What is cupping? - How We Taste and Grade Coffee

It’s Friday morning at the Boomtown Roastery, and trays of coffee are set out in the lab.  There are five cups—well, more like five small, white bowls—per tray.  Each tray is set up in the same way, with the cups in an M-shaped formation.  There’s a motley crew of coffee professionals and enthusiasts with clipboards and spoons in hand.

It’s cupping day.

Cupping is used by coffee producers, importers, roasters, and baristas to taste and evaluate coffee as objectively as possible.  For us at Boomtown, it’s used as an efficient way to perform quality control, to grade (and decide to purchase) samples sent to us from all over the world, and to train our staff to improve their sensory abilities—which translates into being able to talk to our guests better about our different offerings and improves our quality at the café.

 
 

The Process

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CUPPING COFFEE WITH HTX COFFEE COLLECTIVE

Cuppings with other coffee professionals helps us stay calibrated with the industry. Plus, it’s really fun to get everyone together!

The entire process is relatively simple.  At every cupping we:

1.       Smell the coffee grounds

2.       Pour hot water on the grounds to begin the brewing process

3.       Break the crust that forms on top with the back of the spoon and smell the aroma

4.       Skim the coffee grounds that are floating on top

5.       Taste each cup of coffee, rinsing your tasting spoon between each sip

6.       Meet together and discuss scores, tasting notes, and our general opinions on the coffee.

You might notice — we don’t filter the grounds out when we do cuppings. They sink to the bottom of each bowl, and we taste just the liquid using spoons. You might notice that we don’t talk about scores until the end of the cupping — it’s important not to sway each other’s scores by sharing your thoughts. Even if a coffee tastes surprisingly good or bad, it’s best to keep a poker face on so that people that taste after you don’t come in with a bias.

The Spoon (and the Slurp)

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When tasting coffee, cuppers use bowl-shaped spoons and slurp the coffee (loudly and forcefully!) to aerate the coffee across their tongues.  From the outside-looking-in, it definitely looks and sounds odd.

The Cupping Form

The cupping form is where we score coffee on a standardized scale—with points usually ranging from 6-10 in ten different categories such as Fragrance/Aroma, Flavor, Body, Acidity, and Balance.  These scores get summed together to get a final score, usually in the 80-90 range. Boomtown coffees probably score around the 83-87 points, with coffees scoring above being absolutely special. We also record tasting notes, ranging from earthy, herbaceous flavors, to fruit and floral notes, to browning sugar and caramel, all the way to ashy, rubber, and metallic (hopefully we don’t have to taste too much of that last lot!).

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We do several passes on the table, as we can perceive more nuanced flavors as the cups cool.

“But!” you might say, “aren’t things like fragrance and flavor up to interpretation?”  That’s true.  Everyone has an inherent bias towards certain flavors.  Some people just prefer certain flavors over others.  Or, some people might have a special nostalgia related to specific aromas (such as mom’s homemade banana bread or the smell of honeysuckle that grew in your neighborhood park growing up). However, the Boomtown team strives to be in sync with one another so that scores can come up—surprisingly—close.  In fact, the whole point of cupping is to try and develop a grading system as-close-to-objective as we can get. We utilize a cupping app called Cropster to log our scores — here are some charts of the roasting crew’s scores across several cupping sessions:

 
 
 

It might not be super clear what these graphs show; the red and blue dots are scores that Dean and I have recorded in our cupping app. A lot of them overlap very closely, and places where it looks like only one dot is present means we scored the coffee exactly the same. I wouldn’t say that Dean and I have some special talent for tasting things. But I would say that we do cuppings together regularly enough that we should be able to grade coffees very similarly. In the coffee industry, this is called being “in calibration”. And it’s up to us to do cuppings with other people such as Q Graders and green coffee importers so that we can be in calibration with other coffee professionals.

What’s Next?

So what do we do with our cupping scores?

  • If a sample scores really well, we might choose to buy it in a larger quantity and put it on Boomtown’s shelves.

  • We can experiment with different roast profiles on the same coffee — a certain coffee could score really well on a darker roast level, and score really poorly on a lighter roast level. This kind of experimentation informs our final product.

That’s cupping! Did you know about cupping before reading this article? Have you participated in one yourself? Would you like to see Boomtown host one for the public? Let us know in the comments below, or email info@boomtowncoffee.com!

<3 Chris Porto