Cupping: the art of evaluating coffee

Photo by René Porter from Unsplash

Cupping is the process of evaluating a batch of coffee. This process is used by farmers, roasters, farm cooperatives, and culinarians to not only appreciate coffee, but also to review the results of their processing, explore potential products, and  review the quality of their inventory.

There are global standards in cupping which determine the steps to take and rules to observe. There are specifications dictating things like how much coffee and water to use, as well as how hot water should be. There are also meticulous rules on minor details like the diameter of a cup to use and how many times a coffee sample is tasted. As per standards, evaluators need to taste one brew sample in five different cups to check for consistency.

The strict rules of cupping allows the process to be used as a common language of coffee experts from different parts of the world to assess the quality of coffee.

Photo by René Porter from Unsplash

Tasting with your nose

In evaluating coffee, two senses are used — smell and taste.

The smell of coffee can be assessed in multiple stages. The earliest stage is in coffee’s dry form. When a coffee plant is still growing, it develops enzymatic fragrances which become more evident when coffee is ground. During this stage, evaluators will smell hints of floral, fruity, citrusy, vegetal and earthy notes. 

The next stage is when coffee is being roasted. This is when evaluators can now sniff the actual smell of coffee, but they can also experience other smells such as burnt sugar, roasted nuts and chocolate. During the latter parts of roasting, the burning of coffee fibers will also result in spice-like smells. 

Complexity of taste

After experiencing all the different smells of coffee, this is when taste is finally evaluated. Taste can be enhanced by slurping coffee. This allows the coffee to explore the tongue and palate so evaluators get a richer taste. 

Taste is not limited to the five basic ones taught in school — sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami. Other factors like acidity, body, balance and aftertaste are all part of the experience.

Acidity is considered when tasting coffee. Coffee should have an acidity level of 5.5–6.5 pH, which is leaning towards neutral. 

Body is the combination of texture, thickness, heaviness, and body feel of coffee. A light roast results in a light body while a darker roast results in a deeper body.

It is important that all factors should result in balance. Balance is when all the tastes and complexities of coffee complement one another, instead of one taste overpowering the others.

After all the smells and tastes comes the aftertaste, which is the lingering notes left in the mouth. How pleasurable the aftertaste is and how long it lasts can either highlight or spoil the coffee-tasting experience. 

Tasting and smelling contamination

Contamination refers to taste and smells that result from processing mistakes and improper storage. Processing enhances the taste and smell of coffee, but when done incorrectly, contaminants may be introduced to the coffee. 

Processing equipment and storage facilities may contain odor, bacterial and fungal damage, and debris like stones, sticks, and leaves which all affect the quality of coffee. Contamination could result in smells associated with dust, straw, hay, leather or medicine.

Coffee defects may also originate from the beans themselves. When processing coffee, an important step is sorting, which is when beans that are broken, infested or moldy are removed. Sorting is an intensive process which requires humans to manually check the coffee beans. Without correct sorting, low-quality beans could affect the overall taste of coffee.

Exploring the flavor wheel and beyond

Flavor is taste and smell combined. To taste and smell coffee at the same time, evaluators first smell the vapor of coffee, before tasting the coffee while exhaling at the same time. In scientific terms, this is known as retronasal olfaction.

In assessing flavors, evaluators can consult a flavor wheel, which is a guide that lists possible tones and hints found in the flavor of coffee. But it is recommended that evaluators do not limit themselves to the listed flavors of a flavor wheel. No single flavor wheel can ever account for all possible flavors of coffee. 

It is important to note that humans taste and smell their food based on memory and personal experience. Evaluators must therefore explore different tastes and smells outside coffee cupping to identify more unique and exotic flavors. 

Robert Francisco, technical director of the Philippine Coffee Board, said it is important to be creative when exploring flavors.

“Smell and taste as much fruits and vegetables,” he said during a talk about cupping. “Get an imprint in your mind. Smell and taste your spices in the spice cabinet. Smell flowers. Smell your leather bag. Smell pine and sandalwood. Smell freshly cut grass and hay, because these are all part of coffee.” 

Whether positive or negative flavors, explore widely to identify and develop one’s preferences. 

Part of this is also trying out Filipino flavors. Francisco noted that most flavor wheels are rooted in Central and Latin America flavors. Filipinos must therefore explore their own local flavors like native fruits to fully capture the flavor of Philippine coffee.

The information provided here is taken from an online session of KainCon entitled “Tasting Philippine Coffee with Food” by the Philippine Coffee Board (PCB) held on April 8, 2022. Learn more about the etiquettes and protocol of cupping in this online session led by Robert Francisco, technical director of the PCB.

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