In our previous post we sought to better understand what taste is and the vocabulary used to describe it, which can sometimes feel like trying to learn a new language. What we love about third wave specialty coffee is that deeper appreciation isn’t just for baristas or professional tasters anymore. Anyone brewing at home can practice improving their palate to heighten their appreciation for their favorite morning beverage. All anyone needs is some good coffee and a basic understanding of the key elements that professionals use to evaluate the taste of coffee.
What is coffee cupping?
Coffee cupping is an efficient way to taste and evaluate different components in coffee (often more than one coffee at a time). It is used by professionals in the coffee industry to evaluate and score the quality of coffee on a 100-point scale, but can also be enjoyed by enthusiasts and beginners as well.
The purpose of cupping is to intentionally evaluate a coffee and recognize aspects of its aroma, acidity, flavor, and body. For recreational coffee lovers cupping at home, understanding these terms and how they present themselves in coffee can help us better understand what we are tasting and what it is we enjoy or dislike. That gives us the power to better choose, brew, and enjoy coffee.
Specialty coffee cupping lingo:
It can be intimidating to attend cuppings with people in the coffee world. You’ll hear a lot of coffee industry jargon thrown around, and it can often make even the most welcoming of environments feel inaccessible and alienating. Here are the main terms you will hear and that are essential to coffee tasting:
Fragrance & Aroma, simply put, are the aromatic smells of the dry (fragrance) and wet (aroma) coffee grounds. What does the coffee smell like? Does it remind you of freshly baked cookies, cherry pie, or is the coffee floral? Some popular examples of fragrances and aromas include flowers, fresh bread, nuts, citrus, and berry fruits.
Flavor is what happens when you combine aroma with taste. The natural flavors within a coffee are determined by the bean’s organic makeup influenced by where it was grown, how it was processed, and the caramelization of sugars that occur during the roasting process. Roasted coffee has hundreds of flavor compounds found in other fruits, vegetables, plants, and foods. For more detail on how these elements are expressed and why see our previous post on understanding tasting notes.
Acidity contributes to the coffee’s overall character or personality and can be described as “brightness” when favorable or “sour” when unfavorable. It’s important to understand that we are referring to taste and the sensation of acidity on your tongue and not to the level of pH acidity (it’s acidity felt on the tongue, not in the stomach). Another way to approach describing acidity can be to relate it to foods or drinks you’re more familiar with. Does the acidity remind you of a ripe orange or lemon? Is it reminiscent of peach or cherry? Oranges can have more of a soft and rounded acidity in comparison to a grapefruit which tends to have a sharper acidity that is more tart. We often think of acidity as a single descriptor on a binary scale, but as you begin to think about it more deeply, you’ll realize it is quite varied and dynamic. Some other examples of how we describe acidity are lively, bright, sparkling, and crisp when it’s high, and flat, soft, round, or mild when it’s more subtle.
Body or “mouthfeel” is the weight of the coffee on your tongue and how it coats your mouth. It can be light (thin, delicate) to full-bodied (creamy, syrupy) and is a result of fat content. Think of the difference between drinking a cup of skim milk vs whole milk. Skim milk is thin in contrast to whole milk which has a much thicker texture and a heavier weight on your tongue. Coffee professionals often use the terms body and viscosity interchangeably.
Finish or “aftertaste” describes the length of time a coffee’s flavor remains in your mouth after the coffee has been swallowed or spit out. Does it linger or does it dissipate quickly?
Balance is the assessment of how well all of the above elements (flavor, acidity, body, and finish) combine to work together in a brew. A coffee that has high acidity with low finish, body, and flavor would not be considered balanced, although it might be interesting and enjoyed depending on your unique tastes. A balanced coffee will not have one taste characteristic overpowering another.
