Next time you invite a friend or three to coffee, take a break from your regular coffee routine and try something new and exciting: host a coffee cupping.
Coffee cuppings are essentially coffee tastings. Farmers, buyers, and roasters use the cupping process to evaluate flavors and quality, but we regular coffee loving folks can use the process to learn about and appreciate coffee at new levels alongside our friends.
Tasting and talking about coffee with friends is one of the best ways to grow your palette, expand your coffee knowledge, and appreciate the world of coffee. Something clicks when we say what we are thinking and feeling out loud to others, so I cannot stress how fun and enlightening hosting a coffee tasting can be.
In this blog, I’m going to break down how you can host a coffee cupping for yourself and some friends. It’s not hard. But it’s very rewarding.
How Coffee Cupping Is Different Than Tasting
Coffee cuppings aren’t as simple as brewing three or four different coffees and tasting them. That would be a tasting event, but not cupping specifically.
For coffee cupping, we brew small amounts of coffee using a cup or bowl, coarsely ground coffee, and hot water. There’s no filter and no fancy device - just the coffee, immersion brewing in a cup.
There are a few reasons we do it this way.
- It allows us to try a variety of coffees without having to brew a lot of coffee (and keeps us from getting overcaffeinated).
- We are able to get the full experience of a coffee since there is no filter holding any flavors, acids, or oils back.
- We get to experience how a coffee changes over time, since there’s no defined end to the coffee brewing. We pull out some coffee grounds for easier tasting, but not all of them.
The thing that sounds the strangest to most people who are new to coffee cuppings is the fact that we don’t use a filter to separate the grounds and the brewed coffee. Yes, every once in awhile we do slurp a coffee ground or two, but it’s perfectly safe and not that common.
French press and pour over cones are great ways to enjoy coffee, but they both highlight different flavors, tones, and mouthfeels.
The point of cupping is to get an unfiltered look at the coffee, thus, we don’t use filters. The basic immersion-in-a-cup method means everyone around the world uses the exact same method, no special tools or technique required. It’s the easiest, most consistent way to taste and evaluate coffee.
Considering these primary differences, I hope you can see how the coffee cupping process offers us a clear, unfiltered view of a coffee’s entire sensory experience in a way no other brewing method can.
What You Need To Get Started
Like always, begin with freshly roasted and freshly ground coffee (ground coarsely). Old, stale coffee won’t be very fun to cup, because it will be dull and lifeless. The only reason to cup an old coffee is to remind yourself how much better fresh coffee is (hint: a lot better).
For your water, find some that is clean and tasty. If you don’t like it by itself, you won’t like it in the coffee. Also, prepare a cup of warm water to rinse your spoons in between coffees, as well as cold water to sip on during the cupping (this helps refresh your palate between sips).
Find a few 4 to 6oz cups or bowls. These small vessels give us a way to perform the cupping without having to brew a lot of coffee. Gather a spoon for every one of your friends and a timer for each coffee sample.
The last thing you need is a coffee scoring sheet that you can use to take notes on. Any pen and paper will do, but a dedicated coffee scoring sheet will help you process what you’re experiencing.
The Coffee Cupping Process
Cupping works best when you follow the typical process: blind setup, evaluate the dry coffee aromas, the wet coffee aromas, then the flavors, mouthfeel, acidity, sweetness, and aftertaste.
If you’re new to coffee tasting in general, I highly suggest to take a quick look at our Coffee Tasting Series, which will help you wrap your head around the different way we taste and judge coffee.
Let’s dig into those steps a little deeper.
The Blind Setup
Number each coffee and write the corresponding coffee/number pair on a sheet of paper (the identity sheet). Write the corresponding numbers on the bottom of your brewing vessel. When you grind the coffees, grind them into their appropriately numbered vessels, then mix them up so that you don’t know which is which. Now hide the identity sheet from view.
