Coffee Cupping – Everything You Need To Know

Have you ever wondered how to determine the quality of a coffee? Actually, behind the best coffees there is a complete and wonderful process called coffee cupping. Just like wine, coffee is also tasted with the objective of determining its different aromas and flavors, as well as its quality.

And since it is really important, this time we will explain not only what coffee cupping is, but also what is needed and how it is done. Keep reading.

What is coffee cupping?

Coffee cupping or coffee tasting is a process in which the properties of coffee are analyzed both qualitatively and quantitatively. This is a process in which factors such as aroma and taste (among many others) of a coffee sample are perceived in order to determine its quality. Terms such as cupping or cup tasting are synonyms.

As a rule, the tasters are experienced baristas who have completed appropriate training or professionals such as coffee traders or others involved in the coffee business, some of whom are also referred to as Q-graders.

Q-Graders are individuals who have graduated and passed the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) Q-Grader program. This training aims to provide participants with the necessary knowledge to recognize and distinguish the different varieties of Arabica coffee and their properties. In the end, the person is able to perform the cupping according to the standards and rating system of the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), which are internationally recognized.

* It is important to note that this program only applies to Arabica coffee. If you want to be certified for cupping Robusta coffee, you must complete the R-Grader program.

Tasting coffee is a rigorous and very important process and one of the ways in which the characteristics, aromas, and taste of coffee have been discovered. It is thanks in part to coffee cupping that today we can more clearly enjoy all kinds of notes and delicious flavors. In addition, cupping plays a fundamental role in determining the quality of coffee. It serves to carry out strict quality control of the various brands of coffee.

Another aspect that makes coffee tasting so important is its holistic approach. In the same session, one can note the following:

  • Different coffee beans of different Arabica varieties.
  • Coffee samples from different coffee farms. From one or more different geographical regions.
  • Coffee beans with various methods of cultivation, harvesting, production process, etc.

How does the cupping process for coffee work?

Cupping coffee is actually not too difficult, but there are some aspects to consider and some preparations to make. Remember that with coffee, often even the smallest things can affect its taste and properties. Moreover, it is not only a matter of determining the criteria with the senses and then making an assessment from memory, but also of keeping a written record. The rating scales and formats set by the Specialty Coffee Association are used.

Having said that, we will show you this interesting process as thoroughly as possible. Even if you are not a barista or cupper, you will get the complete and necessary information in case you want to try it at home.

As a rule, there are two analyses. The first is made on the coffee bean. The aim is to determine the quality of the dried and threshed beans. The second is made on a cup of brewed coffee.

1. Analysis of coffee beans

The analysis of coffee beans is mainly about determining the external properties of coffee. In this first phase, sight and smell predominate.

Not all testers perform all the steps that we are going to show you in a single tasting phase. Because the beans to be used for tasting can already be processed. This means that the green coffee beans have already gone through the threshing and roasting process in another place.

Most of the steps are done with the already roasted coffee beans, except for one step that is done with the green beans.

1. See and recognize defects of the bean

First of all, it is important to analyze the appearance of the beans. It is a process carried out with the naked eye since it consists in separating the healthy coffee beans from the defective ones.

According to Cenicafé (2015), deficiencies refer to: “the physical appearance of the beans, give the drink bad and unpleasant aromas and flavors or lead to a loss of its safety”. These defects can occur in any part of the coffee production process, so it is important to employ good practices. Beans in poor condition may look perforated, moldy, black, bitten, discolored, among other defects.

Also, when roasting, beans take tones from brown to black. The more the beans are roasted, the darker they will look. In this state, it is important to see if they are shiny, bright, light, or rather matte and opaque.

2. Smell and moisture

The smell can tell a lot about a sample of coffee beans. Coffee beans should have a fresh, typical coffee scent. On the other hand, if they have an unpleasant smell of dirt, mold, chemicals, etc., they are of poor quality and should be disposed of.

Beans should ideally have a moisture level of 10.5% to 12%. Moisture, as a rule, is determined during the drying process of green beans.

In Colombia, solar drying is the most common form. The coffee beans are placed in the sun on different floors (made of wood, concrete, metal or plastic mesh). For the calculation of moisture, Colombian coffee farmers generally use rather subjective methods. That is, small samples of the beans are taken at different stages of the drying process to thresh them and then determine if they have the right color and hardness. Depending on the experience of the coffee farmer, the result can of course be different.

However, today there are also more accurate methods for determining the correct moisture content of the beans. In addition, the beans to be marketed or tasted must have the right percentage.

3. Shrinkage

This procedure is made with green beans. The shrinkage is the amount of husk or parchment left after threshing the beans. Good coffee should have a shrinkage of about 15% or less. For this, a lot of dried parchment coffee is taken and threshed. The percentage is then calculated by re-weighing the beans that have already been threshed.

4. Size of bean

Another important factor is to know the size of the beans. For this purpose, screens are used. These screens go in sizes 12 to 18. For sieving the (usually green) beans, the screens are placed on top of each other in such a way that the screen with the largest mesh is on top. The beans are then placed on top and sieved. After all, the size of the beans depends on the mesh in which they are held.

In Colombia, one of the largest coffee producers, the different sizes for determining bean quality are classified as follows:

Standard – Usual Good Quality14
Caracol – Peaberry12 or less

The beans remaining in the last screen are considered defective and thrown away.

2. Analysis of coffee in the cup

After the previous analysis is when the very essence of the tasting occurs. It is carried out with roasted and ground coffee beans. In this step, the most important properties of coffee are actually evaluated.

What is needed for cupping coffee?

Before starting the tasting, we need to prepare the place and the necessary items.

A ventilated environment that does not have strong odors. The reason for this is simple: in this way, the sensory analysis is not affected by possible mixtures between external odors and coffee scents.

