What is a coffee cupping? It’s like a wine tasting, but with coffee. Roasters will have cuppings regularly with their staff to analyze their product for consistency, defects, etc. Cafes will sometimes hold cuppings open to the public for people interested in learning more about coffee and about the differences possible between roasts, countries of origin, etc.
Hosting a cupping at home is a fun way to socialize with friends and get to taste a variety of coffees at the same time. I’ve only done a couple of these so far but they’ve been a blast and I look forward to doing more!
What you’ll need:
1) SCAA Coffee Taster’s Wheel (not strictly essential, but it’s got great entertainment value, as you’ll see when you look closely at all the different flavor possibilities). I like to give each guest their own copy, but you can get away with just one for the table.
2) Rocks glasses or other glass vessel, between 5-8 oz capacity. You’ll need one per person for each coffee you plan to taste, as well as one extra filled with plain water for rinsing spoons. If you have 4 cuppers and 3 coffees, you’ll need 15 glasses. I use half-pint mason jars.
3) Spoons, minimum one per person. More if you’re feeling fancy.
4) Pen and paper for each person, should they choose to take notes. It’s interesting (often hilarious) to see what different people detect in the same coffee.
5) Grinder capable of doing a coarse grind (such as for a french press)
6) Hot water kettle. If you have one capable of temperature control, set it for 200-202 F. If it does not have temp control, let the water come to a boil and let it cool for 30 seconds.
7) A scale, capable of measuring in grams
8) A timer (smartphone stopwatch is fine)
9) Coffee beans, freshly roasted (within the previous two weeks)
Let’s get cupping!
1) Heat your water so that it’s ready to go when you are.
2) Grind each coffee right before cupping each bean. Use a coarse grind, similar to what you would use for a french press. It should look like coarse salt in size. You’ll see different recommendations online for the quantity of coffee to use, but since I use 8-oz mason jars, I go with 12 grams of coffee per jar. I find it easiest to grind the full amount of whatever I need (for four people, 48 grams of coffee) and divide it evenly between the jars, vs. grinding 12 grams four separate times.
2) After portioning the coffee between your vessels, have your guests smell the ground beans. Encourage them to put the cup right up to their faces/noses to really be able to experience the full bouquet of aromas. Have them write down notes on what they detect – it’s fun to compare and contrast with others later.
3) Add the 200 degree F water to each cup. For 12 grams of coffee, I add 180 grams of water (1:15 coffee:water ratio) which will make approximately 6.5 fluid ounces of coffee. If you have smaller glasses, adjust the ratio accordingly.
4) Allow the coffee to steep for 4 minutes. Talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic. Stumptown is neither a stump nor a town. Discuss.
5) The grounds will have risen into a thick layer at the top of the cup. Have everyone take their spoons and get real up close and personal with their cups. Next, take the spoon, dip it into the edge closest to your face, and push the grounds toward the opposite edge of the cup. This is what we call “breaking the crust” and it releases the full aroma of the brewed coffee. Take a deep whiff. Write down any observations. Supposedly, it’s perfectly acceptable to get grounds on your nose during this step… but I generally try and keep my nose clean, in life and in cuppings.
5A) Once you break the crust, the grounds will start to sink down to the bottom of the cup. Let them fall until the grounds are at the bottom (could take a few minutes).
6) Taste the coffee. You can take spoonfuls into your mouth, or you can drink it directly from the cup. Like in a wine tasting, you will want to slurp the coffee in order to aerate it, and you’ll want it to hit all the areas of your mouth in order to taste the full flavor. Be noisy – everyone sounds silly doing this, so don’t be shy. But, do your best to avoid choking!
Observe the following things:
Body: How the coffee coats the inside of your mouth. I equate this most with milk: light body would be like skim milk, medium like 2%, full like whole or half-and-half.
Acidity: Does the coffee make your mouth pucker like tart lemons, or is it more sweet/smooth? While coffee might not be “sweet” in the traditional sense, many coffees offer an abundance of natural sugar that is pleasing to the palate.
Flavors: Here is where you can consult the flavor wheel, especially if you can’t quite put your finger on what it is you’re tasting. Note that many coffees change flavor as they cool.
7) Rinse your spoon (to avoid contaminating the next coffee) and compare notes with your fellow tasters. There are really no wrong answers!
Repeat steps #1-7 for each new coffee bean. I like to grind a small amount of each new bean before each round to purge the grinder of any old ground beans.
I have done these cuppings “blind,” where I have the coffees only identified as A, B, C, etc. and I don’t tell the cuppers any details (brand, country, etc.) until the cupping is over. This can be fun if your attendees want to remain as unbiased as possible about what it is they are drinking.
Another fun option is to have everyone attending bring a fresh bag of their favorite coffee, so that everyone can compare different beans than they may normally drink.
For four coffees, I would budget somewhere around 90-120 minutes depending on how much chit-chat tends to happen in your circle of friends. This is not an activity to rush through – it needs to be savored and enjoyed, much like coffee itself.