Cupping: the art of coffee tasting

Ah coffee! It starts most peoples’ day, accompanies a pastry like nobody’s business, and has an entire work break named after it. Whether you call it battery acid, caffeine, café, jamocha, java, joe, mud, or varnish remover, it all amounts to the same thing. It’s fascinating nectar made from the beans of a tree and tasting it correctly, like wine, is an art form.

Did you know that coffee beans have up to 800 flavour characteristics that our senses can detect? That’s 400 more compared to red wine. Most coffee connoisseurs prefer mild roasts because the longer a coffee bean is roasted the more characteristics and complexity is burned off. However, many folks, including myself, really dig those bold, strong roasts.

The term used for coffee tasting is ‘cupping’ and the format works much like that of wine. Like wine tasting, there needs to be consistency in presentation. The tasting vessel, the amount of coffee used, the grind and temperature and amount of water used all need to be consistent so that differences in taste are not due to extraneous factors.

The cupping method works as follows. Choose the beans that you want to taste. Pick three to four types of coffee, milder to bolder. Avoid flavoured beans as the flavouring agent usually masks the bean’s natural character. Fresh beans work best as they produce the most flavour once ground.

Coarsely grind about a quarter ounce of each and place each in a similar cup. Note the smell of the freshly ground beans. Heat water to just below the boiling point and pour a measured five ounces over each cup in a circular motion. With your nose close to the cup, dip a spoon into the cup thus breaking the surface and any grinds that have floated to the top. Like aerating a wine, this opens the coffee up. Take a good whiff and note all the aromatics emanating from the cup. You may want to write your impressions down, just like wine tasting. Then take approximately half a spoonful of the liquid from the cup and quaff it with a loud slurping noise, thereby mixing the liquid with air, spraying it directly over your tongue. Savor on your palate for a few seconds, swish once and spit out. Again, note your impressions.

Just like tasting wine, the tongue can decipher many subtle flavours and components (bitterness at the back, freshness or staleness along the sides and specific flavours at the tip). That’s why you swish; to let the coffee touch all these sensitive areas.

The technique is easy. Describing the flavours is another story. As in wine tasting, ‘cupping’ has special terms used to describe the taste and balance. Here are some terms often used to describe certain characteristics of coffee. Aroma is the smell of the coffee itself. It reflects what kind of beans they are, where they’re from and the roast. Fragrance refers to the smell of the coffee grinds. Body, like wine, is strictly how the coffee feels in the mouth. It’s the weight or texture. If a coffee is considered rich, then it has more body and aroma. A mellow brew has a fully developed body, is smooth and not harsh. Acidity is an interesting concept when it comes to coffee. It’s the bright, dry taste that gives coffee life and, as in wine, is a highly desirable component.

However, when it comes to coffee, the water that is used in brewing can affect it. If alkaline water is used to brew coffee, it will counter the acidity in the coffee. To get the best and truest taste from coffee, use purified or filtered water.

Now you know the technique, so you can invite a few friends over and indulge in ‘cupping’. All this talk of coffee has dried me out, so I’ll head off to the kitchen to brew some.


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