Of all the terms that regularly appear when dealing with coffee, “cupping” is among the most frequent. Used to describe a method of evaluating the characteristics of coffee, it’s a relatively simple technique carried out by professionals and enthusiasts across the entire coffee industry.
Although often leveraged as a way of comparing and contrasting different coffees, it’s also used to test quality, check for defects, and determine suitability for blends. Thanks to the few items required to set up a cupping session, it’s accessible and affordable whether performed in a roastery, a café, or even at origin.
To find out more about cupping and its importance to creating high-quality coffee, I spoke with three-time Guatemala Cup Tasters Champion, Dulce Barrera.
What Is Cupping & Why Is It Important?
Cupping is a method of evaluating coffees that’s been in use across the coffee industry for more than one hundred years. It was established in the late 1800s by coffee merchants as a way of running consistency checks and assisting buying decisions.
But it wasn’t until the end of the 20th century, when it was adopted as a way of judging and evaluating coffees in Cup of Excellence competitions, that it came into widespread use. Not long after, the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) developed a cupping protocol, which remains the worldwide industry standard today.
In its most simple form, a cupping involves pouring hot water directly onto coffee grounds and allowing them to steep for up to five minutes. The foamy head is removed and the liquid is deeply sniffed while being stirred. The cup taster will then use a spoon to scoop up some of the coffee before slurping it quickly to spread the liquid across the tongue.
The idea of cupping is to measure qualities such as body, mouthfeel, acidity, sweetness, and aftertaste. An experienced cup taster will also be able to determine specific flavour notes, such as redcurrant, chocolate, and caramel, as well as pinpointing the origin of the coffee.
Dulce Barrera is a professional cup taster who currently works as Head of Quality Control at Bella Vista Coffee in Guatemala. In addition to winning her country’s Cup Tasters Championship three years in a row, she also finished fourth in the world series. She tells me that cupping is the best way of familiarising yourself with quality coffee and its different characteristics.
“For newcomers, cupping offers an opportunity to learn about what makes a good coffee and how to identify the differences between each one,” she says. “It also improves purchase price transparency, ensuring the best quality coffees receive the highest prices on the market.
“Without cupping, it would be difficult for people to recognise all the hard work that goes into maintaining and improving quality year on year.”
One of the advantages of tasting coffee with the cupping method is that it allows roasters to run comparative taste tests, making it easier to spot differences between qualities such as acidity and sweetness. It also enables them to develop their sensory skills so that they can make more informed decisions when deciding on which coffees to add to their menu.
What Equipment Do You Need For Cupping?
The main appeal of cupping ultimately lies in its simplicity: it can be done by anyone with access to just a few basic pieces of equipment. All you need to get started with a cupping is the following:
A typical cup of coffee is 98.5% water, which means that, just like any other brewing method, you should always opt for the best quality water when cupping. Poor quality water could distort the characteristics of the coffee and compromise the results. For great brewing water, try filtration systems such as BWT, Brita, or Peak Water.
For cupping, you’ll need very hot water, preferably between 96°C and 100°C. A good quality, high capacity kettle with a long spout will allow you to pour multiple cups and ensure full extraction of the grounds.
According to coffee expert Scott Rao, the grind size for cupping should be medium-fine. This is to maximise the extraction during the brew phase, which lasts between three and five minutes. Rather than a blade grinder, a good quality burr grinder, such as a Baratza, will help ensure an even extraction.
Although cupping bowls are recommended, any cup or glass with 175-300ml capacity will work. Traditionally, ceramic bowls are the most popular option, but alternatives such as Barista Hustle plastic bowls are being explored by some cup tasters.
Any spoon deep enough to carry a good amount of liquid will suffice. However, a proper cupping spoon will be designed in such a way as to make the “slurping” part of cupping easy.
Other useful equipment
A digital scale, a timer, some glasses filled with water for rinsing your spoon, a notepad, and an optional spittoon cup are all recommended.
How To Perform A Cupping
Cupping is an integral part of green and roasted coffee quality control. For anyone working in the coffee industry, whether a producer, roaster, or barista, it’s important to understand the basic cupping protocols as outlined by the SCAA.
The free-to-use resource lays out the steps of a common set of tools and procedures by which coffee community members across the supply chain can evaluate and converse about quality.
In their simplified form, the protocols state the following:
- For every 8.25g of coffee, use 150ml of water.
- The sample should be ground immediately prior to cupping; no more than 15 minutes before infusion with water
- The hot water should be poured directly onto the measured grounds to the rim of the cup, making sure to wet all the grounds. The grounds should be left to steep undisturbed for 3-5 minutes before evaluation
- After four minutes, break the crust by stirring three times, allowing the foam to run down the back of the spoon while gently sniffing
- After breaking all the crusts, remove the grounds from the surface of the cups using two cupping spoons simultaneously
- After 8-10 minutes of infusion, evaluation should begin. Scoop a spoonful of liquid and quickly slurp so as to cover as much area as possible, especially the tongue and upper palate
- Focus on the coffee’s aromatics, mouthfeel, acidity, sweetness, and flavour. Take notes while moving between coffees and rinse the spoon in a cup of clean water
After a cupping session, the coffees are scored according to the SCA scale. The scale ranges from 1 to 100, with anything above 80 considered specialty.
Dulce says that roasters with coffee that scores above 80 should use it as a way of marketing their product. She tells me that one of the most effective ways of doing this is by displaying the information on the coffee’s packaging.
“Not everyone is familiar with the SCA number-scoring system,” she says, “so it’s a good idea to include the whole scale and mark where your coffee ranks to educate them. Alongside this, you could also indicate the different characteristics of the coffee, such as the flavour notes, mouthfeel, and acidity. If your coffee tastes like strawberries, for example, you could make the bag red.”
At MTPak Coffee, we understand how much work goes into producing quality coffee. With our range of sustainable packaging, you’ll be able to preserve the freshness of your coffee while highlighting its distinct characteristics.
Our design services can help you create a unique pouch, while you can also add components such as degassing valves and resealable zippers to maximise convenience for customers.
For more information on our sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team here.
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