This makes your cupping a blind tasting, which eliminates any bias you may have against any origin, roaster, or other variable. When the cupping is finished, you’ll be able to look at the numbers on the vessels and find out the coffee’s identity on your identity sheet.
This step is optional, but it’s a great way to make sure nobody has an edge on another when it comes to predicting what a coffee will taste like. It levels the tasting field and makes the experience more honest.
Dry Coffee Aromas
Grind 10g of coffee coarsely into your cup or bowl and breathe the aromas in deeply. What do the coffee grounds smell like? Try to look deeper than “just coffee”. Write down what you experience.
Begin The Brewing
Pour 4-6oz of near-boiling water (about 205 degrees Fahrenheit) onto the coffee grounds, filling the brewing vessel. Start a timer counting up and let the coffee brew for four minutes.
Be careful not to disturb the brewing. You want the coffee grounds to form a crust at the surface of the coffee. This crust will lock in the aromas, which is essential for the next step. If you shake the table, you could compromise the crust, releasing the aromas early.
Breaking The Crust And Wet Coffee Aromas
When the timer passes four minutes, take your spoon, get really close to the coffee (closer… closer….), and slowly push the grounds back. Breathe in deeply and allow the aromas to fill your throat and lungs.
Gently push your spoon back and forth a time or two to disrupt the aromas again, giving you another chance to experience them in such concentration. Write down what you experience. Is the wet aroma different than the dry aroma?
Tasting The Coffee
When most of the grounds settle at the bottom of the vessel, take your spoon and skim the surface to collect any remaining floating grounds. Dispose of them.
Now take your spoon and fill it with a small amount of coffee. Bring it up to your lips and slurp it loudly. You want to spray the coffee across your entire tongue so that you can get a full picture of the flavors in a single moment.
What do you experience?
Consider the following items:
Check out the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel. If you are struggling to describe what you are tasting, make a guess. A thoughtful guess is much better at helping you learn and grow than a blank page.
Source: Neil Palmer
Optional: Don’t share your thoughts at all during the tasting portion of the cupping. This keeps your reaction to a coffee from influencing the opinion of someone else.
Rinse your spoon in the warm water cup between coffees. This keeps one coffee’s flavor from altering that of another.
Once you’ve made your way to all the different coffees, go back through again. The coffees may have changed slightly over the last few minutes. Take it all in. Appreciate the nuance differences.
When you and your friends are finished tasting, it’s time to process through the experience.
Discussing The Coffees
Take turns talking about the coffees.
What did Coffee #1 smell like? Did anyone else notice the smoky flavor and spicy aftertaste? I thought it had a heavy body, but a very mild acidity.
As the host, encourage the quieter, less confident tasters to share their thoughts. It’s a group experience. The more each person contributes, the more you all learn and grow.
You may all agree that Coffee #3 had a fruity sweetness, but you may all have different tasting notes for Coffee #5. That’s okay. Coffee tasting isn’t an objective skill, so there are bound to be variations in flavor interpretations.
This is how our palates grow. This is how we learn to taste.
When you’ve all shared your thoughts about the day’s coffees, pull out that identity sheet and tell everyone where the coffees came from, who roasted them, and what the roaster’s flavor notes are.
This is the finale: finding out how close your flavor notes are to the roaster’s. If your notes are in the ballpark, your palate has done you well. If they’re pretty far off, it’s time to plan another cupping.
Hosting a coffee cupping is a great way to enjoy several different coffees with friends. It’s a fun, challenging, and enlightening experience that always leads to a greater appreciation for coffee.
Not sure what coffees to cup? Let us send you some of the best coffees we've ever tried via our JavaPresse Coffee Subscription. The beans we've sourced from partner farms are diverse, vibrant, and excellent for tasting side-by-side.
If you're learning to taste coffee like a pro, there's nothing better you can do that set yourself up to receive a brand new, freshly roasted coffee every other week.
Most importantly, have fun. This doesn’t have to be a stressful, rigorous event. As long as you’re open and enjoying the learning process, you’re doing it right.