Your Guide to Coffee Cupping: Refine Your Coffee Tasting Skills at Home

Your Guide to Coffee Cupping: Refine Your Coffee Tasting Skills at Home

Our mission at Clive Coffee is two-fold: we want to empower you with the knowledge to make delicious coffee and encourage you to discover and brew the best coffee in the world. It’s our passion to create an unforgettable specialty coffee journey that is personalized and approachable for everyone. When it comes to coffee, satisfaction is most impacted by three factors: the quality of coffee you’re drinking, how you brew it, and your personal coffee taste preferences. Most importantly, by arming you with easy-to-understand information on taste, we can help you choose better coffee, improve your brew, and inspire a more profound appreciation (we genuinely hope!) for what you’re experiencing every day. 

What is Specialty Coffee? 

Let’s return to the fundamentals and bonafide of what Clive is built on: specialty coffee. What is it? Why is it special? Technically speaking, coffee is deemed “specialty” if it scores 80 points or above on a 100-point coffee-review scale by a certified Q grader credentialed by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI). Q graders evaluate and score coffees utilizing standards developed by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) to identify coffee that objectively meets these high-quality standards and should be treated as a premium product. Coffees ranked below 80 points are considered commercial grade and sold at lower prices in bulk to stores, offices, and large coffee brands. The quality is compromised in exchange for quantity.

It is crucial to remember that many coffee roasters have the infrastructure to release annual transparency reports, especially if they purchase Fair Trade coffee or engage in Direct Trade relationships with farms, producers, and cooperatives. Putting a face to where your coffee originates from is essential to humanizing the people who make the coffee industry run and that it is often still grown, picked, and processed by hand. 

Specialty coffee encourages transparency and sustainability in an industry that hasn’t always been fair to those producing the crop. Specialty coffee tells you about the entire production chain and, when purchased, is improving the lives of every person involved in getting it to you.

Now, let’s get to the critical elements of how coffee professionals evaluate coffee: the cupping.

What is a Coffee Cupping?

Coffee cupping is an efficient way to taste and evaluate different components in coffee (often more than one coffee at a time). It is used by professionals in the coffee industry to evaluate and score the quality of coffee on a 100-point scale. Still, it can also be enjoyed by enthusiasts and beginners as well.

The purpose of cupping is to intentionally evaluate a coffee and recognize aspects of its aroma, acidity, flavor, and body. For recreational coffee lovers cupping at home, understanding these terms and how they present themselves in coffee can help us better understand what we taste and enjoy or dislike. That gives us the power to choose, brew, and enjoy coffee better.

Coffee Cupping Lingo 

It can be intimidating to attend cuppings with people in the coffee world. You’ll hear a lot of coffee industry jargon thrown around, and it can often make even the most welcoming of environments feel inaccessible and alienating. Here are the main terms you will hear and that are essential to coffee tasting:

Fragrance and aroma, simply put, are the aromatic smells of the dry (fragrance) and wet (aroma) coffee grounds. What does the coffee smell like? Does it remind you of freshly baked cookies cherry pie, or is the coffee floral? Some popular examples of fragrances and aromas include flowers, fresh bread, nuts, citrus, and berry fruits. 

Flavor is what happens when you combine aroma with taste. The natural flavors within a coffee are determined by the bean’s organic makeup, influenced by where it was grown, how it was processed, and the caramelization of sugars that occur during the roasting process. Roasted coffee has hundreds of flavor compounds in other fruits, vegetables, plants, and foods. 

Acidity contributes to the coffee’s overall character or personality and can be described as “brightness” when favorable or “sour” when unfavorable. It’s important to understand that we are referring to taste and the sensation of acidity on your tongue and not to the level of pH acidity (it’s acidity felt on the tongue, not in the stomach). Another way to describe acidity is to relate it to foods or drinks you’re more familiar with. Does the acidity remind you of a ripe orange or lemon? Is it reminiscent of peach or cherry? Oranges can have more soft and rounded acidity than grapefruit, which tends to have a sharper acidity that is more tart. We often think of acidity as a single descriptor on a binary scale, but you’ll realize it is pretty varied and dynamic as you think about it more deeply. Some other examples of how we describe acidity are lively, bright, sparkling, and crisp when it’s high and flat, soft, round, or mild when it’s more subtle.

