The universally accepted coffee culture has given rise to consumers knowing more about what’s in their cup. Just as a glass of wine boasts multiple flavors, subtle and strong, which trace back to the grapes from which it was made, a cup of coffee also contains textures and nuances of flavor that originates from its beans—their origin, their growth, and the manner and skill with which they were roasted.
The process of analyzing the taste of coffee is called cupping, and it became a standard industry practice in the late 19th century.
The Master Taster And Aspects of Taste
A professional wine taster is called a sommelier; in coffee culture, the equivalent of the sommelier is the master taster. In general, a master taster seeks to determine the following aspects of a cup of coffee:
- Aroma — the complex fragrances of the grind and the brew; most concentrated when the coffee is hottest
- Body — the physical properties of the beverage; “heavy” or “thin,” similar to the mouthfeel of whole milk vs. nonfat milk
- Sweetness — the level of sucrose, present in all coffee beans, that is evident in the tasting process
- Acidity — tanginess resulting from the natural acids in coffee beans, which emerge during the roasting process
- Flavor — the different, often subtle characteristics of the brew being cupped; can embrace a wide variety of descriptors
- Aftertaste — the flavor that lingers after swallowing the coffee, also called the “finish”
First, the master taster places 7.25 grams (the weight of a nickel and a dime) of freshly ground coffee in a china cup. The coffee should be freshly ground—within 15 minutes of the cupping. The master taster visually evaluates the dry roasted grounds for color and aroma.
Then the taster pours nearly boiling water onto the ground coffee in the cup, and the wet coffee grounds form a cap or a crust on the surface of the cup. The taster then “breaks the crust” by moving his cupping spoon over the crust of the coffee and leaning down over the coffee to smell the aroma given off by the brew.
The taster leaves each cup to briefly cool, and to let the stirred grounds settle to the bottom of the cup. Using his cupping spoon, the master taster scoops the foam off the top of each cup and discards it.
Next the taster forcefully inhales the coffee into his mouth – aspirating the coffee – giving it a big “slurp” combined with a gentle inhale. The goal is for the coffee to coat the entire tongue – especially in the back where the more sensitive taste buds are located. The aspiration allows the taster to better evaluate the true coffee taste, and the inhalation allows him to experience the coffee’s aroma.
The taster then proceeds to measure the other aspects of the brew. The sequence in which these aspects are rated is based on the coffee’s temperature, which continues to decrease. At 160°F, the flavor and aftertaste of the coffee can be judged; at 140°F, the cupper can determine acidity and body, and then move on to balance, which is an assessment of how well the flavor, aftertaste, acidity, and body fit together in a synergistic combination. As the brew approaches room temperature (below 100°F), the cupper can effectively evaluate the sweetness.
Of course, cupping is not only an activity for professionals; coffee drinkers of every stripe can (and should!) engage as well, if for no other reason than to further their education in one of the world’s most popular beverages.
Some of the descriptions used to describe the coffee aroma can include:
Once you try a cupping, it’s difficult to think about coffee the same way ever again!