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.
At Kauai Coffee, our Manager of Roasting Operations and Institutional Equipment, Mike Shimatsu, is a Certified Licensed Q Arabica Grader and Lead Instructor for the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Here are his tips for tasting your Kauai Coffee at home like a pro and developing your palette.
To try cupping techniques at home, you will need to have some basic equipment on hand. When we taste coffee in our lab here are some of the items we 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 or the sand of Kauai beaches – not too fine, not too rocky, just right
- 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 will usually do the trick
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.
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 call 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, Slurps, and Spoons
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. What do you taste in your Kauai Coffee? Host your own cupping party and let us know if you get notes of Kauai sunshine and aloha from our family to yours. Buy your favorite Kauai Coffee here and don’t miss the exciting and unique offerings our roast masters are creating from the Seed to Cup project.