How to cup coffee at home
Once you’re more comfortable with the common words used during a cupping session, it’s time to try it yourself. What you’ll need:
- A cup
- Ground coffee
- Water (200 ℉)
- A spoon
- Grind coffee on a medium-coarse setting and place into your cup. The SCA recommends using 1.63 grams of coffee per 1 fluid ounce of water (6 oz cup =10 g of coffee beans). Evaluate the fragrance by smelling the dried coffee grounds. What are you picking up?
- Pour water that is just off boil over the coffee grounds and fill to the brim to begin the brewing process. Evaluate the aroma once the water and grounds have merged.
- After about 4 minutes, use your spoon to “break the crust”. This is a phrase used to describe the process of carefully placing your spoon into the wet coffee grounds while taking in its aroma. Was the fragrance different from the aroma? What changed? Anything new you’re picking up?
- Remove the grounds (aka the crust) from the brim of the cup. Brewing is now complete.
- Time to taste it. To taste coffee during a cupping you’ll slightly submerge your spoon into the brew until your spoon holds a small amount of liquid, avoiding any residual grounds. You’ll then slurp the coffee into your mouth in order to aerate it across your palate. What are you tasting? Does it remind you of anything?
Cupping Pro Tips
- Set the scene– Use a clean, comfortable, and neutral environment while cupping that is free of distractions. Our senses have a strong connection to our memories, so if you are cupping coffee in a room with strong colors, sounds, smells, or anything else that elicits memories it can affect what you’re tasting. For example, An orange wall color can unconsciously remind you of an orange fruit.
- Trust your nose– The majority of what we experience as flavor is derived from our sense of smell, so let that be your guide. If the fragrance or aroma reminds you of berries, the coffee will most likely taste like berries.
- Lean into the slurp- Abruptly slurp the coffee into your mouth in order to aerate it across your palate. The trick is to disperse the coffee onto all areas of your tongue while avoiding inhaling it. You might feel self-conscious, but this technique will make it easier to distinguish flavors.
- Cleanse the palate– Some tasters find clearing or cleansing their palate to be helpful. You can do this by drinking water before and after each coffee tasting.
- Taste intentionally– Allow the coffee to sit in your mouth before swallowing or spitting it out. Taking in the coffee’s aroma while it is on your tongue or in the back of your throat is an effective way to pick out different flavor notes. Even after you’ve swallowed the coffee, what are you smelling?
- Practice, practice, practice– Smell, taste, and evaluate all foods and drinks that you consume. Sitting down for a meal or cooking can be a great time to practice smelling and tasting different foods to build your coffee tasting vocabulary.
How does temperature affect the taste of coffee?
When evaluating certain aspects of flavor, the temperature can determine a lot. Perceived flavors and characteristics can change as the coffee cools. It becomes easier to taste and evaluate certain aspects once the temperature of the coffee has cooled to 160º F – 140º F. This is when the main “elements” (acidity, body, balance, flavor) are evaluated by coffee professionals. As the brew approaches room temperature (below 100º F) the level of sweetness is evaluated. Sweetness is used to describe the intensity of the sugary qualities of the coffee. Depending on the flavor compounds present, a coffee can taste significantly sweeter as it cools. For example, you might taste hints of peach at a hotter temperature and perceive those tastes as ripe nectarine or plum as it cools. Next time you’re drinking a cup of coffee take note of the differences in taste from the first sip to the last sip as it cools.
Feeling intimidated? Try not to. If you are just starting out you’ll need to train your palate and build out your mental flavor catalog by practicing with known flavors in your favorite foods. Eventually, you’ll be able to make connections between your coffee and those known flavors, but remember that taste is subjective. The beauty of coffee is that we all get something different from it. Depending on where you are at in your coffee journey, you may interpret and describe something differently than someone else. What matters is that you understand why you like or dislike your coffee and are able to communicate that.
Our coffee curators at MistoBox depend on our subscriber’s feedback to select better coffees so the better you can describe these elements, the better we can be at selecting coffees for you. Or even better, when you are more self-assured in your preferences you can use our Brew Queue to select your own beans.