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The basics of coffee cupping.

Cupping is essential in determining the quality of coffee. To cup coffee properly one must first understand the nature of coffee. And to do that, a brief history of coffee species and quality criteria is required. This article offers an introduction to the correct process and procedure for cupping coffee.

Coffee is one of the most popular beverages in the world. It's cultivated in over 70 countries, primarily in equatorial Latin America, Southeast Asia, India and Africa. Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora var. robusta are two commercially important cultivated species in the coffee-producing countries. Arabica coffee is well known for its superior beverage quality over Robusta coffee, while Robusta has gained more popularity due to its tolerance to several diseases and pest incidence.

Coffee is a brewed beverage with a distinct aroma and flavor. It is prepared from the roasted beans of the coffee berries. The beans are found in coffee berries that are slightly acidic (pH 5.0-5.1) The liquor prepared out of Arabica beans possesses all the characteristics of a high quality coffee that is globally acceptable, while the other species like canephora, congensis, liberica and the species of low importance could not overtake Arabica in its quality performance. Different species contain various levels of chemical constituents in the coffee beans. Among these, caffeine content in the beans plays a crucial role in quality determination and has a stimulating effect on humans. It is cultivated as a shrub but becomes a tree when untrained.


Green coffee (unroasted) is one of the most important agriculture commodities of commerce in the world. The basic requirement of coffee trading is mainly of its cupping quality and can be measured through the coffee testing. Cup quality is dependent on genetics and environmental factors and the interaction of both. The environmental factors such as climate, soil type, altitude, agronomic practices, post-harvest processing and roasting temperature are undoubtedly responsible for production of quality coffee. Coffee cupping is the practice of observing the tastes and aromas of brewed coffee. It is a professional practice but can be done informally by anyone or by professionals known as "Master Tasters." Since coffee beans embody telltale flavors from the region where they were grown, cuppers often attempt to identify the coffee's origin.

A study done by Zellner and Durlach (2003) used the 'categorization theory' of coffee. In this study, participants were asked to rate 'good' and 'less good' coffee (using canned coffee and gourmet coffee). It found that people who categorized all coffee as 'gourmet' coffee better than ordinary canned coffee. The study concluded that coffee cupping is more essential to distinguishing the original taste and aroma of gourmet coffee but not in coffee cupping in the industrial setup. In this article, yielded information related to the table preparation for coffee cupping, sample preparation, flavor analysis, fragrance analysis and aroma analysis, as well as various descriptors are used to note the aroma, taste and mouth feel during coffee cupping.


Coffee's Organoleptic Quality

Assessing coffee organoleptic (being, affecting, or relating to qualities such as taste, color, odor, and feel) of a substance (as a food or drug) that stimulate the sense organs) quality is a difficult task. When assessing organoleptic quality, one has to take into account that consumers have a specific taste according to their nationality, which leads to an unreliable definition of organoleptic quality. For example, Germans and Swedes prefer coffee lighter and more acidic than Italians.

Organoleptic quality measurement relies overall on sensory evaluation for which two types of analysis are commonly used. The first one, named "hedonic analysis," is used to evaluate the preference of consumers. It has to be performed on a panel of at least 60 spontaneous assessors that represent the population of whose preference is sought. The second method is termed "descriptive analysis." The trained assessors can discriminate coffees using, for example, the triangular test. Three cups of coffee are served, two cups containing the same coffee. The assessor has to determine which cup is unique (expert assessors describe a profile). Since measurement of the composition in 800 aromatic compounds present in roasted coffee is not a viable method to assess coffee organoleptic quality, development of indirect predictors of coffee organoleptic quality is important. These predictor include qualification of chemical compounds present in green coffee (sugar, lipids, proteins, chlorogenic acids and methylxanthines) via traditional wet chemistry method and indirect methods like near infrared spectra.

Coffee Table Preparation

In a coffee cupping session, the table is usually arranged with six to ten cups of coffee, which are fashioned in a triangular manner. A sample of the roasted coffee and a sample of the green coffee is placed at the top of this triangle. In the center of the table, place a cup of room temperature water and an empty cup containing the cupping spoons. Cover both the green sample and roasted sample until the cupping session is over and the coffee aroma, fragrance and flavor profile have been documented separately. After this time, the coffee samples could be uncovered and additional comments can be written based on appearance.

