It’s probably happened to all of us: After searching and searching you come across a coffee that has the perfect cupping description, and you eagerly request a sample from your sales representative. When it arrives, you can’t wait to pop it into the sample roaster and get it on the cupping table as soon as possible—only to discover that you don’t taste white peach and sugar cane at all, you taste herbs and cocoa. What gives??
Of course, since coffee is a multifaceted (some may say magic!) little bean, there may be a hundred different explanations for what went haywire in this scenario, but today we’re going to focus on one often-overlooked possibility, and one that can be a relatively easy fix: cupping calibration.
The fundamental reason that cupping was invented in the first place—and the reason its methodology is set up in such a particular way—is to eliminate as many variables as possible in the tasting experience and to make sure that almost anyone can prepare a cupping table anywhere in the world, even with limited resources. So, in theory, cupping is the easiest brewing method in the world, right?
Actually (and unfortunately) no, it’s not right: There’s more than just sniffing and slurping that will help you do your absolute best job in evaluating samples and staying calibrated with your sources of green coffee. Here, we’ll explore some of the most common reasons your cupping notes might be different from ours.
One of the major areas to explore when trying to troubleshoot a calibration issue with your samples is to evaluate whether your roast and ours are compatible. Our cupping samples are all roasted to an identical curve using fluid-bed roasting machines that can be electronically calibrated. That means our coffees are reliably consistent from sample to sample: They have a charge temp of 190°C (374°F) with a first crack between 7–7:30 minutes, and drop time of about 40–50 seconds later. The total roast is around 8 minutes with a drop temp of 184°C (363°F). Says U.S. sensory lab manager Megan Person, “We use the same heat applications over the same period of time to control the roast as a variable and produce normalized roast results for assessment across all types of coffee…. Sample roasts are done to a degree light enough to detect potential defects but with enough sugar development to sense characteristics/potential flavors.”
Using roasters that help us achieve these parameters is good and efficient for us, but this precise curve might be tricky for you to achieve if you’re roasting more manually in a drum roaster, where even a few seconds’ or degrees’ difference can result in a change of aromatic chemistry. It’s virtually impossible to replicate a roast exactly perfectly as it is, and both technique and equipment will come into play as variables, to make things even harder.
What can you do about it?
One potential way to get calibrated with us is to re-create our cupping-roast specs to see if your experience changes dramatically. Another might be to ask your sales representative for a roasted sample for calibration purposes: Place our sample next to yours on the table and see how they compare. (Note: While we can’t offer roasted cupping samples for all of our coffees to all of our customers, on a limited and occasional basis we are able to provide roasted coffee for calibration.)
If you’re noticing that you lose mostly fruity, floral, or other delicate notes, the roast might be the culprit.
One of the other most often mis-calibrated elements of a cupping is the grind size, which can be just as tricky as the roast itself to get exactly right. Many coffee professionals assume that the grind size for a cupping should be set for an “optimal” extraction, but that isn’t the case: The truth is that the grind size should be exactly the same for every coffee, not adjusted to bring out the best quality of the finished flavor.
How do you set your grind size for a cupping? The SCA’s standard dictates that 70–75% of the grounds should be able to pass through a #20 mesh sieve. Older descriptions of this grind size have specified that the grounds should be as coarse as possible without allowing any floaters in the cup after the break. What that means is that the grind size should be just fine enough to allow the brew water to fully penetrate the coffee grounds, which will make them heavier and allow them to fall to the bottom of the glass after breaking.
Want to make it even more confusing? There’s no “easy” way to calibrate your grind for a cupping if you don’t own a sieve set: You have to go through the steps with trial-and-error. Every single grinder is different, so you can’t even call us and ask where our grinder is set: What if we’ve ground more coffee than you have and our burrs are adjusted closer to compensate? What if your grinder and ours was calibrated differently at the factory? What if you use a different model than we do? What if you have a different method of putting the coffee into the grinder? (Yes, believe it or not, even that can affect the overall consistency.)
