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What Is Coffee Cupping? How This Unique Process Works

Coffee is incredibly complex — so many roasts, flavors, and even blends. The process of determining which coffees are the best tasting and quality requires many evaluations. Cupping forms a significant part. But what is coffee cupping?

This intricate process looks complicated for good reason — because it is, particularly when it’s a professional rating. However, a more straightforward version can be used by bean lovers, who want to sample some decent java while learning more about their favorite beverage.

If you’ve enjoyed specialty coffee, you’ve almost certainly reaped the benefits of cupping coffee. Only the top-scoring javas can make claim to this title. Coffee cupping can also help when it comes to deciding how to blend coffee beans.

Some topics we’ll cover as we examine coffee cupping include:

What Is Coffee Cupping?

There’s a lot more to coffee cupping than merely pouring java in your cup and tasting it. Sometimes called cup testing or coffee tasting, this process is a very methodical way of recording observations about how it smells and tastes. It’s the typical approach for evaluating specialty coffee. However, it can also be used as a way to weed out defective products or to create new blends of coffee.

Usually, coffee cupping is carried out by professionals in the coffee field. There are even what are known as Q graders — evaluators who have earned credentials from the Coffee Quality Institute to grade and score coffee according to standards of the Specialty Coffee Association.

So how did this process originate?

The history of cupping coffee can be traced back to the late 1800s in the United States. Hills Brothers was the first to use it as a way for potential buyers to evaluate coffee beans before purchase.

Specifically, cupping intends to evaluate these coffee traits, according to the Specialty Coffee Association:

  • Fragrance and aroma
  • Flavor
  • Aftertaste
  • Acidity
  • Body
  • Balance
  • Sweetness
  • Cleanness
  • Uniformity
  • Defects
What is Whipped Coffee

Grading Coffee Vs. Coffee Cupping

Coffee cupping is not the same as grading coffee. While the former is focused on aromas and tastes of coffee, the latter lays more emphasis on the quality of the beans themselves.

Grading is used to determine the standard of the coffee beans, with Grade 1, or specialty grade, being the highest. This classification is based on the size of the beans and the degree of defects that are present. As the grade decreases, the level of imperfections or unripe coffee beans increases.

  • Grade 1 — Specialty grade. Top 3 percent of coffee beans worldwide.
  • Grade 2 — Premium grade. Mostly on par with specialty grade, but with a few defective and unripe beans.
  • Grade 3 — Exchange grade. Grocery store coffee brands sit in this category.
  • Grade 4 — Standard grade. Minimally adequate, and won’t taste as good as higher grades.
  • Grade 5 — Off grade. Taste may be sour, even undrinkable.

To learn more about coffee grading and specifically, specialty or premium grades, please check out our guide to gourmet coffee.

What You’ll Need

Before getting started with cupping coffee, you’ll want to gather all the required supplies. This is a rather long process, and it’s best if you have everything in one place.

  • A clean space with good lighting, free from noise or other distractions.
  • One or more tables for cups and equipment.
  • Freshly roasted coffee beans.
  • Filtered water — heated to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Burr grinder.
  • Enough cups for the process. Vessels should be uniform, 7-9 ounces, and made of tempered glass or ceramic.
  • Empty container for used grounds.
  • Cupping spoons — two for each person.
  • Cup of plain water for cleaning your spoon.
  • Scales.
  • Timer. 
  • Pen and paper for notes.
Coffee Characteristics.

Cupping Coffee Tips

To ensure your coffee cupping goes as smoothly as possible, we’ve put together a few pointers. Remember, consistency is important, so treat each sample the same.

  • Use single-origin coffee beans. This is the best way to judge the pureness of a coffee’s taste.
  • Use a burr grinder, and choose a medium-coarse grind.
  • Purge your grinder to remove any remnants left from previous use. 

This involves grinding a small quantity of coffee beans from those you plan to use next, and then discarding the grinds. It will prevent flavor contamination.

  • Keep your room quiet and free from distractions, noises, or odors.
  • Wait 2-3 hours after eating, drinking, or brushing your teeth before cupping coffee.
  • Ideally, the samples should be roasted within 24 hours of cupping.
  • The proper ratio of coffee to water is 0.29 ounces (8.25 grams) of coffee (whole beans before grinding) with 5 fluid ounces (150 ml) of water.
  • A sample should be ground immediately before cupping.
  • Use filtered water — not distilled or softened.

The process of how to taste coffee with cupping spoons is important to detect flavors.

