Why Cupping Makes You a Better Coffee Drinker: How to Set Up an At-Home Cupping
As someone who grew up drinking coffee with a quarter cup of Coffeemate in every mug, I couldn’t quite believe baristas when they said they tasted lemongrass or lilies or walnuts in a cup of black coffee or an espresso.
When I started to cut back on sugar (and told French Vanilla to bon voyage) and brew my own coffee at home, I could begin to taste the subtle notes I had so easily dismissed as another way to market coffee. In the practice of cupping and mindful tasting, I began to trust my palette and develop a keener sense of flavors emerging in coffee, and began to enjoy simple, black coffee all the more.
What is a cupping?
In order to grade coffees to then purchase from farmers, coffee buyers will participate in a cupping. It’s really quite simple. Brew some coffee in some small cups and sip it with spoons, then talk about what you taste and feel in your mouth.
The grading process buyers use to determine the quality of a specific coffee is extensive and detailed, but for our own purposes we are only going to talk about cupping at home for the pleasure of challenging your palette.
All you need are 2-3 cupping bowls and two spoons. If you have a coffee-curious roommate you want to cup coffee with, (which I highly recommend as you can bounce notes off one another) purchase one additional spoon.
Choose coffees with different profiles as well as different origins
Set up your cupping with 2-3 coffees you’re interested in trying; go to some of your local roasters and pick up any coffees that stand out to you based on their profiles. Better yet, ask your barista what their favorite new coffee is, and why. Tell them you’re cupping coffees and want a variety.
Use this experiment-time to pick up coffees with flavors you might not normally try. Maybe you don’t love the idea of grapefruit or bourbon notes in your coffee, but if you haven’t ever actually tasted these flavors in coffee, something bright and boozy might just be the perfect counter to a solid medium roast with almond and chocolate notes.
Once you have your coffees at home, you can hold your coffee-seance.
- Do your best to avoid wearing any strong perfumes or hair spray whilst cupping. Don’t use this time to cook chili or burn sage. You don’t want your nose to be distracted while you try and taste blueberry skin or notes of rye, trust me.
- Make sure you have a coffee flavor wheel, preferably a hard-copy. This will help you navigate your mouth’s spinning compass as the coffee aerates itself all over your mouth and sends your tongue and nose interesting, and maybe confusing, sensory input.
- Next, boil your water to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. There are varying opinions on ratios for coffee-to-water in the cupping process, though 8.25 grams to 115mL of water is a good place to start.
- While the water heats up, grind the beans at a medium-coarse setting. (It should look / feel similar to coarse sea salt.) Note: Once your coffee is ground, make sure you keep tabs on what coffee is in which bowl by labeling the bottom of the bowl with tape/sharpie or making little note cards for yourself. (Tasting blind is fun but not necessary!)
- Fill each cup with about 8.25 grams of ground coffee.
- Fill one of the three cupping bowls with only hot water to rinse your spoons between tasting coffees. Fill the other two by making a spiral motion with your kettle spout to coat all the grounds evenly.
- Wait 4 minutes for the coffee to bloom.
- Finally, this is where it gets extra nerdy: break the crust (which you might recognize from making French press) by placing your spoon on top of the grounds and pressing down gently. Remove most of what looks bright and bubbly on top with your spoon. (This reduces bitterness.)
Sip like a fool
Last but not least, sip like you’re trying to wake up your roommate, and trust yourself.
A loud sip is produced by truly aerating the coffee and therefore “getting more out of it.”
If you don’t believe it, try tasting without the loud, slurpy sip and notice the difference. The coffee needs some oxygen in order to reveal itself to your mouth. Sip obnoxiously.
Talk to your mouth
Just because you don’t taste everything the bag’s label says right away doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing it wrong. You might taste things differently than the roaster who chose the notes, and that’s just proving the coffee has a range of flavors.
Point to anywhere on the coffee wheel and use the process of elimination to determine what you’re tasting. If your finger lands on “sweet pea,” but you don’t taste anything that specific, use the other flavors on that section of the wheel to determine if you’re in the right realm of flavor. Is the coffee earthy or vegetal like a sweet pea? If not, try another place on the wheel. Follow this process and use the adjectives at the bottom of the wheel to guide you. Is there sweetness? Brightness? Is it floral or citrus-y? The more you “try on” different flavors, the more you can home in on what you’re really tasting. It’s like having a conversation with your taste buds.
Take notes on coffee A and then move onto coffee B. By the time you’ve developed a sense of coffee A, the notes of coffee B should stand out even more.
The more you taste, the more you develop your palette. Being able to taste the subtle notes brings a whole new level of excitement to being a coffee drinker and home-brewer. Enjoy!