Coffee has gone from a humble drink for those preparing for a long day of work to a complex scientific endeavor that is analyzed by people in lab coats with expensive machines. We’ve been around for over 30 years, so we’ve had a front row seat in the coming of the “third wave” of coffee as it is called. We’ve grown with the industry and tried all the latest single origins, the rarest varietals, and the most esoteric blends. We did the science too and pulled out the flavor charts when cupping new beans. And we’ve come to the same conclusion we had when we first started brewing coffee in 1985. That at the end of the day, if you like it, then it is good.
To really taste a new coffee, we do "cuppings". This is an industry term referring to brewing and tasting coffees to define characteristics like the “flavor profile” and “mouthfeel”. Let’s walk through how to do a cupping. With this skill, you’ll be able to try different coffees yourself and find what you like best.
First, you must properly brew the coffee. The key here is water temperature, water quality and the coffee to water ratio. Start with a pour over coffee maker. For the ratio we want 8.25 grams of coffee to 150ml of water. Place your coffee filter into the pour over and saturate the whole apparatus and the cup you are brewing into with hot filtered water. This will take out any of the paper-like taste you would get from the filter while also heating up all the elements so your coffee doesn’t cool too fast. Now, grind your coffee for a pour-over grind, which is a medium fine. If you need help, come to any of Old City Coffee locations and we will grind it for you. Place the fresh grounds into the filter. Take filtered water that is just off boil, at ~200 degrees Fahrenheit, and pour just enough water to saturate all the grinds. You will see the grinds start to bubble and gas will start to escape. As soon as you see the water has almost passed through the coffee, add the remaining 150ml of water into the grinds in a circular motion to again saturate all the ground coffee. Once the brew is complete, remove the grinds and let the coffee cool, as it will be too hot to cup right away.
After the coffee has cooled sufficiently take some coffee into a spoon and slurp the coffee strongly to aspirate it over the entire tongue. As you slurp, pay attention to your mouth, tongue, nose and concentrate on what you are tasting, feeling, and smelling. Cupping involves all your senses. It is important to aspirate strongly since you are trying to cover the entire tongue evenly. Aspirating strongly will also causes tiny droplet of coffee to be distributed into the throat and into the nasal passage, most likely enhancing the perceived flavor and aroma. Most of the flavor observed in a coffee is a result of aromatic compounds present in the coffee. This effect can be demonstrated by plugging your nose while drinking coffee. When the nasal passage is opened a full rainbow of flavors will immediately become evident.
Move to the other sample and try to compare the different cups. Which one seems to have a heavier body? Is one fruitier or smoky? As the coffee in each cup cools, it is often possible to detect new flavors. Therefore, it is important to cup a coffee when it is both warm and when it has cooled to just above room temperature. The best coffees will have positive characteristics at both ranges of temperature.
If you are cupping more than a couple types of coffee, it is advisable to spit out the coffee after evaluation. When cupping several coffees, it is possible to have too much caffeine, which can adversely alter your cupping ability.
As you move through coffees, write down your observations of flavor, acidity, aftertaste, and body. Professional coffee tasters have charts and flavor wheels that help them determine from hundreds of different qualities. This can be daunting and may even discourage some from cupping at home. Simply try to find any outstanding qualities of each coffee. Look for acidity, which can be compared to the flavor of citrus fruits or granny smith apples. Body can be described as a heaviness or lightness, which referrers to how the coffee sits on the tongue. If it has a rich “thick” feel to it, it has a fuller body but if it has a watery “thin” feel, it may have a lighter body. Like body and acidity, there many more aspects to cupping, but these are a great place to start.
The key to cupping is practice and humility. The best cuppers we know are modest and always eager to learn more. We have served on cupping juries with some of the best in the world and we do not always agree. The beauty is that we agree to disagree while respecting and trying to identify the characteristics that other people find.
Do not be intimidated by people that try to impress you with some abstract description of a coffee. This is more of a romantic tribute to a coffee rather than a reality. Cupping should be fun and interesting, but not a contest of who is more articulate. On the other hand, your description should be more substantial than a reiteration of a textbook definition of a coffee.
Despite the strict, scientific like protocol to cupping, the method followed in the industry is quite varied and almost every good cupper has his or her own permutation. Cup under conditions you like, but try to stay close to the standards in case you need to cup with other people.
At the end of the day, simply try to find what you like. If you find a coffee tastes good and make you happy, don’t worry if you cannot describe its body or acidity or mouthfeel. The fact that you like it is enough! We have over 20 different blends and varietals so come by. We are always excited to talk coffee!