Cupping is the process by which coffee professionals evaluate coffees’ quality through taste and smell. The quality discovered, whether good or bad, will determine whether a coffee will be purchased, and be a calculating factor in the value that a particular coffee has; thus affecting pricing. Many green coffee contracts are written with a clause built in that the contract is only binding pending the results of cupping. It is very important that cuppings be carried out in a precise way such that the final scores are an accurate reflection of the coffee being cupped. 

There are many perspectives on how one should go about cupping. There are organizations through which you can be certified as a cupper, such as CQI (Coffee Quality Institute) and SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) Their guidelines are both excellent and the certifications worthwhile. However, you may see that we do things slightly differently. We have adhered to the spirit of many of the industry standards, but have changed some of the practices in order for our sensory analysis to be more efficient, laser sharp, and manageable.

To learn our protocol for “How WE Cup” at Cafe Imports, watch the video above, and follow along with our step-by-step instructional guide below. In the instructions provided below, you can dig deeper into some elaborated details for each step covered in the video. 

 

 



What You Need

• Coffee: roast is light, getting rid of raw flavor but exposing defects vibrantly 

We recommend glass or porcelain. 

• Cups - at least three cups per coffee to be scored

We use three cups per coffee because we are cupping large volumes of coffee every day in our lab, and we find that this is affective in analysis.

• Spoons 

Soup spoons work great. You can also get spoons specifically made for cupping coffee. 

• Labels for the coffee

More on protocol for this below.

• Trays

• A gram scale

• Vessel for weighing coffee

• Timer

• Rinsers

• Clean, correct, hot water 195-205F

• Apron

• Score sheets

We use our own scoresheet that is calibrated to the SCA scoresheet. 

• Clipboards

• Pencils

• Spittoons

• Grinder

• Table 

The cupping table should be tall enough to not force low bending when smelling the coffee’s aroma, but short enough to not present an obstacle. It should also provide enough space in your cupping lab so as to not create congestion as cuppers are walking around, while also being large enough to hold all of your implements without them being disorganized. Our table is 44 inches tall, and rotates.

• Smart Tablet

If you are using a smart tablet to score you will not need pencils, scoresheets, and clipboards. 



Standards to Cup by

We taste with our brains…not just our tongues. The process of tasting is very complicated, and can become obstructed by stimulus that is not the flavor of the coffee itself. Every stimulation your brain receives, whether externally or internally, sensorial or emotive, personal or social, can weigh in on your ability to accurately score a coffee. We will delve into this in other education productions, but as it applies to preparing to cup, it is important to abide by these standards before entering the cupping room:

• Be focused - have a prepared mind

• Be odor free - no colognes, perfumes, cigarette smell, etc. 

• Be quiet - mind any audible queues that reveal any impressions about the coffee

• Mind your body language - do not reveal any impressions you may have about the coffee, good or bad, during the cupping. 

• Have a prepared pallet: no spicy foods, toothpaste, breath mints, gum

• Be well rested

• Do not cup after eating food



Cupping Step–by–Step

Step 1: Weigh your coffee

• Weigh as whole bean

If you weigh out your coffee in ground form, one defected bean could be distributed across multiple cups. By weighing out whole beans a defected coffee seed will stay in that particular cup, fully expressing itself in that isolated cup. This, compared to the other cups lacking the defect, will stand out from the set, boldly showing itself. Were it ground and distributed across all of the cups in the set, the defect may go unnoticed, or may make the cupper believe that there are three or more defects, instead of just the one. 

• 8.5g coffee/150 ml water—"The golden ratio" (1g/17ml)

• Use at least three cups—this allows you to triangulate defects. If you have more cups, it will allow for more in-depth analysis.    

Many organizations use a five cup minimum standard. We do not abide by this unless we find a defect in three cups. We have a high number of coffees to cup in a short amount of time. Three cups allows that process to move more quickly, use less coffee and water, and still provides us with an accurate look at the coffee. When we encounter a defect, or need a deeper look at a coffee, we will set up a larger number of cups and do a much more thorough investigative cupping on that particular coffee. 

There may be times were one cup is an appropriate tool for measuring a coffee. For instance, if the cupper is evaluating whether a roast is on spec or not, they may only want one cup, and the score sheet may look very different than green coffee analysis. These sorts of cupping should be their own categories and should also have rigorous protocols that are carried out consistently. 

• Double blind the coffee

We use a three digit, non-sequenced code, in a way that the cuppers have no idea what coffee is associated with which number, better yet, what coffees are even being tasted. 

