The Best Way To Learn How To Taste Coffee

posted in: equipment | 2

When I was a much younger man I had a more mature friend who was a scotch aficionado. I was just starting my path deep into the world of craft beer at the time and I mentioned to him that I wasn’t that big of a scotch fan because they all taste alike to me. His eyes lit up and he invited me to an Irish pub in town that had a big scotch selection. My friend ordered up a tasting flight of scotches and when I was able to sample them together like that, it greatly expanded my consciousness and I was able to note differences, even if very simple ones and with a limited vocabulary. Prior to this, I was drinking maybe one scotch every couple years, so how could I possibly notice any differences? LOL

Flight of scotches from itmustbemidnight.com
Flight of scotches from itmustbemidnight.com

What I started to quickly notice is that sampling beverages in a flight, or something like it, is pretty normal to do. Because I was so into beer at the time, I took greater notice when breweries offered flights of beer as either a sampler of all their different offerings or, in rarer cases, a flight of, say, five different beers of the same style (like a flight of all stouts). Wine drinkers will do similar things, and, of course, so does the coffee industry through what they call “cupping.”

In my opinion, the single and most efficient way to appreciate coffee is to start cupping. Now, here’s a caveat… Cupping is used in the coffee industry in several ways, to judge coffees, to evaluate coffees before buying to look for defects, to determine the best roast profile for a coffee, etc. So, if you go straight to the Interwebs coffee cupping can start to look really intimidating and you may be put off, but trust me, it isn’t.

Coffee cupping for a consumer like us is simply slurping coffee out of a bowl with a spoon!

Here’s a pretty good video so you can see the slurping technique used in coffee cupping and just get a sense of what the heck I’m writing about below…

Seriously, it’s not more complicated than that for you, so don’t get intimidated. Another word of advice is to do at least a couple attempts at this at home before you head out into the public because that will make you feel way more comfortable about the process.

Coffee cupping from Kean Coffee YouTube video
Coffee cupping from Kean Coffee YouTube video

All you need is:

  • At least 3 different coffees, probably not more than 5 doing this at home
  • Some small bowls or glasses that are all the same size (I have a set of inexpensive Tiamo cupping bowls, but the photo above shows the use of common “Gibraltar” glasses which you can buy for $23/dozen on Amazon)
  • A grinder
  • A scale
  • A relatively large kettle
  • A spoon (any relatively large soup spoon will be fine. Ones with round bowls rather than oval are better. You don’t need a $50 cupping spoon).
  • A glass of water to rinse your spoon in between cups
  • A simple timer
  • An empty glass, bowl, spitoon to use as a spit cup
  • You can keep notes, or not. I would say don’t the first couple times you do this.

So, the basic idea of cupping is to standardize a bunch of the variables and there are very strict guidelines out there on how to cup, but don’t worry about that. Your cupping isn’t to give someone a gold medal or spend thousands of dollars on a lot of coffee or anything, you’re simply learning how to highlight the nuances in coffee!

That being said, it doesn’t hurt to follow a bit of a protocol. If you’re using those typical Gibraltar glasses above, they are 4.5 ounces which is a pretty convenient size. You can use 8 grams of coffee per glass, fill water to the rim, and you’re in business!

So, let’s assume you bought a 5-coffee sampler pack from a local roaster and you’re all ready to rock. Here’s a step by step approach to take:

  1. Get set up. Start boiling enough water to fill your five glasses (25 ounces of water or more in this case), set out five glasses in a row, get your spoon out, put your timer somewhere, get an empty glass to spit in and fill 1-2 glasses of water up for rinsing.
  2. Set a glass on your scale, tare it to zero and add 8 grams of beans from one of your samples. Just dump the beans right into the glass. I always order the bags in the same order somewhere else in my kitchen so I remember which coffee is which! Repeat for the other four glasses.
  3. At this point, smell the roasted, whole beans in each cup, go back and forth between cups, knock the side of the glass to agitate them and release some aromatics, etc. You may start noticing some differences between the coffees already.
  4. Once your water is close to boiling (or at 205°F if you have a digital boiler), grind all your coffees. Just grind them right into the glass they were just in. Use a medium-fine grind like you’d use for a pourover coffee, maybe a little more coarse than a typical drip pot coffee.
  5. Now appreciate the dry aroma of the ground beans again. You should be able to get a lot more aroma from the dry grounds than the whole beans and you should be able to pick out differences. Don’t stress out about what you think you’re smelling, just note that “A” smells, for example, “fruity and sweet” and “C” smells “woody and earthy” or whatever. Don’t stress out about it.
  6. Once your water is to 205° or you boiled it and took it off boil for 45-60 seconds, gently fill each cup to the top going from left to right. Start your timer right before you begin. When you pour try to make sure the grounds are getting wet, but you don’t have to obsess over it. Once you’ve filled all the cups, set aside the water and get your nose really close to each cup and see what you can smell. My nose is not the best and I don’t get much out of this part of cupping, but your mileage may vary.
    Image from cafefonte.com
    Pouring water. Image from cafefonte.com
  7. A beautiful crust appears on the top of each cup, don’t mess with it, just let them hang out. When your timer hits the 4-minute mark, it’s time to get down to business.
    Coffee crusts from bucketlistjourney.net
    Coffee crusts from bucketlistjourney.net
  8. Grab your spoon, get your nose right down over the surface of the first bowl and break the crust, sweeping the spoon through the surface of the crust of the glass. This is when the most aroma gets released and you want your nose RIGHT there to get as much as you can. Dip your spoon in your rinse glass and repeat, making sure to rinse your spoon between every glass. Work your way down the line.
    Aroma! From ethicalbean.com
    Aroma! From ethicalbean.com
  9. Now that you’ve appreciated the wet aromas of each coffee and, surely, you’ve noted differences, it’s time to prep the cups for the actual tasting part. Once you break that crust most of the grounds sink to the bottom of the glass but some will still float with some foamy looking scum on the surface of the coffee glass. The video above shows it, but use your spoon (or two) to skim the scuzz and remaining grounds off the surface. Try not to agitate the cups, just skim the surface of the cup, rinse your spoons, and move to the next cup down the line.
    Skimming the surface from urbanbeancoffee.com
    Skimming the surface from urbanbeancoffee.com
  10. At the 8-minute mark you’re ready to start slurping! Starting with the first cup, get some coffee into your spoon, bring it to your lips, and slurp, powerfully (but don’t inhale, we don’t want you choking to death!). This creates a spray of coffee that coats the inside of your mouth, hitting as many taste buds as possible as well as aerosolizing the volatile compounds to make a lot of aroma that will be picked up by your nose, so it’s important to do this. Keep the coffee in your mouth for a few seconds, spit it into your spit cup, rinse your spoon, and work your way down the line, always rinsing your spoon when you move between cups.
  11. I usually go down the line one way, come back the other way, then will do other patterns like 1, 3, 5, 2, 4, then 5, 3, 1, 4, 2, then 1, 2, 1, 3, 1, 4, 1, 5, then 2, 1, 2, 3, 2, 4, 2, 5 and etc etc.

