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So you’ve paid a small fortune for that gorgeous bag of handcrafted coffee that seems to be all the rage among your coffee loving friends.
But, how do you know you’re getting your money’s worth?
What’s to say that another bag of specialty coffee sitting right next to it on the shelf for a full five dollars less isn’t better?
When it comes to the world of specialty, small-batch coffee, many processes are put into place that results in a well-founded justification for that higher price. One of the most important of those processes is coffee cupping.
What Is Coffee Cupping?
Coffee cupping is a popular procedure whereby coffee is tasted and rated based on a variety of qualities to include mouth-feel, flavor, fragrance, balance, etc. As a result of the coffee cupping process, buyers determine whether a particular lot of green coffee is worth the purchase at the set asking price.
It does not matter whether you’re buying a bag of roasted specialty coffee from a roaster that purchases green coffee directly from the farm or cooperative that grew it, or from a roaster that works through a coffee broker.
Any specialty coffee sourced through either of these methods will be cupped first by the grower and the buyer to negotiate the best price based on the quality of that coffee. By specialty coffee, we mean high quality, high scoring beans that have been grown in small lots.
These lots of coffee have been handpicked, processed, and sold to local buyers, coffee brokers, or directly to roasters in small batches (20 to 100 bags of approximately 150 lbs of beans each, for example)
Coffee cupping was first introduced in America around the turn of the 20th century by the now coffee giant, Hills Brothers. However, it’s long been the standard for measuring coffee quality all over the coffee growing world. The score assigned to a certain lot of coffee directly determines its asking price. So cupping correctly and accurately is incredibly important. The process has become an exact science.
There seems to be a lot of bells and whistles involved with coffee cupping. But every component of the process is there for a reason. Three samples are taken from each lot of coffee that’s to be tested. One sample is of the green beans.
The next sample is of those beans in whole bean, roasted form. And a third sample consists of the roasted beans ground. Next to those samples is a whiskey size glass containing a measured amount of grounds from that samples resting on the bottom.
The beans must spend no less than 8 minutes and no more than 12 minutes in the roaster. Coffee is ready for cupping after 8 hours from roasting and should be cupped within 24 hours. Coffee should be ground no more than 15 minutes within cupping, and the hot water should reach a temperature of 200° F.
A precise measure of hot water is poured directly onto an exact amount of coffee grounds and left to steep for three to five minutes. Once the coffee has steeped, the crust of grounds that has formed at the top is broken with a spoon by swirling three times.
When the coffee has cooled to 160 degrees F, it is ready for a taste by dipping a soup sized spoon into the cup and slurping it in a way that spreads the coffee to all parts of the mouth.
Scoring is achieved on a variety of criteria that when summed up provides an overall cumulative score of the particular coffee being cupped.
Fragrance refers to the smell of dry grounds and aroma refers to the smell of those grounds when infused with water. The fragrance and aroma of the coffee are noted by smelling the dry grounds, smelling the coffee once the crust is broken with the spoon, and smelling the coffee as it steeps.
Flavor includes all of the mid-mouth taste of the coffee and the internal nasal aromas observed as the coffee is being slurped. Flavor accounts for the overall taste bud reaction from slurping the coffee.
Aftertaste consists of all the remaining aspects of the coffee still perceived at the back of the palate after the coffee has been swallowed or spit out.
Acidity refers to either brightness or sourness of the coffee depending on what end of the spectrum you perceive it to be on. Coffees from different areas of the world carry different expectations for the level of acidity that should be present in the coffee.
Body refers to the depth of the flavor experienced in the mouth. Fuller body coffees seem to feel heavier in the mouth.
Sweetness refers to the relative caramelization of the beans during the roast, bringing out the sugars that are contained inside the bean in its unprocessed form.
Balance is a measure of how well all the components of coffee come together. A coffee is thought to be well balanced if not one aspect of coffee, such as acidity, outweighs or masks other noteworthy aspects of the coffee.
Cleanliness or “clean cup” refers to the lack of interference of taste from the first slurp to the aftertaste of the coffee.
These and a few other factors are scored and totaled on a scale of 1 to 100. Any score of 80 or over will give the coffee a classification of “specialty”, thereby warranting a higher price for the lot.
Anything under a score of 80 means the coffee is of low quality and best meant to be combined with other lots into big batches and roasted darkly to hide the imperfections in the coffee.
If you’re in the market for specialty coffee, make sure you look for signs that the coffee has been sourced and cupped through either a coffee broker, directly with a farm, or directly with a cooperative. An indication that a particular bag is a specialty comes from the description of the coffee.
At the very least, the bag should note the region the coffee beans came from and some cupping notes, such as “full-bodied, earthy coffee with hints of fig, cinnamon, with toasty undertones”. If you actually find a bag or a website that will provide the cupping score, then that’s even better.