Physically blind the roasted coffee, this allows for no visual queues that would inform and influence the cuppers.

Keep your labels with your coffee, take one coffee at a time to the grinder.

Step 2: Grind Your Coffee

• Take extra coffee from the set you are about to grind for a purge. Grind that through the grinder to clear any old coffee out. 

• Grind on a setting slightly more coarse than drip/evenly distributed. (We grind at 7.8 on a Mahlkonig EK-43.) 

• Knock the grinder in a way that gets all grounds clear after each set goes through. 

• We use an extra cup when grinding, allowing us to pour from the cup our whole-bean coffee is in into a clean cup, capturing the grounds in a timely manner. 

Step 3: Dry Fragrance Evaluation

• We pick up the cup with the dry ground coffee in it and give it a shake, taking in the fragrance. 

There are good reasons to pick up the cup and good reasons not to. Some certificate programs teach to not pick up the coffee and shake it. We advise that if a cupping group is very large the coffee should be left on the table, and the cuppers should bend to smell the fragrance. However, with our small group of cuppers, we find that we can more clearly evaluate the fragrance by picking up and disturbing the grounds than by bending to the undisturbed cup. We also find that there is no perceivable difference in a cup that is gently shaken by 3–4 cuppers verses a cup that is undisturbed. 

• Score fragrance

Write down evaluation and any notes about the fragrance

Step 4: Add water

• Evaluate water

Before using just any water, make sure the water is to coffee brewing standards. Also, verify that this standard is in place for each and every cupping: total dissolved solids, PH, clean and aroma free. 

• Your water should be 195F–205°F/ 90.5 C–96.1°C

We start our cupping at 96C, insuring the extraction is a bit hotter for a bit longer, thus more fully extracted. 

• Start your timer

• Pour water, totally saturating grounds

We pour the water from up high and get the grounds completely saturated, moving in closer as the grounds come to the top of the cup.

Have the cup bulge at the top so that you know each cup has same amount of liquid.

• Extract for four minutes without disturbing the cups.

Step 5: The Break

Time passed since pouring water: 4:00

• Break crust and evaluate aroma

Trapped in the head of the coffee is a lot of aroma. As we push the spoon to break the crust of the coffee, we want to make sure we capture that aroma and record our findings. 

Take spoon into the side of the cup that is closest to your body with the convex side of the spoon away from you

Push out, away from your body, three times through the cups, smelling at the same time

Rinse your spoon in between breaks

• We have only one cupper break only one cup from each set.

If we have three cups per set, but four cuppers cupping, the forth cupper will not break. Only three cuppers will break, and each cupper will break only one cup per set. If a cup is broken twice, it may extract a bit more than the other cups in that set. We try to be as consistent in this way as we can reasonably be. 

Step 6: Skimming

Time passed since pouring water: approximately 6:30

• Remove the foam on the top of the coffee after breaking by skimming the surface with two spoons

If you skim too rigorously, or with too many movements, you may stir the coffee too much, and thus extract that cup differently than the other cups. Consistent, intentional, and exacting motions are encouraged. 

To skim, start by putting the bowls of the spoon together, facing the concave side toward you. Put the spoons about a third of the bowl of the spoon deep into the coffee with the convex side against the further side of the bowl. Slowly pull the spoons toward yourself while fanning them out so that they completely skim the surface of the coffee. As you approach the side of the cup that is nearest you, narrow the spoons back together, take your right spoon, tuck it under then left spoon, and lift the foam out of the cup. Try to do this in a way that removes all of the foam, but very little liquid.  

If there is a little bit of foam left, it will dissipate and cling to the edge, and you will still have space enough to cup. Or, just deftly remove it from the surface trying not to disturb the cup too much. 

• Refresh the rinse water after skimming

Keep rinse water fresh and hot - we will change it again half way through the cupping.

Step 7: Cool Down

Time passed since pouring water: approximately 8:00

• Cool to 160F

Heat will fight for our attention while we try to evaluate the coffee’s flavors.  Allowing the coffee to cool to 160F/71C brings the coffee to a temperature that will not burn our mouths, but will allow us to taste the coffee while it is hot, which is likely how the end user will experience it. 

Step 8: First Round

Time passed since pouring water: approximately 16:00

We find that this time with our cups gets the coffee down to about 160 degrees. 

• The first time around the table is an introduction to the coffee, the coffee is still pretty hot 

• When tasting the coffee follow a specific protocol:

Clean spoon after each slurp or dip in a cup.