The moral of the story is: It’s entirely possible that we’ll never have the identical grind size, and while that discrepancy might have a small impact on its own, it can play a larger role in the cup difference you experience when combined with a roast discrepancy as well.
What can you do about it?
Buying or borrowing a sieve to ensure your grind-particle size is correct and the distribution is even can be a great first start. You can also ask your sales representative to send you a ground sample of coffee from our sensory lab simply to compare the grind profile with what you achieve in your own lab.
There’s no real replacement for an actual calibration cupping, though: Set up a cupping flight as normal but use coffee ground on three different settings. Let it steep for the usual amount of time, then watch how the grounds react during and after the break. If there are still some larger grounds floating on the top of the cup along with the foam, you might want to go a tick finer.
There are two ways that time can be a contributing factor to the reason your cupping notes and ours are misaligned, and it is significant to notice both before and during the cupping. For one thing, we always roast our coffee the day before cupping it: It never sits for more than 24 hours before being evaluated. This might not be feasible for you at your roastery, but it can affect your perception of certain volatile compounds, for sure.
Second, our sensory analysis team has the cuppings themselves down to a kind of precise ballet, with the timing just so: The cups are steeped for four minutes, and the break is methodical around the table so that each cup has an equal amount of time to brew. Skimming happens immediately: Our sensory-analysis director, Ian Fretheim, believes that this step is crucial to having consistency from cupping to cupping. The coffee usually cools for 17–18 minutes before the tasters begin. If any of that sounds off from your timing, that may be some of what is altering your experience.
What can you do about it?
If you’d like to experiment, try to match our timing both with the coffee off-roast and the cupping itself. All of our sales representatives are experienced cuppers, so you should feel free to reach out for advice or guidance if you’re interested in making small changes to your protocol to be more aligned with our practices.
Perception and Perspective
Another of the most significant things to remember about cupping, which we hardly ever talk about as an industry, is the fact that the cupping process is actually designed to make coffee taste its worst, not its best: This is because it was established as a way of sniffing and slurping out defects, which can be more easily masked by or overlooked in other brewing methods.
When our sensory analysis team is evaluating a coffee, they want to be absolutely sure there’s nothing nasty lurking in there: That’s why the roast, dose, grind, timing, and approach must be identical, for the purpose of sussing out how uniform (or not) an entire lot of coffee might be. That means that we enter into a cupping with a kind of defect-hunting mentality, and that also means that our scores might skew on the lower side due to the angle from which we’re approaching the coffees we receive.
When you’re cupping coffees—especially when you get samples from us—you can rest pretty well assured that they’ve already been vetted for the most gnarly stuff, and you can instead focus on what makes the coffee sing for you. This difference in perspective alone might change your detection or identification of certain notes, and can be helpful to keep in mind.
No, we’re not calling you inexperienced—but your experiences with cupping are almost certainly different from our sensory analysis department’s, and that’s the team who assigns all of the scores and taste notes to all of our coffees—some 6,000–7,000 of them every year.
Experience with that volume of coffee annually naturally translates to a broad range of comparison and contrast: This team not only cups the 90-point arrival lots, they also taste the 72-point rejected offer samples. They’ve gotten a mouthful of just about every defect you can imagine (sorry, team!), and they perform regular and quite rigorous training to ensure they’re calibrated and finely tuned. Since there are only 24 hours in a day and you also have a full-time job to do roasting and selling coffee to your customers, we don’t expect you to have quite the same spectrum of cupping experiences, so naturally your depth of context will be very different (and likely much more specific than ours).
What can you do about it?
In short: Just keep cupping! Even if you don’t taste 6,000 coffees this year, you will improve with every sample you slurp. We promise.
We want your cupping process to be a joyful one that’s loaded with fulfilled expectations and exuberance over the latest and greatest coffee, so feel free to let us know any time you find your notes and ours are a little “off” from each other. We want to help you buy better coffee by buying coffee better!