Body or mouthfeel is the weight of the coffee on your tongue and how it coats your mouth. It can be light (thin, delicate) to full-bodied (creamy, syrupy) and result from fat content. Think of the difference between drinking a cup of skim milk vs whole milk. Skim milk is thin compared to whole milk, which has a much thicker texture and a heavier weight on your tongue. Coffee professionals often use the terms body and viscosity interchangeably.

Finish or aftertaste describes the length of time a coffee’s flavor remains in your mouth after the coffee has been swallowed or spit out. Does it linger, or does it dissipate quickly?

Balance assesses how well all elements (flavor, acidity, body, and finish) work together in a brew. Coffee with high acidity, less finish, body, and flavor would not be considered balanced, although it might be interesting and enjoyed depending on your unique tastes. A balanced coffee will not have one taste characteristic overpowering another.

How to cup coffee at home

Once you’re more comfortable with the familiar words used during a cupping session, it’s time to try it yourself. What you’ll need:
  • A cup 
  • Ground coffee
  • Water (200 ℉)
  • A spoon

  1. Grind coffee on a medium-coarse setting and place it into your cup. The SCA recommends using 1.63 grams of coffee per 1 fluid ounce of water (6 oz cup =10 g of coffee beans). Evaluate the fragrance by smelling the dried coffee grounds. What are you picking up?
  2. Pour water off the boil over the coffee grounds and fill to the brim to begin brewing. Evaluate the aroma once the water and grounds have merged.
  3. After about 4 minutes, use your spoon to “break the crust.” This phrase describes the process of carefully placing your spoon into the wet coffee grounds while taking in its aroma. Was the fragrance different from the aroma? What changed? Anything new you’re picking up?
  4. Remove the grounds (aka the crust) from the cup's brim. Brewing is now complete.
  5. Time to taste it. To taste coffee during cupping, you’ll slightly submerge your spoon into the brew until your spoon holds a small amount of liquid, avoiding any residual grounds. You’ll then slurp the coffee into your mouth to aerate it across your palate. What are you tasting? Does it remind you of anything?

Cupping Pro Tips

  1. Set the scene– Use a clean, comfortable, and neutral environment while cupping free of distractions. Our senses have a solid connection to our memories, so if you are cupping coffee in a room with solid colors, sounds, smells, or anything else that elicits memories, it can affect your taste. For example, An orange wall color can unconsciously remind you of an orange fruit. 
  2. Trust your nose– Most of what we experience as flavor is derived from our sense of smell, so let that be your guide. If the fragrance or aroma reminds you of berries, the coffee will likely taste like berries. 
  3. Lean into the slurp- Abruptly slurp the coffee into your mouth to aerate it across your palate. The trick is to disperse the coffee onto all areas of your tongue while avoiding inhaling it. You might feel self-conscious, but this technique will make it easier to distinguish flavors.
  4. Cleanse the palate– Some tasters find clearing or cleansing their palate helpful. You can do this by drinking water before and after each coffee tasting.
  5. Taste intentionally– Allow the coffee to sit in your mouth before swallowing or spitting it out. Taking in the coffee’s aroma on your tongue or in the back of your throat is an effective way to pick out different flavor notes. Even after you’ve swallowed the coffee, what are you smelling?
  6. Practice, practice, practice– Smell, taste, and evaluate all foods and drinks you consume. Sitting down for a meal or cooking can be a great time to practice smelling and tasting different foods to build your frame of reference. 

How does temperature affect the taste of coffee?

When evaluating certain aspects of flavor, the temperature can determine a lot. Perceived flavors and characteristics can change as the coffee cools. It becomes easier to taste and evaluate certain aspects once the temperature of the coffee has cooled to 160º F – 140º F. This is when coffee professionals evaluate the main “elements” (acidity, body, balance, flavor). As the brew approaches room temperature (below 100º F), the level of sweetness is evaluated. 

Sweetness is used to describe the intensity of the sugary qualities of the coffee. Depending on the flavor compounds present, coffee can taste significantly sweeter as it cools. For example, you might taste hints of peach at a hotter temperature and perceive those tastes as ripe nectarine or plum as it cools. Next time you’re drinking a cup of coffee, take note of the differences in taste from the first sip to the last sip as it cools.

Are you feeling intimidated? Try not to. If you are just starting, you must train your palate and build out your mental flavor catalog by practicing with known flavors in your favorite foods. Eventually, you’ll be able to connect your coffee and those known flavors, but remember that taste is subjective. The beauty of coffee is that we all get something different from it. Depending on where you are in your coffee journey, you may interpret and describe something different than someone else. What matters is that you understand why you like or dislike your coffee and can communicate that.