Coffee cupping, or cup-testing as it was called originally, is an industry standard for evaluating coffee. Before its adoption as an evaluation practice in the early 20th century, green coffee beans were generally traded based on colour and size. Of the two dominant coffee plants we consume (Robusta and Arabica), Robusta has the larger of the two beans. It is also naturally stronger in caffeine content but has a lower flavour profile. Clarence E. Bickford, a green bean broker from San Francisco, recognised that smaller beans had a better flavour and thus began developing cup-testing to prove this.
When it comes to tasting coffee, the same coffee bean, grind size, water temperature, and ratio can significantly impact the flavour. Therefore, having an agreed-upon practice for judging coffee is essential when assigning value.
For cupping to catch on, it needed to be easily replicated anywhere in the world. Not requiring any fancy equipment was one of its cornerstones. In a professional setting, there will be standardised equipment. But it is easy to do a cupping session at home. Here's the essentials you need for a coffee cupping session:
Obviously. You'll need at least two different types of coffee beans to evaluate. These beans should be freshly roasted.
A quality burr grinder is essential for grinding coffee beans to a consistent and uniform coarseness. This ensures even extraction during brewing. All coffees being tasted must be prepared exactly the same way.
Or glasses. Or mugs. It doesn't really matter so long as the vessels are the exact same.
Any auld kettle will do here. You'll be saturating all the coffee, so it doesn't matter what type of kettle you have. But, if you have a temperature control kettle, all the better. The water temperature should be between 90°C to 96°C (195°F to 205°F) for brewing.
A digital scale with a precision of at least 0.1 grams is necessary to measure coffee beans accurately and ensure consistent ratios of coffee to water.
You'll need a timer to ensure that you steep the coffee for the correct amount of time during the brewing process. Typically, coffee is steeped for 4 minutes.
Cupping spoons are specially designed for the coffee cupping process. They have a deep bowl and a specific shape that allows slurping coffee from the spoon, spreading it across the palate, and assessing its attributes. But who has a drawer of those at home? A soup spoon will work fine.
Well, that's just a fun word to say. Spitting out coffee helps maintain the clarity of the palate. But you can do that in a bowl, cup or sink.
Professional coffee cupping sessions adhere to strict protocols and standards to achieve reliable and consistent results. But you don't need to worry too much about that if you're doing it at home.
In a professional setting, the cupping process follows a specific step-by-step procedure to systematically evaluate and compare coffee beans. But you can easily do it at home with some friends too. Here's a detailed guide to the step-by-step coffee cupping process:
Coffee cupping was designed to be an evaluation tool for coffee trading. It then went on to assist in building a language to describe the flavours of coffee. And that's a whole other conversation that you can read more about here. But doing this test at home is a beautiful way of discovering how varied the flavours of coffee can be.
As mentioned earlier, green beans were traded on colour and size before cupping. This meant that Robusta beans would fetch a premium price over Arabica. We now know that Arabica beans have the potential for a much more complex and flavourful cup of coffee, thanks to cupping. Having a globally recognised industry standard for assigning value to the flavour of the green bean gave the farmers and producers more power to demand the prices and recognition that their hard work and labour deserved.
Cupping also allowed coffee professionals to create flavour profiles for different coffee varieties. It helped ensure consistency in coffee quality as it effectively detected defects in coffee beans. Through cupping, researchers and agronomists could study the effects of growing conditions, processing methods, and varietals on coffee flavour. This research contributes to improving coffee cultivation and processing techniques, which in turn helps farmers and processors demand the premium they deserve.