Coffee Sample Preparation

To prepare the coffee samples, place two tablespoons of freshly roasted and freshly ground coffee in a normal tea cup. Ideally one cup should use optimum quantity coffee containing 55g of coffee per liter of water. The grind should be between a French press size and drip coffee size. The coffee should be roasted light. In the industry, roasters often stop the roast about 30 seconds into the first crack long before the start of the second crack. This allows for fully evaluating the coffee for defects, sweetness and aroma that are burned off at darker roasts. The roast should be similar for all of the coffees evaluated. During an important coffee cupping session the roast similarity can be verified visually by grinding a portion of each sample and lining the coffee samples up next to each other on a black sheet of paper.

Coffee Fragrance & Aroma Analysis

First grind the coffee, smell it same time and write down the observations. The smell of the grounds (before water is added) is referred to the fragrance. Then add to hot water to each cup including the cup containing the spoons so that the spoons stay at the same temperature. Smell each cup without disturbing it and write down the initial observations of the coffee aroma.

After one to two minutes, break the crust of the coffee using one of the preheated spoons. Put your nose directly over the cup and push the coffee down. This is the most potent burst of aroma and is the best time to evaluate the coffee aroma. Rinse the spoon in hot water and move to the next sample. After evaluating the aroma of all of the samples, scoop out any grounds that continue to float. Due to the high density of the lightly roasted coffee most of the grounds will sink.

Aroma Descriptors

Smell is one of the larger players in the organoleptic experience. It has two pathways, one is through the nostrils (orthonasally) and the other is up through the throat (retronasally). The following descriptor is used to note the smell or aroma:

* Animal-like aroma--This odor descriptor is somewhat reminiscent of the smell of animals. It is not a fragrant aroma but has the characteristic odor of wet fur, sweat, hides or urine. It is not necessarily considered a negative attribute, but is generally used to describe strong notes.

* Ashy odor--This odor descriptor is similar to that of an ashtray, the odor of smokers' fingers or the smell one gets when cleaning out a fireplace. It is not used as a negative attribute. Generally speaking, this descriptor is used by the tasters to indicate the degree of roast.

* Burnt/Smoky--This odor and flavor descriptor is similar to that found in burnt food. The odor is associated with smoke produced when burning wood. This descriptor is frequently used to indicate the degree of roast commonly found by tasters in dark-roasted or oven-roasted coffees.

* Chemical/Medicinal--This odor descriptor is reminiscent of chemicals, medicines and the smell of hospitals. This term is used to describe coffees having aromas such as rio-flavor, chemical residues or highly aromatic coffees which produce large amounts of volatiles.

* Chocolate Aroma--This aroma descriptor is reminiscent of the aroma and flavor of cocoa powder and chocolate (including dark chocolate and milk chocolate). It is an aroma that is sometimes referred to as sweet.

* Caramel--This aroma descriptor is reminiscent of the odor and flavor produced when caramelizing the sugar without burning it. Tasters should be cautioned not to use this attribute to describe a burning note.

* Cereal/Malty/Toast Aroma--This descriptor includes aromas characteristic of cereal, malt and toast. It includes scents such as the aroma and flavor of uncooked or roasted grain (including roasted corn, barley or wheat), malt extract and the aroma and flavor of freshly baked bread and freshly made toast. This descriptor has a common denominator, a grain-type aroma. The aromas in this descriptor were grouped together since tasters used these terms interchangeably when evaluating standards of each one.

* Earthy--The characteristic odor of fresh, wet soil or hummus. Sometimes associated with molds and reminiscent of raw potato flavor, a common flavor note in coffees from Asia.

* Fruity/Citrusy--This aroma is reminiscent of the odor and taste of fruit. The natural aroma of berries is highly associated with this attribute. The perception of high acidity in some coffees is correlated with the citrus characteristic. Tasters should be cautioned not to use this attribute to describe the aroma of unripe or overripe fruit.

* Grassy/Green/Herbal--This aroma descriptor includes three terms that are associated with odors reminiscent of a freshly mowed lawn, fresh green grass or herbs, green foliage, green beans or unripe fruit.

* Nutty--This aroma is reminiscent of the odor and flavor of fresh nuts (distinct from rancid nuts) and not of bitter almonds.

* Rubber-like--This odor descriptor is characteristic of the smell of hot tires, rubber bands and rubber stoppers. It is not considered a negative attribute but has a characteristic strong note highly recognizable in some coffees.

