Is cupping the best way to evaluate coffee?

Karmen Yoong
February 10, 2022
cupping coffee

Cupping is a long-standing method used to taste and measure the quality of coffee.

Often carried out by professionals and enthusiasts, this sensory assessment can help identify the potential of the coffee.

Additionally, it can assist in determining roast profiles, quality control, and buying decisions.

The real beauty of the cupping procedure lies in its simplicity as it can be done anywhere, at any time. What’s more, it is an effective way to streamline the communication of coffee quality.

However, as cupping can be subjective, it may not be a perfect method of evaluation. As a result, other methods involving technology have recently appeared in the coffee industry.

To understand more about evaluating coffee, I spoke with head researcher at the Coffee Sensorium, Verônica Belchior.

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cupping coffee

What is coffee cupping?

Believed to have originated in the late 1800s, cupping was used by merchants to perform consistency checks during the buying process.

At the end of the 20th century, the Cup of Excellence competition began using cupping to judge coffee samples that were entered. As a result, a cupping protocol was created by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) as a guideline for the wider coffee community.

Fundamentally, cupping is a straightforward process that only requires a few items.

In his book, The World Atlas of Coffee, World Barista Champion James Hoffmann states the idea behind cupping is to avoid the flavour being affected by the brewing process.

He further explains that the process is intended to treat all coffees being tasted as equals. Therefore, a simple brewing process is used.

First, cupping samples are prepared by adding hot water directly to the coffee grounds. These are left to steep for three to five minutes.

Second, a layer of floating grounds will appear on the surface. This is known as a “crust”. The crust is stirred three times, and the coffee is then sniffed to assess its aroma.

Finally, any remaining grounds or foam is skimmed off the surface. Once the coffee has cooled, it is ready for tasting. Typically, the taster “slurps” the coffee to aerate and spread it over the tongue and palate, maximising the flavour and aroma.

Next, the taster will use a cupping form to score the coffee on certain attributes. These include sweetness, acidity, mouthfeel, aftertaste, and balance.

A 100-point scale is used, and any coffee that earns 80 points and above is considered “specialty” coffee.

To accompany the evaluation process, the SCA also has a green coffee grading protocol. This measures green defects that may influence the final grade of the coffee.

cupping coffee

What are the problems with cupping?

While coffee cupping is a widely used method, it may not be the ideal scoring system. As cupping is based on a sensory evaluation it is, by its nature, subjective.

Therefore, any factors that affect the cup tasters ability to identify flavours can lead to inaccurate results. For example, a lack of sleep, spicy foods, medication use, and habits such as smoking may temporarily alter the palate, making it difficult to detect delicate aromas and flavours.

So, those training to be professional cup tasters or Q-graders may choose to monitor their diets or avoid strong-flavoured foods close to a cupping session.

Additionally, an article by the Daily Coffee News suggests being an effective cup taster requires more than an ability to identify flavours.

The article suggests that a cup taster should possess a strong sensory memory to recall flavours. Additionally, they should be able to describe these sensory attributes well, and score without any knowledge or emotional bias.

Verônica, who holds a PhD in Food Sciences and is a certified Q-grader, suggests the problem with cupping may also lie in the cupping form itself.

“The cupping form is mixed with both a hedonic and intensity scale,” she says. “Sometimes, people may have trouble understanding the form.”

For example, the hedonic analysis, or horizontal scale, represents the quality of the attribute. The vertical scale then refers to intensity.

Therefore, calculating sensory perception into either the quality or intensity scale can be difficult.

Furthermore, Verônica notes the evaluation of the body attribute of coffee may not be well-defined in the cupping form.

“When we talk about body, we are probably referring to mouthfeel, texture, and weight of the coffee,” says Verônica, who is also a biologist and master in Ecology at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora (UFJF) in Brazil. “But I think we need to separate them [to be more precise].”

As an example, sweetness is an important attribute for arabica coffee. Therefore, the absence of a sweetness scale on the form may lead to an inaccurate representation of the coffee.

While the SCA protocol ensures the cupping is done in a specific manner, Verônica adds controlling the variables during the preparation stage can be difficult.

For instance, any variations in roasting, water quality, or brewing equipment can impact the final cup quality.

evaluating coffee

Is there a better way to evaluate coffee?

As the sensory-based evaluation can be affected by numerous factors, the objectivity and accuracy of cupping can be questionable.

However, to validate results from cupping analysis, Verônica has explored using Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy. This can help predict the sensory attributes of coffee samples.

“Exposing infrared light to coffee samples vibrates the molecules,” she says. “This gives a spectrum of coffee’s chemical composition.”

She further explains that flavour perception of coffee is formed from a combination of volatile and non-volatile chemical compounds.

“For instance, carbohydrate plays a role in the texture, mouthfeel, and body of the coffee,” Verônica says. “Additionally, chlorogenic acids contribute to bitterness, harshness, and astringency.”

Essentially, having a comprehensive breakdown of the chemical compounds in coffee may provide a better indication of its attributes. This may also help verify coffee species, sample roast profile, and more.

At the same time, the industry has recently seen the application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in evaluating coffee.

Specifically, agriculture technology start-up Demetria has made use of near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy and AI. The company has created a handheld device that analyses green coffee.

The technology then matches the profile of the bean through its AI platform to help predict taste and quality.

In particular, it helps tackle the accessibility to cupping at the farm level. This is especially true for many smallholder farmers who have limited resources and cupping expertise.

Even as new methods of coffee evaluation emerge, the role of a human cup taster should not be discounted.

In a Daily New Coffee article, Felipe Ayerbe says Demetria is unlikely to replace cup tasters. “Instead, our tools complement the work of cup tasters in every part of the process. There is always a portion that requires cupping.”

Verônica agrees that a machine may be more accurate than humans. However, she adds that for the machine to function, it first requires human input. Furthermore, she says the sensory profile description of a machine will not be that same as one given by a human.

“So I think it will be ideal to combine both [human and technology] to produce reliable cupping results,” she concludes. 

Furthermore, adopting additional methods of evaluating coffee may help reduce waste during the cupping process. This may include excess grind or empty product packaging.

recyclable coffee bags

Investing in recyclable coffee packaging may provide coffee businesses with peace of mind. Consequently, these sustainable materials are highly effective at preserving the coffee’s freshness.

MTPak Coffee understands the hard work roasters put into cupping and tasting coffee. Like you, our team is dedicated to providing consumers with high-quality, great-tasting coffee.

Made from sustainable materials such as kraft and rice paper, and polylactic acid (PLA), our high-quality coffee pouches will preserve the freshness and distinct qualities of your coffee.

For more information about sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team.

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