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Coffee cupping how-to guidelines
2 February 2013


As discussed in the previous post, Eric and Casey, the intrepid Kona Earth farm interns, recently roasted up a special batch of Kona coffee.  They're calling it 19 North, a combination of both Kona's latitude and the freeway exit to their small hometown in upstate New York.  It's only a single batch of coffee so we won't have it in stock for long.  You'll have to wait until next week to learn the details of the 19 North roast.  We're making you wait so you can have an opportunity to cup it for yourself.  What, never done a cupping before?  Well now is the perfect opportunity!

Slurping A formal cupping is very different than simply drinking coffee.  In fact, there is usually very little coffee drinking involved.  A professional cupper can spend all day sampling hundreds of different coffees.  Drinking that much coffee would not be a good idea.  So a professional cupper will do what I call the slurp and spit.

Rather than sipping the coffee, it is more effective if you energetically slurp the coffee.  Yes, make as loud and sudden of a slurping noise as possible.  Besides being fun, it actually serves a purpose.  By coating your entire mouth at once, you can get a much more complete taste sensation.  This will bring out details in the coffee that you might otherwise miss if you sip it quietly.

Sometimes I close my eyes so that I can concentrate more closely on what I'm tasting.  I let it sit for a second then I spit it into a second cup.   I admit, sometimes I get excited and can't help but swallow the coffee.   I try not to though because after an hour or so of tasting magnificent coffees, it can create a heck of a caffeine buzz if I don't remember to spit.

The slurp and spit process, besides being practical, also helps break you out of established habits.  When I hear the coffee grinder in the morning I can instantly taste the coffee even though it hasn't been brewed yet.  My brain knows what is coming and tells me what to expect.  While it's nice to anticipate that morning cup of coffee, during a formal cupping it is important to avoid those preconceived expectations.  Not many people slurp and spit on a regular basis so it helps your brain say "This is different! Let's see what is coming next!"  When your brain doesn't know what to expect, it's easier to pick out subtleties that you might otherwise miss.

Water When cupping, since you are trying to evaluate tiny details, it's important to get all the measurements exactly correct.  For example, rather than measuring the coffee grounds with a scoop, it's better to get a good scale so you can get precisely the right amount of coffee in every cup.  Be sure to measure the water precisely too.  If it is off by even a little bit, that can make a dramatic difference in the final results.  The SCAA cupping protocols say eight grams of grounds with five ounces of water but the exact amounts aren't as important as being consistent from one cup to the next.

Water quality and temperature are also important.  If the water tastes bad then the coffee will taste bad too so be sure to use clean, filtered water but not distilled or softened water.  It is best to use water that is just below the boiling point, 195-205 Fahrenheit (90-95 Celsius).  While using a thermometer is ideal, I sometimes cheat and listen to the pot, removing it when I hear the bubbles but before it has started to really boil.

For a formal cupping, the process starts by evaluating the dry grounds.  The look and smell of the grounds, before adding water, can sometimes say a lot.  For example, I find that the aroma of a pulped natural coffee is very dramatic.  Yet once brewed I think that aroma becomes much more subtle.  So smelling the grounds before adding the water is important.   It's the same experience you'll get when you open a fresh bag of coffee.

When ready, pour the water slowly over the grounds, being sure to get all of the grounds wet.  Fill the cup to the rim then let it steep undisturbed for 3-5 minutes.  The grounds will form a crust on top of the water while the coffee brews underneath.

Smelling After about four minutes, get your nose right up next to the coffee, almost touching it, then carefully stir the grounds.  As soon as you do, a rush of aroma will be very obvious.  This only happens once and it's over fast so be ready for that first impression.

Before tasting the coffee, you'll want to remove the grounds.  This can be done with two spoons, simply scooping out the grounds and putting them in a second cup.  The slurping will be next and it's no fun to slurp up a mouthful of coffee grounds.

The most important step of all:  don't burn your tongue on the first taste.  I've done that before, I was so eager to get started that I slurped up that first spoonful and burned my entire mouth.  It wasn't bad, just enough to make it difficult to taste anything in the cup.  I was sad but at least I learned a lesson:  let the coffee cool down a bit before tasting.  Duh.

One spoonful is plenty to get a good slurp and coat your entire mouth.  I'll taste it for a second or two, spit it out, then wait another few seconds before trying again.  Some coffees can have a very strong aftertaste.   It's not necessarily a bad thing, sometimes the lingering taste can be better than the coffee itself.


Don't forget to write down your impressions.  I often think I can remember but after a few cups I get all confused as to which cup is what.  Scribbling down some quick notes can help a lot.  Professional cuppers have some established vocabulary for describing taste but the rest of us usually use words like full-bodied, bright, clean, Earthy or sweet.  It's also common to compare it to other foods or fragrances.  For example, Kona coffee is often described as floral with light citrus notes while a full natural can be reminiscent of blueberries.

Use whatever words you want.  The main thing is to try to stay objective and avoid saying "I like this" or "I don't like that."  While your personal opinion is important to you, it's more helpful to use words that other people can relate to.  Telling me you like something isn't particularly helpful but telling me you taste a hint of chocolate or peaches or honey, that helps me know what sensations you are experiencing.

It's easy to get discouraged at first.  Like any new skill, it takes some practice.  I've been told by every expert I've asked that anybody can learn to cup coffee.  While I still don't believe I'll ever get to their level, with a little practice it is amazing how many details you can learn to recognize.  Even when I get it "wrong," I still learn a lot.

I think the best part about cupping coffee is the social experience.  Newbies are often hesitant at first but after a few sips of coffee, most people can get quite chatty.  Not only is it a great opportunity to invite over some friends, it's also a great way to gain a new appreciation for coffee.  Be warned though, once you learn to taste the huge number of characteristics in any cup of coffee, you may no longer have a tolerance for that cheap gas station stuff.

19 North

19 North

What exactly is this coffee?  Here are some hints:
  • It is 100% Kona Earth coffee
  • It is a medium-dark (aka full-city) roast
  • It is yummy
Invite some friends over for a coffee cupping event and evaluate the coffee yourself.  Then check back here for the complete desciption of this special 19 North roast.  You can order a single bag of 19 North or save $5 and order a full Evaluation Bundle for the complete cupping experience.

19 North Roast, Half pound $18  
19 North Roast, One pound $35  
Save $5   Three-bag Evaluation Bundle   $54  

Shop for more Kona Earth coffee.

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