Cupping is a way of comparing the characteristics of different coffees. Roasters and baristas use it to understand the subtle flavours and aromas of different coffee varieties, coffee growing regions, and processing methods (washed, natural, honey etc.).
Coffees are scored for things like cleanness, sweetness, acidity, mouthfeel and aftertaste using a format determined by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA).
Cupping, or cup testing, dates back to the late 19th century when American coffee traders were looking to standardise the evaluation of quality when buying green coffee. Prior to cupping, the quality and price of green coffee was judged visually by colour and size of the beans, which proved to be quite unreliable!
In the 1990s the SCA created a formal methodology for cupping, which is still used by coffee professionals today to determine the quality of coffees.
The SCA cupping form breaks down all of the characteristics you should assess into 10 separate fields and helps the taster to score each one out of 10. Once completed, each field of analysis is added together to determine the total score out of 100.
Specialty coffee should score upwards of 80 points (but this is not the only factor that should be considered when classifying a coffee as ‘specialty coffee’ – more on this later…).
Why do we cup coffee?
Cupping is a means of assessing green and roasted coffee; farmers, exporters/importers, roasters, and even some cafés will cup coffee. Cupping in a roastery setting serves two main purposes:
1.To make informed green coffee purchasing decisions:
When purchasing green coffee from an importer or exporter, we are sent a small sample to roast and cup. This is the first way we will try a coffee and choose which to buy from our importers. Cupping helps us to pinpoint what our team likes about it and ultimately, if we would like to put it into production.
2. To assess the quality of production roasted coffee for consistency and profiling purposes:
We aim to roast our coffees as consistently as possible but things don’t always go the way we expect; these are the outliers. Outliers are caused by a number of variables, some of which are beyond the roaster’s control (environmental) and some that are due to pure human error.
Cupping the outliers allows us to see if we are happy with the quality before selling those batches of coffee and sometimes, we are pleasantly surprised by the different approach. There is an element of trial and error in coffee roasting, known as roast profiling. We cup all of the different ways we’ve roasted a new coffee to determine which roast profile is the best one to pursue.
How do we cup coffees?
The SCA have very prescriptive guidelines for the cupping protocol as well as an equipment list, which can be found here (designed for a minimum of 5 cups per sample and those that are roasting their own samples).
SCA and CQI certified Q-Grader courses are definitely the way to learn how to cup if you are looking to start a career in professional coffee tasting. However, it is not necessarily a true certificate of a good palate and not necessary for many roles in the coffee industry, nor is it realistically accessible to everyone price-wise.
We know that some of the best cuppers come from very humble and “uncertified” backgrounds (that may not necessarily have 5 cups for each sample) and we want to encourage everyone to at least try cupping for themselves.
You don’t need much equipment to start cupping coffee:
It’s important to ensure you have cups or glasses of the same size and material, good quality filtered water, and a consistent grinder.
It’s encouraged that you cup in a place with as few distractions as possible so that you can focus on fragrance, aromas, and flavours of the coffee – cupping is very similar to meditation in this way.
Lastly, you’ll need a few different types of roasted samples to really identify the different characteristics between coffees and ideally a community of coffee enthusiasts to discuss your observations with afterwards.
If you would like to join us for a tasting session, we will be holding public cuppings soon – email subscribers will be the first to know.