* Spicy--This aroma descriptor is typical of the odor of sweet spices such as cloves, cinnamon and allspice. Tasters are cautioned not to use this term to describe the aroma of savory spices such as pepper, oregano and Indian spices.

* Winey--This term is used to describe the combined sensation of smell, taste and mouth feel experiences when drinking wine. It is generally perceived when a strong acidic or fruity note is found. Tasters should be cautioned not to apply this term to a sour or fermented flavor.



Coffee Flavor Analysis

Prepared coffee has to be cooled sufficiently. When it is cool enough, spoon some coffee and slurp the coffee strongly to aspirate it over the entire tongue. It is important to aspirate strongly while trying to cover the entire tongue evenly. Aspirating strongly will also cause tiny droplets of coffee to be distributed into the throat and into the nasal passage. The nose can act as another powerful tasting tool. Most of the flavor observed in a coffee is a result of aromatic compounds present in the coffee. This effect can be demonstrated by plugging your nose while drinking coffee. While the nasal passage is blocked, the coffee will likely taste similar to instant coffee due to its lack of aroma. When the nasal passage is opened, a full rainbow of flavors will immediately become evident.

After each coffee taste test, write down the observations of coffee taste, acidity, aftertaste and body. Move to the next cup and try to compare the different cups. As the coffee in each cup cools, it is often possible to detect new flavors. Therefore, it is important to cup a coffee when it is both warm and when it has cooled to just above room temperature. The best coffees will have positive characteristics at both ranges of temperature. If cupping is more than a couple cups of coffee, it is advisable to spit out the coffee after evaluation. When cupping several coffees, it is possible to have too much caffeine, which can adversely alter your cupping ability.


Coffee Taste Descriptors

The following descriptor is used to note coffee taste:

* Acidity--A basic taste characterized by the solution of an organic acid. A desirable sharp and pleasing taste particularly strong with certain origins as opposed to an over-fermented sour taste.

* Bitterness--A primary taste characterized by the solution of caffeine, quinine and certain other alkaloids. This taste is considered desirable up to a certain level and is affected by the degree of roast-brewing procedures.

* Sweetness--This is a basic taste descriptor characterized by solutions of sucrose or fructose which are commonly associated with sweet aroma descriptors such as fruity, chocolate and caramel. It is generally used for describing coffees which are free from off-flavors.

* Saltiness--A primary taste characterized by a solution of sodium chloride (NaCl2) or other salts.

* Sourness--This basic taste descriptor refers to an excessively sharp, biting and unpleasant flavor (such as vinegar or acetic acid). It is sometimes associated with the aroma of fermented coffee. Tasters should be cautious not to confuse this term with acidity which is generally considered a pleasant and desirable taste in coffee.

Coffee Mouth Feel Descriptors

Various descriptions are used to note the mouth feel of coffee:

* Body--Used to describe the physical properties of the beverage. A strong but pleasant full mouth feel characteristic as opposed to being thin. To an amateur coffee taster, body can be compared to drinking milk. A heavy body is comparable to whole milk while a light body can be comparable to skim milk.

* Astringency--An after-taste sensation consistent with a dry feeling in the mouth, undesirable in coffee.

The Key to Becoming a Good Cupper

The key to coffee cupping is practice and humility. The best "master tester/cuppers" are modest and always eager to learn more. Cupping of coffee should be fun and interesting, but not a contest of who is more articulate. On the other hand, description should be more substantial than reiteration of a textbook definition of coffee cupping. Despite the strict, scientific-like protocol to coffee cupping, the method followed in the industry is quite varied and almost every good cupper has his own permutation. The secret to becoming a good coffee cupper is simple: practice regularly, trust yourself and be humble enough to continue to learn.

K. Elavarasan is the lead author on this piece. He is an extension inspector with the Govt, of India, Regional Coffee Research Station, Coffee Board, in Thandgudi. He may be reached at: The other contributing authors, also with the Govt, of India, Regional Coffee Research Station, Coffee Board in Thandgudi, are S. Soundara Rajan, Department of Plant Pathology, asst, plant pathologist; A. Manoharan, Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics, plant breeder; and Anil Kumar, deputy director of research.
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Title Annotation:COFFEE CUPPING
Author:Elavarasan, K.; Kumar, A.; Manoharan, A.; Rajan, S. Soundara
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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