“Cupping” is the term used by those in the trade when tasting and comparing coffee beans. I recently attended a course with freelance coffee trainer Daisy Rollo to learn more about this.
When I teach cookery I am always urging pupils to taste more frequently – both the individual ingredients and the dish as cooking progresses. The more you taste and evaluate the more attributes you will be able to taste. However, there is usually a method for tasting any food to ensure you can fully assess all the critical components and a tutored tasting with an expert is always worthwhile. Here’s what I learnt about tasting coffee.
Aroma – at least 80% of “taste” is actually experienced via the olfactory channel, after all we already known that the predominant pure taste of coffee is bitter. But against this background it is amazing how many nuances of flavour can be detected. We began our session just smelling different numbered bottles to identify some of these.
Chocolate, caramel and even peat probably won’t surprise you but wait – is that dark or milk chocolate? Caramel or butterscotch? Then there were a whole host of unexpected flavours that might be detected when tasting coffee, including some that would indicate a fault in the processing (rotting potato for example) and numerous fruits ranging from prunes to red currants.
Process – the method of processing the beans and making the coffee obviously have an impact on the flavour so ideally cupping would begin with smelling the green coffee beans so that the process had yet to interfere. We used the infusion method of brewing in glasses and ground our beans on a medium setting. More precisely, 13g of coffee was steeped for 4 minutes in 210ml of water that had been heated to between 90 and 95 degrees centigrade, i.e. slightly below boiling point.
Remembering that your sense of smell is the most important tool in tasting, before the water is added to the ground beans make notes of your first impressions. Does it, for example, smell fresh or stale? Adding water will intensify the aroma, so the first step is again smelling, but this time the wet rather than dry grounds. To do this use a soup (or cupping) spoon to break the crust by pushing the spoon away from you, inhaling as you do so. Repeat this push three times as you continue to smell the coffee. You should at this stage be able to assess something of the acidity, i.e. whether the coffee smells smooth or lively; fruity or sweet. You might also detect some actual flavours from the aroma, i.e, fruits, herbs, spices, chocolate.
Having noted what you can smell it is time to actually taste some coffee. For this you need to remove the all the froth from the surface (the grounds will by now have sunk to the bottom) and then slurp a spoonful of the liquid, ensuring it washes over the tongue to the back of the mouth and incorporating air as you do so. This is no time for worrying about your table manners!
The taste often just confirms the aromas, but all manner of faults may be detected here, especially when the taste doesn’t correspond with your expectations from smelling. You will also be able to comment on the “mouthfeel” or body i.e. is it full and rich, thin or fat; and what about the aftertaste? You can continue slurping for up to three minutes, during which time the coffee will reveal more of its attributes, but if you are comparing several coffee beans you may prefer to spit the coffee out to keep a clear head!
I was little disappointed with my lack of ability to detect all of the flavours that the grower (or more usually roaster) had listed, but I guess that takes practice as my fellow pupils were also struggling to some extent. Sometimes however the discrepancy was owing to inconsistent roasting.
There were however one or two definite trends that I picked up on. A coffee that tastes “tea like” was probably grown in Ethiopia for example. It also helps to look for the different families of flavour, so that, for example, there will usually be some fruit association but is it citrus or red berry? Nuttiness is also frequently detected even if you can’t identify which nut.
As someone that limits their coffee intake to one cup a day I’m unlikely to progress to identifying my preference in coffee at different times of day, or even to accompany different foods, but the experience was nonetheless fascinating and instructive, as I always find it when in the presence of someone who is passionate about their work. It was clear that finding equally passionate growers and roasters is critical to good coffee and Daisy is of the opinion that, although growing in number, there are still only a few that she would wholeheartedly recommend, all of whom buy direct from small, speciality coffee farms. Sorry that all are in the south of England, but most sell on-line.
Cornwall-based Origin Coffee www.origincoffee.co.uk
Round Hill Roastery near Bath
Extract Coffee Roasters in Bristol
James Gourmet Coffee in Ross-on-Wye
Small Batch (also on Brighton Station)
For courses see Daisy Rollo at www.coffeaarabica.co.uk