A few things should be happening with all this slurping. First, you will undoubtedly be noticing that these coffees have a lot of differences. Don’t worry too much if you can’t put words to them yet, but just appreciate that there are differences. As you drink more quality coffee and do this cupping game once in a while, you’ll develop a vocabulary, especially if you print off and reference a coffee tasting wheel while you do this. So, for today, it may be that Cup 1 is dull and tastes watery compared to Cup 3 that is really sweet. Cup 5 may be really bright and lemony while cup 4 seems salty compared to the rest. Etc.

Another thing you’ll probably notice, especially if you are pretty familiar with any of these coffees, is that in some cases what you are tasting in this method of cupping is very different from what you’ve tasted from these coffees when you brew them. That is quite common and it’s because the cupping method and the brewing method you use are different, and so is taking a sip versus rapidly slurping from a spoon!

In a fair amount of the time you’ll notice that the descriptions on the coffee bags are way more apparent cupping than they were when you brewed the coffee, i.e. “Holy crap! I can totally taste lime and graham cracker in this coffee now!” Now you know how those roasters got those descriptions (and why I prefer when they get them from brewed cups, because nothing is more of a let down to a consumer when they read a fancy description that came from cupping, then they brew the coffee and they taste, well, coffee. LOL).

So, there you have it. Cupping 101. Do it with totally different coffees, do it with several of the same type of coffee (all washed, all natural, all coffees from the same region, etc) and you’ll be pulling flavors out of coffee and noticing differences sooner than you think.

Also call around to your local roasters, if you have them, and find out if any of them do public cuppings. It’s a heck of a lot less work, it’s a nice social event (they’re not intimidating because there is NO RIGHT OR WRONG when it comes to flavor perception), etc. In Kansas City you could easily attend 3-4 free cuppings per week, assuming you don’t have a job to be at in the morning/at noon! LOL KC people, the best way to keep up on cuppings is with About the Coffee’s excellent newsletter, so make sure you’re a subscriber!

2 Responses

  1. Sebastian S
    |

    Love this primer!! Thanks for writing it up! Love how concise and on the spot it is!
    Of its fair to ask, might you add a few lines on how big of a taste difference you note in a coffee you cup vs. brew (drip / espresso)?
    Of course this calls for another long post, but what are the 2-3 main things that come to your mind?

    Greetings from Rome!
    Sebastian
    🙂

    • KCcoffeegeek
      |

      Thanks for the feedback, Sebastian (PS, check out Sebastian’s blog, coffeeinrome.com if you aren’t already reading it!).
      I don’t know that I’ve ever cupped an espresso before. In that case, and I’m only guessing here, the experience is going to probably be completely different since espresso process does so much to the coffee that a simple extraction isn’t going to. I can’t imagine cupping is a great way to evaluate an espresso, but I could be wrong. Brings up a good question I’ll have to ask around about.

      As far as brewed coffees, cupping brings out a ton of flavors that I won’t get in the brewed cup. Some of that is aerosolizing the coffee by slurping it, too. I always pull more out of a cupping session than I would from brewing coffee, and that’s why when I review coffee I go with brewed coffee and never use anything I get from cupping since 99.9% of my readers are presumably not cupping and are brewing!

      I think this is where some of the discrepancies come from in the marketing of coffees, too. Sometimes I’ll read the three (always three!) descriptors on the bag or website and think, “Man, I didn’t taste ANY of that!” But I’ve had the experience of cupping those coffees and finding them very apparently. So, in my opinion, roasters who use cupping notes to describe their coffees are short-selling themselves and setting up customers for disappointment. If I buy a $20 bag of coffee thinking I’m going to get chocolate covered cherries with a spritz of lime and I taste, you know, coffee, I’m going to be unhappy. LOL

      One thing I want to try out and haven’t yet is “polished immersion.” Look it up on Google, but it’s essentially preparing a coffee as you would to cup it, but after you skim the bowl/glass you pour it through a paper filter and drink it like a brewed coffee. Again, not something I’ll probably work into my reviews because most people aren’t going to go that route, but it’ll be interesting to try it out.