Serving the Roasting Community with Expert Independent Reviews




One compares different coffees by tasting them side by side. Pros cup multiple samples of the same coffee to look for consistent and defect-free lots. They also do it to choose a particular coffee to sell from those of the same region. When you roast, you may want to taste different roast levels or roasting profiles side by side. This creates a minor logistics problem -- how does one efficiently brew from, say, two to fifteen cups of different kinds of coffee?

One possible solution is to buy a sufficient number of single serving press pots or pour-over filters. Professional cuppers use a more convenient, low tech approach. They steep the coffee in the cup they are tasting, pushing the grounds to the bottom and ignoring the rest. This is the approach we advise. However, most of these instructions apply to other single cup brewing methods as well.

Required Materials

Here's what you need:

  • The bean samples in containers (optional if doing only one cup per sample)
  • A small sheet of paper for each sample
  • A 7 gram coffee measure
  • A good quality grinder that does single portions conveniently
  • Boiling water, at least 5 ounces per cup.
  • A 6 ounce cup or glass for each bean or sample being tasted
  • A card table or larger with a large round tray or lazy Susan
  • A large glass of drinking water
  • A cupping or soup spoon in a glass of water
  • A preprinted rating sheet with space for each sample. Additional blank paper is good too.
  • A list of typical coffee tastes, aromas and taints to help with descriptions
  • A pen
  • Optionally, a container for a spittoon, if you are tasting a lot of coffee.

Setting Up

When you start out, give yourself plenty of time to prepare. Once the coffee is poured, it's too late to do anything you forgot.

Tasting is usually done blind. Here's how: Place the beans in the sample containers, along with their names written on the small slips of paper. Fold each slip so you can't see what's on it, and so they all look the same. Now shuffle the samples so you don't know which is which. Then write consecutive numbers on the outside of the folded slips. You now have blind samples labeled consecutively; at the end of the cupping you unfold the slips to see which is which.

It's much less complicated if you are just doing one cup per sample. You can omit the containers, grind the samples into their cups, fold the ID slips or tape them to the cups' bases, and shuffle at that point.

Get plenty of water boiling.

Now grind 7 grams of the beans per cup, and put them in the cups. You can use the coffee measure on the beans themselves or the ground coffee. Put the cups, label and container on the cupping table. Clean the grinder out and repeat this with the rest of the samples. Traditionally, a French Press grind is used for cupping, although many cuppers prefer to use a finer grind and wait a little less time before breaking the crust. You can experiment with variations to see which one you like most; but when cupping, you must be consistent.

If you want to assess the dry aroma (the aroma of the ground coffee dry) do it now and note it on the cupping forms. When rating any aroma, breath through your slightly open mouth as well as your nose, it amplifies the smells. When rating dry aroma, smell the coffee both up close, at a few inches, and at 18 inches or so distance. Lighter floral and fruity aromas are more apparent at a distance, roasty ones up close.

Bring the boiling water to the table, let it cool to 200F, (93C or just off boil), or just wait a minute or two after the water has boiled and is beginning to cool. Fill each cup with five ounces of water. If you use six ounce cups, the grounds will go to the top of the cup when it is filled. Otherwise, measure to be consistent. The grounds will form a crust over the water. Let the coffee steep for four minutes.

Use the four minutes to make sure your drinking water, spoon, cleaning water, cupping forms, pen and optional spittoon are at hand.

Tasting The Coffee

When the four-minute steeping time is done; "break the crust". That is, use the cupping spoon to press the floating grounds sideways and down to the bottom of the cup. While doing this, get your nose close to the cup and inhale deeply while raising your head away (getting the aroma at various distances). Since the crust has trapped and concentrated the coffee aromas on the surface, there is no more intense way of getting the coffee aroma. Make a note of what you smell on the cupping form. After this, stir the coffee gently to ensure that grounds on the surface sink to the bottom of the cup. If after that, there are still grounds or foam on the surface, remove them with the cupping spoon. Then move on to the next cup and repeat this process.

Now taste the coffee as follows: Get a spoonfull, sniff it for the aroma and then slurp it forcefully so it coats the entire tongue. Inhale through your mouth and nose while the coffee is on the tongue. Pay attention to the basic tastes; sweet, sour, bitter and salty, on your tongue; to the aromas in your nose; and to the feel of the coffee coating your tongue. This will be explained later, in detail. Swallow or spit the coffee out. Finally, do some fake chewing and dry swallowing to get a faster and stronger impression of the aftertaste.

Some cuppers find that they can do best with the aromatic flavors when smelling and tasting the samples; and the basic tastes, sour, bitter, salty and sweet, in the finish. With practice, you'll learn how best to focus your attention during the tasting phases.

If you are cupping alone, you can slurp the coffee in tiny sips from the cups.

Make notes of your impressions of each coffee.

Aromas and tastes change as the coffee cools; so continue doing this until the cups are at or near room temperature. You can compare two coffees by taking a spoon from each consecutively. Move around the table, or rotate the lazy Susan as you taste.

Wash out your cupping spoon when switching cups to avoid cross contamination; or between each taste when other people are tasting too. Take a sip of water between each cup to clear the palate.


UPDATED: June 27, 2005