Coffee Cupping: 6 Easy Steps to Taste Coffee Like a Pro
Coffee cupping is the art and science of tasting coffee - and it doesn’t have to be limited to coffee experts! With these 6 easy steps, you’ll learn how to select a delicious coffee, gather the right tools, properly grind and brew the coffee beans, and taste and score each cup of coffee on a scale of 100, so you can truly understand and appreciate the complexities of your favorite coffee, just like the pros!
In this article, you will learn:
- What Does Cupping Coffee Mean?
- What is a Coffee Cupping Score?
- How Much Coffee Do You Use For Cupping?
- How Do You Properly Do a Coffee Tasting?
What Does Cupping Coffee Mean?
Think of coffee cupping like wine tasting, only with coffee. Similarly to smelling and tasting different bottles of cabernet sauvignon in order to evaluate the complex flavors of each, coffee cupping allows you to understand the different notes and aromas that make each coffee unique. With over a thousand aroma compounds that contribute to a coffee bean's delicious taste and smell, there's a lot of richness in each brew waiting to be discovered!
Coffee cupping is taken very seriously by the pros. In fact, there’s a non-profit organization called the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and it's made up of thousands of coffee professionals.
In addition to its training programs and coffee research, the SCAA is responsible for creating the gold standard of coffee cupping protocols, which coffee professionals worldwide use to accurately assess the quality of coffee. This detail-oriented protocol doesn’t just dictate the brewing or tasting — it goes so far as to specify the cups and spoons that should be used so that the only uncontrolled variable is the coffee! (More on this in a minute).
What is a Coffee Cupping Score?
A coffee cupping score is determined during a coffee cupping protocol in order to assess the overall quality of a coffee.
During a cupping, the taster uses a coffee cupping score chart to rank individual attributes that contribute to the quality of each cup of coffee. Most of these attributes are scored on a scale of 6 to 10, with 6 representing "good," 7 "very good," 8 "outstanding," and 9 "excellent."
These individual attributes that are scored include:
- Clean cup
When scoring coffee, it's also important to record any taints or faults. Taints are defects that are noticeable but do not take away from the overall coffee. Taints are penalized 2 points on the scoring chart. Faults, on the other hand, are defects that usually create an unpleasant taste, and are penalized 4 points.
The final coffee cupping score is the total of the individual scores minus the taints and faults. The higher the score, the higher quality the coffee sample! Though the highest possible score is 100, any brew with a score above 80 is considered to be 'specialty' coffee! For comparison, most commercial coffees receive a score of 50-60.
There are a variety of free coffee cupping score charts available on the internet ranging from simple to complex, but we recommend the SCAA's coffee cupping score chart, which can be downloaded here.
How Much Coffee Do You Use For Cupping?
The SCAA's golden ratio of coffee to water for any coffee cupping is 8.25 grams of coffee per 5 fl oz (150 ml) of water.
Be sure to use a scale (we recommend this one) to get the exact ratios. Also, don’t forget to wash your coffee grinder between grinding different blends so as not to affect the original flavors!
How Do You Properly Do a Coffee Tasting?
You don’t have to be in the coffee industry to experience and appreciate the rich, complex flavors that make coffee so unique and delicious. Inspired by the SCAA's coffee cupping protocol, here’s our 6 easy steps to taste coffee like a pro:
Step 1: Pick A Light or Medium Roast Coffee Bean
The best roasts for coffee cupping are light and medium. This is because lightly roasted beans have most of their unique flavor intact, while dark roasts tend to mask almost all of the original flavor that’s worth tasting with a burnt, smoky aroma.
Step 2: Gather Your Coffee Cupping Utensils
Here’s what you’ll need:
- 20 grams of each whole coffee bean sample (either a light or medium roast).
- Two ceramic or tempered glass cups per sample. They should be identical, hold somewhere between 7-9 fluid ounces, and be wider at the top.
- A metal soup spoon for each taster (or 2 spoons if you’re tasting alone)
- A cup of hot water (heated to 200ºF)
- A thermometer
- A coffee bean grinder
- A scale
- A coffee cupping score chart
Step 3: Grind the Coffee and Get a Whiff
Grind your roasted beans right before brewing. The particle size of your coffee grinds should be a little larger than you’d typically use for paper-filter brews, like grains of sand. Once ground, add them to your cup.
Observe the dry aroma. What notes are you smelling? Our sense of smell is responsible for most of the flavors we notice in everything we eat and drink. Smelling the subtle aromas of the coffee before it’s brewed will help you understand the complexity of the blend on another level.
Be sure to mark your 'dry' fragrance score on your score chart before moving on.
Step 4: Brew the Grinds and Get Another Whiff
It’s time to add hot water (heated to precisely 200ºF) to the dry coffee grinds. Wait 3-5 minutes to let it brew.
Once the time is up, all of the coffee grinds will have either floated to the top and formed a crust, or have sunk down to the bottom.
Break apart the crust with your clean spoon and smell the aromas that were trapped underneath. Treat your coffee samples as if they’re under quarantine - don’t let them be contaminated with used spoons carrying foreign invaders of other traitorous coffee samples! Rinse your spoons well before using them on a different coffee sample.
Now it's time to note your 'break' fragrance score for the fragrance part of your cupping score chart.
Step 5: Skim the Crust and Taste the Coffee
Waiting for the coffee to cool down is the trick to bringing out complexities and different flavors that would have otherwise been masked by the high heat. So wait 8-10 minutes after pouring the hot water to begin tasting.
The surface should be clear of floating grinds before you start sipping. You can remove them simply with the help of your handy spoon. Instead of drinking coffee directly from the cup, use your spoon to take a sample.
Pro tip: As you taste, aerate the coffee by rolling it over your tongue. This allows you to stimulate your sense of smell and utilize your entire taste pallet to figure out what flavors you pick up.
Repeat at least 2-3 times before you start scoring.
Step 6: Score Each Attribute of the Coffee Sample
Now that you've fully experienced the coffee sample, it's time to score the remaining attributes on your score chart and record any taints or defects.
Once you’ve scored each attribute, total it up and then subtract the defects for the final coffee cupping score. If a coffee's score is 80 or higher, it's considered an exceptional coffee.
Though coffee cupping is a useful and fun activity for coffee enthusiasts and professionals alike, at the end of the day, what matters is how much you enjoy the cup of coffee you're drinking and how good it makes you feel!
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