Coffee cupping is the process used by cuppers (professional coffee tasters) to objectively assess and evaluate (judge) the quality of coffee.
Evaluating the Taste Profile of the Gourmet Coffee
Cuppers analyze all of the basic coffee flavor characteristics/taste sensations including the coffee's body, fragrance/aroma, acidity, bitterness, sweetness, and aftertaste/finish - in order to analyze the complete flavor profile of the coffee.
The Cupping Environment
A proper cupping is performed in an environment that is free of any strong smells such as perfumes because premium coffees have many subtle nuances in their flavors and aromas, which are evaluated by cuppers.
Beginning the Cupping - Grinding the Coffee and Evaluating the Fragrance
A coffee cupping involves first properly grinding the coffee to be evaluated. About two tablespoons are typically ground using a conical burr grinder, and then placed into a small cup to evaluate the fragrance.
Steeping the Coffee - Breaking the Crust
Next near-boiling water is poured onto the coffee and allowed to steep for about four minutes as the grinds rise to the top where they form a thick crust.
Next check for any off-smells and then gently break the crust with a spoon. Next the grinds are pushed back so the cupper may inhale the aromatic bouquet and evaluate the aroma. The cupper also analyzes the crema, the layer of fine-celled foam atop the coffee
Removing the Grinds - Slurping the Coffee and Aspiration
The grinds are then removed and the cupper uses a spoon to slurp the coffee so it mixes with air and disperses around the inside of their mouth. The cupper swirls the coffee around to discern its flavors, body, and acidity. Also evaluated is the coffee's nose as vapors and gases - volatile organic compounds - release in the mouth.
The cupper may also use a vigorous sucking motion that sprays the coffee evenly across the tongue and palate. This cupping technique is known as aspiration and provides the optimal opportunity for sensory evaluation of the brewed coffee.
Evaluating the Merits of the Gourmet Coffee
Once the cupping is completed the professional coffee taster tries to come to a conclusion about the merits and/or flaws of the coffee, including its body, aroma, acidity, sweetness/bitterness, aftertaste/finish, and overall aromatic profile.
A coffee's taste, or flavor, is the overall description and combined sensations and perceptions of the distinctive aromatic and flavor characteristics of the coffee; the fusion of body, acidity (low acidity or high), aroma, and aftertaste. A well-balanced coffee is one in which no single taste characteristic dominates and/or overpowers/overwhelms the others.
Perceiving the Nuances of Premium Coffee
The water-soluble taste and aromatic compounds of coffee are perceived primarily through smell (the olfactory membranes) and taste buds (nerve endings on the tongue). Coffee cuppers (professional coffee tasters) often distinguish the coffee's taste (flavor) from its acidity, aroma, and body.
Coffee Flavor Descriptions
Some general coffee taste descriptions include complex (multi-flavored), rich (describes a full-bodied coffee), and bitter. Some coffees have a taste reminiscent of red wine and are referred to as winy. Other coffees have a fruity essence that suggests berries or citrus. A multitude of other coffee taste characteristics are listed in the Espresso Coffee Guide's Coffee Terms.
According to some coffee aficionados, the primary coffee taste sensations are soury, sharp, mellow, acidy, winey, and bland.
Secondary Coffee Flavor Qualities
These secondary coffee flavor characteristics include a variety of tastes including tart, tangy, delicate, piquant, neutral, rough, astringent, acrid, and alkaline as well as hard and soft.
Coffee and Espresso Brewing Tips
For tips on brewing the perfect cup of coffee see our section on Coffee Brewing. You can also read detailed coffee flavor profiles of gourmet coffee and instructions on preparing Espresso Drink Recipes.