Assuming you have chosen your coffees, and you have gathered all your tools, you’re ready to delve in!
Cupping is a social thing and also usually a “recording” thing, as in people need to write down their thoughts (though for your first time we recommend just talking about the coffees after the cupping is done). So choose a space in your home where there’s plenty of room for all the cuppers to move around in, and have places to write down their comments on cupping forms.
For many, the kitchen might be ideal; for others, a clean dining table works best.
Take all your tools and set them up in your chosen cupping area. Look at the picture to the left for a typical setup, but also note the setup pictured only has one “tasting cup” per coffee sample - you’ll note below in the step by step that we recommend having two tasting cups per coffee sample (for compare and contrast situations on the same coffee). Again, you can be as flexible as your want, but having two samples of each coffee type can help you evaluate the coffee better, and it gives the opportunity for more “breaking of the crust” by more people.
Step by Step Instructions
Here we go. The steps are numbered for your convenience! :)
- Measure the whole bean coffee into their cups or glasses, keeping track of which is which. Some cuppers like to use a post-it note or sticky tape on the bottom of each cup to identify what each coffee is. This way, it’s out of sight, out of mind until you’re ready to see which coffee is which (usually once the cupping is over).
As outlined above, use two glasses per coffee being evaluated, and choose a ratio of water to coffee that you find enjoyable. Experiment! But if you need a starting point, at Intelligentsia, we use 12 grams of coffee for 6.5oz of boiled water.
- Start your water kettle at this point so that your boil times close to when your cupping table is set up and ready to go (ie, after steps 3 and 4 are complete). If possible, use fresh, filtered water.
- Grind each cup individually, making sure to brush out the grinding chamber and completely empty the grinder between each sample. Simply dump the coffee from your tasting cup into the grinder, grind all of the coffee, then pour the grinds back into the tasting cup.
- Reset your table as you grind (try to grind as quickly as possible so your coffees don’t stale). You may choose to cup blind (an industry term meaning the cupper does not know what coffee he or she is evaluating). This is where the labels on the bottom of the cup make sense. Or you could cup knowing what each coffee is (keep the bag behind each cupping setup). Most cuppers prefer to cup blind because it protects your subconscious from influences and biases… “hrmm, this is Jamaican Blue Mountain, so it must be good!!!” :)
- Many cuppers use this time before the kettle is boiled to sniff and evaluate the ground coffee from each sample. For beginners, this is an optional step, but you can certainly do it (and make mental notes about the smell of each sample) prior to pouring the boiled water.
- When the water is done boiling, remove it from heat (or after it shuts off), and wait 25 seconds before pouring. In the pro world, the ideal pouring temperature is 202F; you just have to be close. Also pour in the order you ground your coffees - the oldest grind gets water first.
Pour slowly and methodically, making sure all the coffee grounds are saturated - try to avoid any dry clumps on the top of the coffee. Remember to use your desired amount. You can know this by first doing a dry run: measure out 6.5 oz of water, and pour it into one of your cupping glasses that contain the 12 grams of coffee. Note the level. When you’re doing the real pouring for the real cupping, just pour to the same level.
- When you start the pouring, mark the time, either by looking at the clock or by starting a timer. Wait 3 to 4 minutes (most pro cuppers give 4 minutes) as the coffee grounds start to settle, then it’s time to start evaluating the coffee.
- Now it’s time to get down and dirty (and close!). Get your face close to the cup, because you’re about to do something called “breaking the crust”. In the four minutes the coffee and water have interacted, a thick “crust” of grounds will be sitting on the top of the sample cup. Get your face close to the cup, take your cupping spoon and puncture the ground crust while inhaling the aromatics that will waft up. The most common action while doing this is to place your spoon horizontally to your face, near the forward “lip of the cup”, dip it into the crust, and drag it to the back portion of the cup. Soak up those aromas!
- Repeat this for each sample. If you are cupping alone, do both cups for each sample. If others are involved, let everyone get the chance to “break the crust” on at least one cup. The others can still go to each cup and further “break the crust” and evaluate the aromas. Keep things moving fast here, but make sure you sample every cup.
- Once the breaking of the crust ritual is done, it’s time to skim off the remaining top grounds. Pro cuppers traditionally do this by taking two cupping spoons, placing them into the cup near the back of the cup, then in a fluid, relaxed motion, drag them forward around the edges to meet again at the front of the cup, then scoop up just taking out grounds, leaving as much liquid behind as possible.
- Clear your head! Seriously! Temporarily forget the aromas and such, and get ready to taste.
- Begin tasting the coffees, taking a spoonful at a time and “slurping” it into your mouth while inhaling gently. The goal here is to have each liquid sample coat your entire tongue, but also the inhaling allows aromatic elements to exert their full effect.
Put another way, the goal is to “spray” the coffee across your palate while getting some aroma retro-nasally. If you’ve ever seen experienced wine tasters do their thing (or you’ve done it yourself), this method of drinking will be familiar.
- Always rinse your spoon in the water-filled pint glasses between each cup. The goal is to avoid cross-contamination of the samples.
- Move around the table, sampling every cup. Then go back and forth to each coffee several times as the coffees cool down to room temperature. Be sure to evaluate each coffee with a fresh perspective each time you sample it. You want to see how the coffees fare at different stages in their cooling down, but don’t be overly influenced at this point how a specific coffee may taste at one temperature vs. another temperature (this will come later).
- It is perfectly acceptable to spit out your “slurps” of coffee as you go along, but you should also swallow some of the tastings to evaluate the aftertaste and finish.
And that’s the cupping portion. Here’s some additional notes to consider.
During a cupping session, most pros like to keep silent until everyone has finished. The mind is incredibly susceptive to suggestion and if your friend takes a sip of coffee and goes “wow, that tastes like apricot jam!!!”, it is quite likely you’ll find a way to taste jam somewhere.
Once the cupping is finished, then you can discuss, argue and debate the merits and comparative qualities and characteristics of the coffees with your friends. Take notice of where you agree and disagree, or how you’ve managed to describe the same qualities using different sorts of descriptions.
Congratulations! You’re on your way to being a cupper, and you’ve got a cupping under your belt! Now let’s move on to some notes and discussion on the tasting, and terms you should make yourself familiar with.