The evaluation form. As already mentioned, it is necessary to keep a written record of the tasting. For this reason, the Specialty Coffee Association has developed a form specifically for the cupping of coffee. This form assesses the following aspects:

  • Fragrance and aroma: The fragrance represents the volatile aromatic component and is therefore determined by the smell. The aroma is the soluble aromatic component, which is perceived by the taste buds.
  • Taste: This is the overall perception of coffee. The wheel of coffee, with its flavors, aromas and flaws, serves to identify the characteristics of the coffee.
  • Aftertaste: This is the taste that remains after drinking the coffee. This is measured by how long it remains in the mouth.
  • Acidity: It is recognized by the taste buds on the inner side of the tongue. It gives a dry but at the same time clear feeling.         
  • Body: It indicates how long the taste of the coffee remains in the mouth and what its consistency is.
  • Uniformity: This aspect refers to how uniform and similar the cups of the same sample being evaluated are.
  • Sweetness: It is perceived at the tip of the tongue and is associated with a pleasant feeling and an overall sweet taste.
  • Clean cup: This is the case when there is no negative impression of the cup from the first to the last taste.
  • Balance: Here it should be determined how much harmony there is between taste, body, aftertaste, and acidity. In other words, whether all factors fit well together.
  • Evaluation of the taster: This is basically the overall evaluation that the taster gives at the end after analyzing all of the above. The scoring scale ranges from 0 to 100.

During the cupping, the results for each attribute are entered in the form. However, it is important to read it before starting to be clear about the concepts and evaluation criteria.

Equipment and utensils: coffee grinder, kitchen scale, white porcelain cups with a capacity of about 180 ml (6 fl oz), tasting spoon, and spittoon. Depending on the level of professionalism of the cupping, you may need more items, but in general, these are sufficient.

Coffee cupping

Step 1

Cupping should be carried out with fresh coffee, which should be ground only shortly before the start.

Since cupping usually involves several samples, care must be taken not to mix them when grinding the beans. If this happens, samples can be contaminated and could not give accurate results. Therefore, if you want to try different types of coffee, you should make sure that the grinder is clean before and after using each sample.

* Tip: You do not necessarily have to wash the grinder with soap and water after each use. Some experts suggest that you first grind some beans of the sample to evaluate. In this way, the grinder is freed from the residual aromas of the previous sample and impregnated with the new sample. Then the actual amount can be ground for tasting.

For each coffee sample, 5 cups are used. In general, each cup should contain about 8 grams of medium ground coffee per 100 ml (3.4 fl oz) of hot water. The temperature can be between 89 °C and 93 °C (192.2 °F- 199.4 °F).

Step 2

When the coffee is ground and put into the cup, the fragrance analysis is performed. When tasting, there is a difference between fragrance and aroma. The fragrance is determined with the nose on dry ground coffee, while the aroma is analyzed with the tongue taste buds when water is added to the coffee.

To analyze the fragrance, the cup is swirled a little to release the fragrance and the coffee is smelled in each cup.

Step 3

Then, the aroma is analyzed. To do this, pour the hot water into each cup and let it stand for about 3 to 4 minutes. After this time, a thick layer forms on the surface. What cuppers do now is a process known as “breaking the crust”.

This is to remove the layer or crust that has formed on the surface with the tasting spoon. In doing so, the taster should immediately perceive and register the first smells emanating from the drink. Each time the crust is “broken”, the spoon should be dipped in clean water so as not to contaminate the other cups in case one of them is faulty.

Determining aromas is not so simple. Not every person has the same sensory sensitivity. In view of these difficulties, the Specialty Coffee Association, in collaboration with the National Association of Colombian Coffee Producers, has developed the wheel of tastes, aromas, and defects of coffee.

This tool serves as a guide for cuppers. In the case of coffee, this part of the sensory analysis is done through analogies that generally refer to nature. Therefore, we say that coffee has floral and herbal notes, for example. In this way, it is easier to accurately determine the aromas and flavors, as well as their intensity. Also, the creation of such a sensory lexicon of coffee also contributes to a greater international consensus and standardization.

When evaluating the factors, both numerical values and the characteristics of the coffee are taken into account.

Step 4

After the crust is broken, it is necessary to remove the foam and grounds remaining on the surface. This one is not only very bitter but can also confuse the cupper.

Now it’s time to taste the coffee. You should pour some of the coffee into the tasting spoon and slurp between the lips and teeth to create a so-called “spray effect”. It is important to clarify that you should not drink the coffee but should spit it out after each tasting sample, before moving on to the next cup.

When the coffee is slurped in this way, the aroma penetrates much better into the mouth and palate. During this process, the cupper must also determine and classify the other properties of the coffee. All according to the form of the Specialty Coffee Association.

Step 5

Last, the coffee receives a score, which is obtained from the attributes evaluated throughout the process. The closer the score is to 100, the higher the quality of the coffee. According to the score, according to the Nicaraguan Agricultural Exchange, the coffees are classified as follows:

Type of CoffeeScore
Ejemplar Regional Plus84-89

It is important to mention that with two tasters analyzing the same sample, the final result should not differ too much. Even if the tasting is carried out in different countries, the total score should not change by more than 2 points if the same procedure is used.

Final words

Coffee cupping is a fundamental process that must be carried out. It not only determines the quality of the coffee but also creates its sensory profile. Thanks to cupping we can have the certainty that we are consuming the best, especially in terms of quality.

It is a very special process and is best done by experts. After all, they prepare themselves for this. However, with good preparation and previous review, we can also do it ourselves to better understand the characteristics of the coffee that we consume every day.

Therefore, we hope that this simple but complete guide will be useful in case you decide to do cupping at home. If not, we hope that it has helped you learn more about this wonderful world of coffee.