Cupping coffee

The Art of Cupping

A consistent approach for evaluating a coffee’s quality.
Posted on October 10th 2015 by Maddie

Five years at Kicking Horse® Coffee. Two years in the Procurement Department. Somewhere, during my integration into the coffee industry I realized I had adopted a new language.

Writing, I am always skirting around terminology worried about opening Pandora’s Box. Explaining extraction, leads to optimum balance, leads to the Gold cup standard… Leading you down a rabbit hole, bound to confuse any reader hanging on.    

Cupping is one of those things I never think to explain. We cup every day in Procurement. Our days are scheduled around cupping. The coffee industry has ritualized cupping: for us at the Horse, it’s no different.

What is cupping? 

Cupping is a procedure used to taste and assess coffee. It provides a consistent approach for evaluating a coffee’s quality. 

The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) has established specific standards for cupping. Eliminating variables through standardizations helps to improve accuracy in assessing the quality of coffee. 

Cupping is often compared to wine tasting, for ease of explanation.

Why do we cup?

Coffee has come a long way from a good ol’ cup of Joe. It has moved from your morning caffeine fix to a palate pleaser armed with complexity and exotic flavour attributes. 

In effect, coffee can taste like more than just coffee. 

At the Horse, we are passionate about good coffee. Fairtrade, yes. Organic, yes. Beyond those benchmarks, we are constantly searching for coffee that will best present our blends in taste and quality. 

Quality Assessment

Cupping is an important measure to test the quality of coffee. 

One of the main benefits of cupping coffee is the scope of analysis. When we cup we are a measuring out small amounts (less than ten grams) in each cup. Cupping five different cups then means you have five different batches representing one coffee sample.

With cupping, if there is one defect bean, it will be strongly represented in the cup flavour. Whereas, you could brew a French Press, without noticing slight variances in aroma, taste, or flavour.

At Kicking Horse® Coffee, we cup multiple times as our coffee travels through our supply chain.

Palate Development

When I moved from Production to Procurement, I cupped primarily to establish a connection with flavours and descriptors. One of the hardest things about cupping is assigning vocabulary to what you taste. Taste may be innate, but flavour is learned: flavour is a combination of different perceptions. 

When we travel to origin, it is very important for us to cup with our cooperatives. As buyers and sellers we need to calibrate on what our preferences are and what specific coffee flavour profiles Kicking Horse Coffee is seeking.

Preparation

Following the SCAA protocol, we typically roast our samples in the late afternoon and cup them the following morning.  

For one sample, we will measure out five cups. A minimum of five cups is necessary to ensure a uniform representation of the sample. 

The optimum ratio is 8.25 grams of coffee per 150 ml of water.

When weighing out the five cups, it is very important to measure out whole beans and not to pre ground the coffee. 

If you were to grind coffee for the five cups together and then measure it, you would miss out on individual characteristics of the beans. You instead would be cupping the same blend of samples.

So each cup is weighed out… the cups are ground separately… the grinder is purged between each sample… the coffee is ground right before each cupping. It’s an exercise in exactness, patience, ritual.

Dry Fragrance

When the samples are ground, the first step of the sensory evaluation begins: smelling the dry fragrance. Pick up the cup and lightly shake the grounds to stir up the aroma. 

Wet Aroma

Once all have smelled the dry, it is time to add the hot water and smell the coffee once more. Once saturated the coffee will form a crust at the top of the glass.

Breaking the Crust

After the cups have steeped for four minutes, it’s time to break the crust. This is done by turning over the grounds gently with your spoon, releasing a burst of volatile compounds. 

After these three steps, you are ready to score the fragrance/aroma. Before tasting, skim the top of the cups collecting grounds. 

Tasting

Or, let’s be honest, Slurping!

We aspirate the coffee by sucking it off the spoon like a vacuum spraying the coffee over your tongue. The velocity allows it to hit all area of your palate.

Roll the coffee around in your mouth. 

And, then spit! Every cupper has his or her own spittoon. 

Scoring

The SCAA’s cupping form is then used to evaluate the coffee. 

Fill out score sheets based around dry fragrance, wet aroma, flavour, aftertaste, acidity, body, sweetness, and an overall cupper’s score.

Protocol and Etiquette

Regardless of the method you use to cup coffee, it’s of the utmost importance that you use the same method each time. Uniformity is key if you want to be able to compare coffees.

Cuppers should be quiet and avoid commenting on coffees – we’re all susceptible to the power of suggestion!

Cupping at Origin

When we travelled to Peru, it was great to see all the cooperatives following the SCAA guidelines. Having a uniform procedure gives us confidence that we’re on the same page when discussing our deepest coffee needs and desires with the cooperatives.

So to sum it up – we have particular flavour profiles in mind when searching for coffee just right for the Kicking Horse blends we bring to you.  Accurate cupping allows us to consistently evaluate samples so that your coffee tastes just the way you like it (when you brew it right!).