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The wine community has a great history and well earned reputation for pretension and overly ceremoniously sniffing, swirling and spitting their goblets of grape juice before discussing and judging. Well, the Winos are no longer alone in this ceremony and no longer the only ones being labeled as pretentious for their habits of discerning a fine beverage from swill. Coffee drinkers have stepped up to share in the shame!
I will be the first to admit that I too wear this mark as a “cupper” of Specialty coffees and yes, I slurp. To the wine world, cupping may seem crass, messy and undignified …they may have a point, but never-the-less it is necessary when determining the qualities of a coffee before purchase.
The ritual begins by laying out 3-5 different coffee varietals (3 cups each) of ground coffee. First pass at the table involves smelling the dry aroma of the grinds, shaking the cup to release more oder, smelling again, making a contemplative face, wiping the grinds from your nostril and repeat to each cup.
Then we add the water. Exactly 150ml of 200 degree water per 8.25 gram sample of ground coffee. Pour each cup in the correct amount of time, let stand for 4 minutes and we are ready for the fragrance. Fragrance is for the scent emitted by the wet coffee grounds.
2nd pass at the table involves a spoon which you use to crack the crust that has formed on the top of the cup. This is a favorite for those of us that only order creme brule to gain the satisfaction of cracking the delicious outer crust. This releases a great deal of fragrance and again you must make a face as you search your old factory for sensory memories to compare it to.
Finally we get to taste the actual coffee and best of all, SPIT!!
Again, you get a fancy spoon, and now a thimble, cup or bucket (depending on your size) as a spittoon.
Plunge your spoon into each cup and slurp with gusto. Every cupper has their own style; some whistle as they slurp, some sound like they’re setting off rockets while others gently motor boat in their loving spoonful of coffee. Now, once your discerning scowl is readily affixed, start writing your notes on the cups.
Descriptor words of choice:
When tasting coffee it differs from wine in a couple ways. First coffee is aromatically more complex, I know it sounds hard to believe but just compare the Le Nez du Vin (the nose of wine) which has 18 essential scents where as the Le Nez du Cafe (the nose of coffee) has 36. Next difference is that different characteristics are or can be valued in coffee, for instance savory and earthy are more celebrated than in wine like bitters and darker savory characteristics such as beef, tobacco and chicory.
The main thing, when tasting and judging a coffee is to let the coffee coat your tongue, keep and open mind and associate it with things you have tasted in your life and then take it to the next level. Tastes like, tomatoes, good–more, stewed Marzano tomatoes, beautiful. Each time you taste the same coffee you should be assessing different aspects of it so you’re not overwhelmed trying to judge the entire thing at once. First, body and mouth-feel, then is it bitter? bright? sour? tainted? Then start getting into chocolate, grapefruit lemon grass.
As wine changes the more it is exposed to air and opens up, coffee changes as it rests and cools. It is good to continue to taste the same coffees all the way until they are completely cool and you will notice a large change in their characteristics. Some will improve, some will wane and others will just be interesting.
Back to the spitting, basically, if you don’t spit after each sip you won’t die but you will get jacked up and rattle or shake on your way home. Being wine drinkers you should probably do your coffee tasting first and follow it with an extensive wine tasting to even out, I always say, “You have to get up to get down!”
Final thoughts, cupping is fun and a great exercise to evaluate and judge coffee and to improve your tasting skills and familiarity with a variety of coffees from different regions however it is mostly for roasters and buyers to determine quality and how to treat a coffee in the roast. Cupping a sample roasted coffee is like tasting a wine that is still in the barrel before it is properly aged and brought to its full potential.
The best way to taste coffee is how you like it, French press, pour over, espresso etc. Always think about what you’re tasting and interact with your beverage, is it balanced, sweet, nutty, bright, savory and how is the body?
I am always amazed that a lot of amazing wine tasters, somms and chefs will be insecure about how to taste their coffee. Have confidence, interact and dissect each cup the way you would with a glass or a plate and you will always have something of value to say.