When I signed up to attend Coffee Fest in New York City early this year, one of my first goals was to learn how to cup. I had learned about cupping while reading God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee, and I knew that it was crucial to understanding and evaluating the quality, flavor and aroma of coffee. What I did not realize, however, was just how difficult it can be, trying to put thoughts into words while tasting coffee.
Cupping is a skill that must be learned and practiced, and I’ve let far too many months pass since my time in New York. In order to build my palate, to learn to recognize flavors and describe them, instead of just… guessing. I set a goal to cup at least once a week. With the variety of coffees passing through our house each week, I should easily be able to cup 3 different coffees every week, including coffee I’ve roasted, so that I might learn to taste my own coffee against that of the professionals.
This week I started with 4, and my method was far from ideal. I have enough tools on hand to cup 3 samples each of up to 4 coffees, but I lacked enough raw material to try more than a single cup, so my first practice session included a single sample of 4 separate selections. Well, I have to start somewhere at least!
I labeled the coffees A, B, C & D, recording the origin in my book, ground each into a cupping bowl, and experienced the fragrance while waiting for the water to come to 200º F. Even before adding water, the difference between some of the samples was astounding! I was already excited about coffee D and couldn’t wait to get my cupping spoon in there for a sip.
Once the water reached proper temperature, I filled each bowl almost to the rim, careful to wet the grounds evenly. This process alone showed the age of the beans, as one sample was roasted a week before the others. After waiting a few minutes, I broke the crust, inhaling the aroma of each coffee. At this point I should be able to describe what I’m smelling, but that’s not likely until I get more practice and have other cuppers to help calibrate my senses.
After skimming the foam and grounds from the top of each bowl, I waited another few minutes for the samples to cool before beginning to slurp. Cupping involves aspirating the coffee, getting the aromatics airborne in the mouth to reach maximum contact with the olfactory system, and this requires a strong slurping, almost inhalation of the coffee. It’s quite loud, at least when done by professionals.
I tasted each cup a few times before moving on to the next, and I quickly knew which coffees were my favorites. I could describe them in generic terms, such as “bright” or “rich”, but it will take consistent cupping practice before I can point to a spot on the flavor wheel and say with confidence, “this coffee is sugar browning” or “I’m getting a hint of blueberry”.
After tasting the coffees for several minutes, I came up with a few observations, guesses rather, and I did make notes. I won’t claim to be 100% right, but hopefully I’m in the correct area of the flavor wheel.
Coffee A was sweet, acidy, and floral.
Coffee B felt “safe”, what I described as a regular coffee flavor.
Coffee C was smokey, something I picked up on after multiple passes.
Coffee D was sweet and fruity, and definitely my favorite.
So what was each coffee? A was the last remaining beans from my sample bag of Honduras Las Flores micro lot, which I wrote about yesterday. B was a Costa Rican La Pastora Tarrazuu from Booskerdoo, a roaster I regularly enjoy via ekoffee.com. It was a week older than the rest, and I threw it in the mix because I was curious how it would hold up, but it definitely showed its age compared to the fresher samples. C was a Guatemala from Downtown Credo, which has been our cold brew all this week. The darker, smokey flavor must work really well as cold brew, because my family has been raving about it for days! Finally, my favorite coffee of the night, D was Los Naranjos from Columbia, roasted at Bold Bean in Jacksonville just 2 days before I brought it home.
What did I learn?
One thing I wish I had done differently was to have someone else grind and label the coffees so that I could approach them blind. I was already biased toward Los Naranjos after having tasted it in the cupping demo at the Florida Coffee Symposium on Saturday, then as a sample at the Bold Bean booth, so even before I smelled the grounds I expected to love it. I need to avoid bias when cupping, but that requires an extra person who is not involved in the actual tasting to keep track of the samples.
I found that multiple passes, tasting again and again as the coffee continued to cool, led certain flavors to stand out, and most of my notes were taken from my last few sips. Perhaps coffee C was smokey, but it may have had other characteristics that I could not put into words, before it cooled to the point where the smokey flavor really stood out. I’d like to make notes throughout the tasting, not just at the end.
Overall, this was a really fun evening! I’ve put off cupping for months, and no matter how many times I wanted to do it, I’d think “oh, I don’t have anyone to join me yet” or “I’ve waited too long since roasting, it’s not up to SCAA protocol” or “I don’t have enough to cup 3 samples of each coffee.” Finally I decided to follow some of the best advice I’ve ever read on the internet: don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. I’m glad I gave it a shot, and look forward to getting better each week!