To taste, dip spoon into the surface if the coffee without stirring the coffee very much.

Don’t fill the spoon completely, rather, have enough coffee in the spoon so you can "slurp" it.

Slurp the coffee with gusto off of the spoon, so that it sprays into, and throughout your entire mouth. Practice this way: as you bring coffee to your mouth, begin sucking air as soon as the spoon reaches your mouth, almost like a reverse whistle. When the coffee enters your mouth, swish it around a little bit and make sure that all of your tongue is experiencing the flavor, and more importantly, that the aroma is going back into your olfactory system giving a clear glimpse of the coffee. 

Don’t hold the coffee in your mouth for a long amount of time. Get the flavor experience, trust your gut, write you notes, and spit.  

The more amount of time that you take standing and going through a rolodex of flavors, the less the coffee is talking to you and the more you are imposing your memories/thoughts upon the coffee. This engages your creative process and leaves your reflexive processes in the dust. So instead, go with your gutt: taste the coffee, and write down your experience as quick as you can.

After you slurp, rinse your spoon - the reason for this is so that you don’t impose a flavor from one cup to another, and it also helps to sanitize.

• If there is a defect that reveals itself at any point in a cupping, take the coffee out of the equation by setting it aside, especially if it is very strong or very astringent.

A strong or astringent defect can carry over and inhibit your ability to take other cups. 

Step 9: Second Round

Time passed since pouring water: approximately 22:30

• Replace rinser water

• The second round is where we garner our impression of the coffee 

Coffee is cooler now and closer to body temperature, 90-110F degrees. At this point we can really start to taste a lot of the individual unique characteristics of that coffee.

Now we start really grading - getting into the nitty gritty of the scores and all of the numbers that will equate to the final score of that coffee, as well as all of the individual notes of flavors we are getting from that coffee.

Step 10: Round Three

Time passed since pouring water: approximately 34:00

• Final pass—this is where we double check our work

We go back to the cups without checking our notes. We taste and then check our notes to see if our impressions are still correlating with those notes. 

• Go in reverse order

At Cafe Imports we go in a reverse order in the third round. Going in the same direction can cause one coffee to influence the next coffee in a specific way. By reversing the order on our last pass, we eliminate this influence and get a more clear view of the coffee, seeing the coffee through a new lens allows us to be a bit more objective. 

• Cup to room temperature

Step 11: Calibration

• The tasting portion of the cupping is over, but cupping is not done 

Until this point no information has been shared from one cupper to another unless there was a very obvious defect in one of the cups

One person will lead the sensory panel in what we call a "calibration". This is the time that we take turns and share our scores. After scores are shared, over all notes and impressions about the coffees are shared. The person leading this cupping will then tabulate scores and give each coffee its final score, which is the calculated value of all scores averaged together. 

In our lab, if a score is an outlier, we will readdress/re-cup that coffee. We do not simply throw out the outlier. There is a lot of training and calibration that goes into being a scoring cupper at Café Imports, so all scores and experiences are treated with dignity and acknowledge as valuable information. This outlier score may mean that somebody among us got something that the others did not, so it is important that we approach that coffee again. Every coffee buying decision is an important decision.

We will share more of our process with scoring and tabulations in future education productions. 

How you cup...

• Maintain your company’s protocol. If you would like to use our protocol, you are welcome to it. 

• If you don’t have protocols and if you’re not measuring those results and recording those results, then the cupping didn’t really matter – it’s really more about opinion and you can’t really develop any patterns or trends to learn from. 

• Lastly, it is important that every cupping be done in a clear, concise, and measurable way, repeated as closely to identical for every following cupping. 

If you have any questions about our cupping protocol, or any other Cafe Imports Education Inquiries, email education@cafeimports.com.



Scoring

Our Scoring Guides

 

There are several things that we evaluate when cupping a particular coffee:

  • Fragrance/Aroma; tested in the dry and wet coffee grounds
  • Taste, Aftertaste, Acidity; how lively and bright is the coffee
  • Body; how weighty is the coffee on your palette
  • Sweetness, Balance; does everything work well together
  • Overall impression of the coffee; does it have everything that you expect/is there anything missing?
  • Additionally, we look for flavor defects in the coffee. Defects are negative flavors that take away from the quality of the coffee and can arise at really any point in the coffee cycle: wet processing, milling, while in transit from origin, etc.

All of these categories are represented on our cupping form. The final score that the coffee receives should be between 80 and 100 points; anything below an 80 is rejected.