking out flavor notes, I will definitely recommend practicing cupping on the regular basis. There are a lot of coffee subscription that offers cupping flights. Compare your score with other, and see if you agree with others’ assessment. I’m always very insecure about my sensory skills, cupping helps me be more confident at my our palate, and over time, helps me pick out flavor notes more easily and associate flavor descriptors better.



* Lani Kingston, How to Make Coffee: The Science Behind the Bean

** “Q coffee system developed by the Coffee Quality Institute is a formalized method of cupping and grading coffee, based on the SCA Cupping and Grading protocol. The students are put through a battery of sensory test to measure their ability to taste and smell. In all, the students take 22 individual tests, with the requirement that they pass each test to earn the title of Q Grader.”- Ted Lingle, Sunalini Menon, Cupping and Grading: Discovering Character and Quality


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