How to taste coffee like a pro
What do slurps, spoons, and spit have to do with great tasting coffee? Surprisingly all have a place in the coffee cupping process – a tasting technique used by farmers, roasters, buyers, and Q graders (professional coffee graders qualified to provide Specialty Coffee Association ratings) to test and ensure the quality of a particular coffee. Much like wine, coffee gets its distinct flavors and aromas from growing regions, conditions, roasting, and preparations.
The endless flavors, textures, and sensory experiences coffee offers makes it one of the most traded and well-loved commodities in the world. With some practice, you can use cupping techniques at home to taste coffee and identify the important elements of flavor (fragrance/aroma, aftertaste, acidity, body, balance, uniformity, clean cup, sweetness, defects) in each of your favorite brews. To become a professional Q grader, however, takes years of dedication to the craft and training of the palette.
To try cupping techniques at home, you will need to have some basic equipment on hand. When Q graders taste in a lab here are some of the items they use:
- Cupping glasses or bowls – Often made of ceramic or tempered glass – that hold between 7 and 9 fluid ounces. All cups should be the same size and made of the same material for everyone tasting. It’s helpful to use a wide-mouth cup or bowl so you can get your nose very close to the coffee to take in the aroma.
- Freshly roasted coffee – Ideally your coffee should be roasted within 24 hours of cupping and allowed to rest for up to 8 hours. Grind the coffee coarsely just before your cupping begins. Your grind should resemble the texture of course sea salt – not too fine, not too rocky, just right. Shop for whole bean coffee here.
- Near-boiling water – 200° F is the ideal temperature. Don’t use distilled or softened water. If you don’t have a thermometer use a stovetop or electric kettle, allow your water to boil, and then let it sit for about 30 seconds before pouring.
- Spoons – Cupping spoons are wide and shallow, and a large soup spoon is a great substitute.
Advanced items: If possible have a small sample of the green beans, roasted beans, and ground coffee available for tasters to see, smell and touch during the cupping. Learn more about Kauai Coffee and what it takes to produce coffee from seed to cup.
To begin your cupping, brew a small amount of the coffee(s) you are tasting right in the cups or bowls you will be sipping from. The ideal ratio of coarsely ground coffee to water is approximately 8 grams of coffee to 150 mL of water. Do not use a filter or French press; just pour the water directly over the grounds in the cup. This brewing method is called immersion brewing and is the best method for cupping because it allows for more of the natural oils in the coffee to be tasted. Once you have poured the water directly over the grounds, allow the coffee to steep undisturbed for 3 – 5 minutes.
SIPS ‘N’ SLURPS
Once your coffee has steeped, and the coffee grounds have formed a crust at the surface of the brew it is time for the tasting to begin. Get close to the coffee and break the crust with your spoon and take in the aroma of the coffee that is released. Gently disturb the grounds again with the back of your spoon and allow them to settle on the bottom of the cup. Do you notice any change in the aroma as you move the spoon?
Once most of the coffee grounds have settled at the bottom of the cup skim any remaining grounds from the top. Now the enjoyable part begins. Take your spoon, fill it with coffee, and sip or slurp it forcefully so that it coats most of your mouth and tongue at the same time. If you’re tasting several coffees at once, you may want to discard the coffee after tasting instead of ingesting it to moderate your intake of caffeine.
WHAT DO YOU TASTE?
Once you have tasted your coffee focus on the experience and take notes. What aromas do you smell? Was it fruity or floral? How about acidity or sweetness? Do you taste anything familiar like chocolate? Is it tangy or sharp? Are the flavors balanced? How about the body of the brew? Is it vibrant, smooth or something else? How does it compare to the other coffee(s) in your line up? With these few tips, you’ll start to uncover the complex flavors offered in your morning cup.
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