How to do a Coffee Cupping at Home
Although being a professional coffee taster takes training and sometimes special certifications, cupping doesn’t have to only take place in the professional coffee world. Cupping is a great exercise for expanding your palate and learning to distinguish flavors in different types of coffees. Alfred Peet used to say, “tasting is comparing,” and anyone can compare coffees.
A fun way to do this is to cup two or more coffees side by side. This will showcase the differences between them, and you’ll start to get a feel for the personalities of different types of coffee. Getting acquainted with a variety of coffees will enable you to distinguish between origins or processing methods. You’ll be able to pick out their flavors from within a blend, like hearing just the violin in a string quartet or one note of a harmony.
You can compare coffees that have been brewed in any way, but if you want to set it up like a pro, here’s how you can do a cupping at home!
Things You’ll Need:
- Two or more different coffees, ground for drip
- Two or more wide mouthed cups, preferably ceramic or thick glass
- Two spoons (big and round is best!)
- Boiling water
- Notebook for tasting notes (optional)
Measure two tablespoons of coffee per cup. Grind or place the coffee directly into your vessel. Smell the dry grounds. This is your first impression of the coffee! Once you’ve analyzed the fragrance, pour 6 ounces of water that is just off a boil over them, ensuring that they are all uniformly wet. The grounds will start to “bloom” and puff up, forming a thick crust at the top of the cup.
Leave the coffee undisturbed for 3 to 4 minutes, then take your spoon and “break” the crust by gently pushing the grounds back into the cup until they settle at the bottom. This can be done by making a horizontal stirring motion about three times through the crust. During this step, you’re releasing a lot of from the coffee, so make sure to stick your nose right up to the surface to smell the steam as you break. Rinse your spoon with hot water between each cup to avoid cross contamination.
Breaking the crust will cause most of the grounds to sink to the bottom of the cup, but a creamy light brown layer of foam will still coat the top. Using two spoons, “skim” the foam off the top of the cup. Be sure to rinse these spoons between each cup as well. After about fifteen minutes the coffee should be cool enough, and you’re ready to taste!
Professional cuppers taste coffee by noisily slurping coffee off of the spoon in a way that aerosolizes the coffee, which helps to cover the entire tongue. The slurp can take some practice, but the idea is to sip forcefully between pursed lips so that the coffee covers your palate. Trying to get the slurp just right can distract from tasting, so do whatever is most comfortable.
At first, don’t worry so much about the flavor notes or characteristics. Just get an overall feel for what you’re tasting, if you like it, what you like or don’t like about it. Compare it to the other coffee or coffees. It’s okay if what you taste doesn’t match the flavor notes on the bag. Think about what the coffee reminds you of: does it taste fruity, or nutty, or sweet? Take some notes and see what differences you can detect.
Once you have your initial impressions, taste the coffee again and dig deeper into the specific attributes. There are many sensory facets to coffee tasting. Let’s dive into the key players:
Fragrance and aroma While it’s hard to pin down an exact percentage (claims range from 70%-95%) there is no doubt that our sense of smell, or olfaction, has a huge part to play in tasting. So when cupping coffee, there are two ways we evaluate the scent of a coffee, fragrance and aroma. Fragrance is the term applied to the odor of ground coffee while it is dry. There are volatile compounds present in the dry grounds that diminish or evaporate during brewing, so smelling the coffee before adding water can give you more input. We call the smell of brewed coffee the aroma. The hot water releases more chemical compounds from the bean and when we “break” and release the gasses from beneath the crust, this is what we’re smelling. The fragrance and aroma provide insight to certain volatile compounds that aren’t accessible through taste alone, so this is a valuable step.
Acidity Acidity is controversial among coffee drinkers. Many perceive it as a negative quality that might make coffee sour and unpalatable, but acidity is a prized characteristic if it’s balanced. Many things can contribute to a coffee’s acidity, from the soil the coffee grows in to the processing method to the roast level to the brewing style. Pleasing acidity is sometimes described as “sparkling” or “bright,” while acidity that is overpowering is “sour” or “sharp.”
Sweetness Although coffee is considered far more bitter than sweet, sweetness plays a large role in describing coffee. In dark roasted coffees we pick up notes of caramel or malt, and in lighter roasts there are sweet fruits and sugary candy notes. While there’s no denying that we perceive it, there aren’t enough sweet tasting chemical compounds in coffee to cross the sweetness threshold, the concentration at which we can detect something sweet tasting. So why do we taste vanilla and brown sugar? Remember how important our sense of smell is? It’s likely the reason we “taste” sweetness in coffee. Compounds that taste sweet aren’t present in high quantities in coffee, but compounds that smell sweet are abundant. Next time you pick up a sweet sugary flavor in your coffee, try plugging your nose on your next sip and see if you can still detect it!
Body Body refers to the mouthfeel of the coffee, describing its weight and consistency. We can think of body on a scale from cream to fat free milk. Full bodied coffees will feel closer to cream or whole milk, but if the body is thin it will be more watery.
Aftertaste/Finish When we swallow coffee, larger compounds like lipids tend to stay in our mouth and throat, contributing to “aftertaste.” Depending on the chemical composition, the aftertaste can be “lingering” or “quick” or even evoke different flavors altogether.
Balance and Complexity Balance and complexity are used when considering the coffee as a whole. If all of these attributes play well together with no single characteristic overpowering another, it is described as balanced. And when a coffee really makes you think about it, with each attribute having depth and nuance, flavors tripping over each other on their way to the front of your brain, it’s expressed as “complexity.”
Flavor But wait, didn’t you forget the most important one? What about those flavor notes? The chemistry of coffee flavor is fascinating and complex. It’s heavily influenced by our personal experiences of taste and smell, and so it's one of the more subjective aspects of tasting. However, it’s also where we can communicate with each other more creatively. Some flavors will be concrete (this tastes exactly like blueberries!), and others will be more ephemeral (something about this reminds me of the holidays when I was a kid…). If you can’t pin it down exactly, it’s helpful to use flavor categories like “fruity” “floral” “cocoa/nutty” and “spice.”
The more you taste with intention, the more you will unlock a whole new dimension of coffee. Just by looking more closely at something we do every day, bringing awareness and curiosity to something we consider mundane, we’re able to open up a richer experience of our world.
-Author Alysse Wishart is Peet's Cupping Lab Coordinator, Coffee Department