How to Cup Coffee

The process of coffee cupping is not a swift one, especially if you are cupping multiple different coffees. It can also be very detailed and complicated, more so in a professional setting. However, for casual situations, you needn’t be as stringent. 

These steps are intended for a single coffee. Hence, if you’re using multiple beverages, you’ll have to repeat this process for each. Remember to follow the steps in the same order for each kind of coffee, as a way of ensuring consistent results.

You can also grade different coffee samples simultaneously, but it becomes more tricky to keep track of timing for each one. And, if you’re using multiple coffees, make sure to rinse your cupping spoons with plain water before moving on to a different sample. This prevents any crossover of flavor.

Step 1: Use the scale to measure a proper amount of coffee beans into their respective cups. For official cupping, five cups of each coffee are recommended for uniformity, but fewer can be used in casual settings.

Step 2: Grind the beans to a medium-coarse level. If you’re evaluating multiple kinds of coffee, purge your grinder in between.

Step 3: Evaluate the aroma of the dry grounds and make notes.

Step 4: Pour 5 fluid ounces (150 ml) of heated water over the grounds. Set your timer for 4 minutes.

Step 5: A crust should form on top of the coffee. Use a cupping spoon to break that crust. As you push it aside, smell that coffee again. Repeat this process two more times.

Step 6: Use cupping spoons to remove the top skim and oil from the coffee’s surface.

Step 7: Set the timer and wait 4 minutes. Now use the spoon to slurp coffee. Let the beverage flow over your tongue and make notes about how it tastes.

Step 8: Wait 4-5 minutes. Repeat the slurping and coffee tasting, along with notes.

Step 9: Wait another 4-5 minutes, then slurp and taste the coffee once again, while making additional notes.

Professionals would use a score sheet from the Specialty Coffee Association. However, for us java lovers, simply comparing notes with other fellow coffee-cupping companions is sufficient for evaluating your samples. Ultimately, you’re assessing the dry and wet aroma, and the taste of coffee itself.

Coffee Madagascar

What Not to Do

Now that we’ve covered the many steps of what you should do when coffee cupping, there are also a few things you should avoid:

  • Don’t discuss your coffee thoughts with those around you until you’ve reached the end of your samples. This helps you avoid influencing or being influenced by others.
  • Refrain from making loud noises or wearing strong cologne or scents. This can interfere with the cupping process.
  • Don’t become bogged down with the process and terminology! Unless you’re doing this for your job, relax and enjoy sampling.

Final Thoughts

Coffee cupping is a complex, elaborate method for assessing the aroma and taste of coffee. While the casual java drinker may recognize some parts of a coffee’s flavor, cupping is one way of bringing those flavor hints to the forefront. Experienced cuppers can even identify where the coffee beans originated, just by the taste and aroma. They know how to taste coffee notes that others might miss.

This process is very detailed and regimented — when used to professionally assess coffees. However, it can be pared down to a sequence of events that are more easily followed by those purely interested in learning about cupping.

Consistency is the most important aspect of coffee cupping. When it comes to what is coffee cupping — it’s a pretty fascinating process.

What Is Coffee Cupping? FAQs

What Is the Purpose of Coffee Cupping?

For a casual drinker, cupping coffee is a fun way to sample and compare different javas. Professionally, the process can be used to assess coffee for quality, identify characteristics, or even create new blends of coffee.

Can You Drink Cupping Coffee?

Yes, you can drink it, but you may not want to. Cupping coffee does not taste exactly like its fully brewed counterpart. The grounds are steeped in hot water, which may give it a different flavor than coffee brewed in a French press, for example.

How Much Coffee Do You Use for Cupping?

The Specialty Coffee Association recommends using 0.29 ounces (8.25 grams) of coffee beans (before grinding) for each sample. Then, 5 fluid ounces (150 ml) of heated water should be poured directly onto the ground coffee.

What Is a Coffee Cupping Spoon?

A utensil used specifically for tasting coffee. While you can purchase actual cupping spoons, a soup spoon is an ideal substitute. It should be deeper than a teaspoon, to allow you to achieve the full effect of tasting.

How Do You Grind Coffee for Cupping?

Coffee beans used for cupping should be ground to a medium-coarse level. That’s similar to the texture of rough sand.

What Does the Cupping Score for Coffee Mean?

The cupping score is a result of evaluating different traits of coffee. Samples are evaluated on coffee characteristics, such as fragrance, body, acidity, sweetness, and other factors.