What is Coffee Cupping?


If you are a coffee lover who has no clue what cupping is then read on. Coffee cupping, or tasting, is a special practice used to observe and evaluate the tastes and aromas of brewed coffee. It’s usually reserved for the pros but can be done informally by anyone, which is where I come in.

I’m Melissa, and like you, I’m a coffee novice.  I came to the MistoBox team knowing nada about coffee but still loving every cup I drank and wanting to learn and taste more!  So while I don’t belong in any coffee connoisseur journal my goal is to explore this world of coffee and teach you what I learn. Hand holding encouraged.  So here we go – Cupping!

I’ll explain why this seemingly inaccessible practice to us coffee novices is a super interesting, even fun, and crucial part of how any roaster chooses the specialty coffee you drink every day. Maybe you’re a coffee pro and you are thinking, “C’mon! Cuppings are a way of life for us industry folk!” But, here I present a coffee newbie’s first cupping experience, showing just how far the coffee industry has come and how many more people want to know the what, how, and why of what goes into their cup of coffee.

I decided to figure out this cupping thing straight on. And thanks to Huckleberry Roasters here in Denver, CO (the place I happily call home) I did just that.  Huckleberry is one of MistoBox’s awesome roasting partners so the experience was truly a treat.

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Huckleberry Roasters’ flagship location

The day of cupping had arrived. Truthfully, I was expecting to feel kinda silly taking part in this cupping next to some coffee snobs, probably feeling like an outsider and not understanding the specifics and tasting notes.  But what I got was a flavorful, fun, and incredibly accessible event surrounded by Denver locals, from novices to coffee pros and everything in between. The one common denominator? We all love coffee. This, I could get down with. Let’s dig in and go through my cupping experience and why it’s a crucial component to coffee roasting, all through this coffee novice’s eyes.

The Spot: I enter Huckleberry a little nervous and a lot curious as to who and what to expect. Luckily I’ve been to Huckleberry Roasters many times and knew that it’s a very cool and friendly coffee shop. The guys who started it all, Koan and Mark, did so for a couple reasons: to make great coffee and to create a space where folks could come together to enjoy that coffee. Those crazy guys even take pride in saying that they “enjoy a cup with a little cream.” Just goes to show they are truly in this coffee game for the love of coffee and community. They have two spots which are both great to sit at for a while with your laptop and coffee or chat with a friend. The location of this particular cupping event was at their flagship coffee shop and roastery. When I entered there were the normal going on of a coffee shop Sunday – lattes and coffee being brewed, pastries abound, happy and hip baristas, and friends meeting for a cup before starting their sunny Denver day.  So far so good!

The Setup: Kevin, Huckleberry’s head coffee buyer and roaster dude (I think that’s his official title) set the stage for all of us coffee fans. The vibe was casual, friendly, informative – everything you’d hope for. He first started by telling us how the cupping would go. First, we would be smelling the coffee grounds, then the water gets poured, then a spoon thingy happens and then we taste!  

The Cupping: Each coffee that we would end up tasting was coarsely ground and put into glass cups.  We were given a cute little clipboard with places to take notes during each part of the cupping experience so we could keep track of what each coffee smelled like or tasted like at each stage.  They also laid out a tasting wheel (similar to something you’d reference in a wine tasting) to help pinpoint different flavor notes as you went along.

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The 2016 SCAA Tasting wheel used to compare and inspire tasting notes – “This is the largest and most collaborative piece of research on coffee flavor ever completed, inspiring a new set of vocabulary for industry professionals.”  I really like the pretty colors

First off we all lined up single file style – everyone was very polite, no cutting or hair pulling here – and smelled just the ground coffee, then took notes. When I say that we ‘smelled’ I mean we were prompted to stick our nose as close as we could to the grounds and really inhale. I totally sucked at this part, meaning I couldn’t really distinguish aromas. But Kevin assured us that this is something you get better at with time. He would smell one coffee and say things like nutmeg or chicory…I would then go to that same cup and just smell “coffee.”

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The coarsely ground coffee looking quite lovely in the Denver sun.  Though my nose first just smelled ‘coffee’ certain cups reminded me of a delicious dessert I’ve had in the past or gave me a warm and sunny feel.  Amazing what you can discover in one tiny cup!

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When all else fails, copy your neighbor.

Next step: Water was being boiled in some sleek looking Bonavita kettles, and when the perfect temp was reached, Kevin quickly added the water so all of the grounds were saturated and covered. Kevin mentioned that it was important to get all the coffee wet so it would extract properly, leaving no dry pockets of coffee untouched by the water. We then smelled these cups too. What a difference! Adding water creates so much depth, spirit, and well a lot of yumminess for the nose. I don’t have to explain too much, you’ve all made coffee at home and really breathed in the smell which is all due to a perfect point when water mixes with coffee and creates all that aromatic goodness. It’s pure perfection! Visually speaking, the whole scene is really pretty at this point, all the piping hot water makes this chocolatey looking foam, mixed with the beautiful coffee grounds.  

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Isn’t she pretty?

Then comes ‘The Break’ (that’s what they call it in the industry). This is just a fancy way of saying take a spoon and push front to back-breaking the crust of the frothy grounds previously mentioned. You’re supposed to get the smell the exact moment you break the coffee because that is the point when the gases are released and the coffee is the most aromatic.  It’s a pretty magical thing! We had to take turns with this one, and since I only got one shot and didn’t really get this part, so I’m eager to try it again. Pretty sure I looked really cool doing it though.

A real barista was pulled in to do the next part, us jokers would have really screwed things up here. What is required is basically a ‘double spoon pull from back to front’ maneuver that skims all the grounds off of the top so you’re left with brewed coffee. Tada!

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An example of this pulling grinds from cup maneuver…skills!

Finally the tasting. This is the part that – prior to this experience – has always turned me off. You take a spoon and skim the surface of the coffee so you have enough to taste, and you essentially inhale the coffee while slurping. Yes, slurping, REALLY loudly. I doth detest! But once you do it, you’ll notice how getting all that air and flavor rolling around in your mouth and tongue gives you a way better take on the coffee. It’s like you are honing in on all these flavor particles, the way the coffee feels, an enjoyable and sensate experience. I was really getting into this!  And I finally had better notes at this point such as ‘tastes like really good coffee.’

https://youtu.be/DvCH2FodFMMHere Huckleberry’s own Kevin and Koan show us how it’s done 

The Verdict:  OMG I TOTALLY GET CUPPING!  The differences in aroma, taste, the color of each coffee from different regions – they were way more noticeable than I thought they’d be.  And Huckleberry did a great job placing coffees next to one another that would clearly have different traits, smells, flavor notes so that our noses and taste buds got that ‘aha’ moment.  They even busted out an Indonesian coffee that was just released and talked about why they choose certain coffees over others, without totally overloading us coffee fledglings with too much jargon or technicalities.

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The aftermath of a damn good cupping

Now any time I enjoy a cup at home I know that this coffee was chosen specifically over others for many reasons and the way that particular roaster made his or her final verdict was through fun and a slurpy thing called cupping.

*Writers note: I have since been told that roasters cup coffee pretty much every day as part of their job.  Also that I am, officially, becoming a coffee nerd.  Say it isn’t so!

**Check out our awesome coffee cocktail article and the perfect cold brew cup!