From the Beginning...
The appreciation for coffee is not unlike an appreciation for wine - the more you know, the more your experience is enhanced. From plantation to customer, care must be taken - the coffee beans are bought, imported, roasted, flavored, packaged and sold. This care, when taken, ensures that the coffee we drink is a superb, delicious cup of java each time.
Gourmet retailers should buy only the very best Arabica coffees in the world and use only 100% Arabicas for all their varietals, blends, and flavors.
All roasters and most large retailers use a method of tasting the finished coffee product called "cupping." Expert "cuppers" begin by roasting a small batch of the beans. The beans are then ground and placed in a cup. Hot water is poured over the grounds and the cuppers start by checking the aroma of the coffee. The coffee is then tasted. Similar to a true wine tasting, they do not swallow the coffee. It is sucked into the mouth and swished around to get the full variety of notes from the brewed coffee. Then the product is spit into a nearby container.
If done correctly, the coffee bean is cupped multiple times throughout the coffee process; before the lot of green beans is purchase; after delevery of the green beans; after the roasting is complete; and again after the flavoring process (if it is flavored). There is no such thing as cupping the coffee too many times!
Cupping is an art. You must be able to taste 15 to 20 varieties a day without losing the distinctive qualities of each one. Now two cuppers will be exactly the same in their assessment of the finished product, but they should be able to come very close.
"Cupping" Coffee Like the Pros
Cupping teaches you the subtleties of coffee, and it can be an interesting and educational experience. You will need:
- fresh coffee beans
- near-boiling water
- a clean cup (or 8 oz. glass)
- a soup spoon
- a bowl into which you can expel the coffee after you have tasted it.
Grind the coffee you wish to sample, and place two tablespoons of it into your cup. Then add approximately six ounces of near-boiling water. Let the coffee steep for three or four minutes. Now, you're ready to begin.
- There will be a crust on top of the coffee. Place your nose close to the crust, break through it with the spoon, and smell the aroma of the brew.
- Next, "clean" the cup by skimming the grounds from the surface of the coffee with the face of your spoon. (Rinse off the spoon!) Then, slurp some fresh coffee from the spoon while holding it close to you mouth (Professionals use the term "aspirate"). Inhale and slurp in vigorous fashion - You want coffee to spray and cover every surface of your mouth!
- Roll the coffee around in your mouth and over the sides of your tongue. When you have experienced the flavor, body, and acidity of the coffee, spit it out. Try this a couple of times so you can acquire a sense of the coffee.
The process of cupping is much more fun and instructive if you sample and compare two or more coffees at one sitting. Set up the required number of cups, grind the coffees - be sure to rinse you spoon between samples - and have fun!
There are four main characteristics one may notice when cupping or drinking coffee. An excellent blend will exhibit all four and bring them to the taster in a pleasing and well-balanced combination.
The Main Four:
- Not to be confused with bitterness, acidity in coffee brings a pleasant liveliness, sparkle, or snap to the drink that is experienced around the edges of the tongue and towards the back of the mouth. The acidity of a coffee may be assessed as lively, moderate, flat, or dull, and is characteristic of high-grown coffees. A coffee such as Colombian Supremo will exhibit a bright and pleasant acidity, bringing the excellent Colombian flavors to life.
- Aroma is the smell or bouquet of the coffee. It will or will not appeal to your olfactory (smell) senses immediately, and often sets up a level of taste expectation just before the coffee touches your tongue. It should be subtle enough to evoke anticipation, yet not artificial or overpowering. Each coffee's aroma will be unique and distinguishable. Good specialty coffee will exhibit a delicious, complex floral aroma.
- Coffee professionals refer to this as "mouth feel." Take a small mouthful of coffee and move it from the front of your mouth to the back, working it over and through with your tongue. The body is the impression of lightness or of thickness / weight one experiences. Body may be described as: watery, thin, slight, light, medium, full, heavy, thick, syrupy, buttery, oily, rich, smooth, chewy, etc. in texture.
- Flavor refers simply to the taste of the coffee. The tongue interprets the aromatic characterisitcs of the coffee while in the mouth. Flavor experiences with coffee can range from one-dimensional (as in a "straight" or single varietal) to rich and complex (as found in some blends). Look for specific flavor elements described as winy, earthy, sweet, nutty, smoky, spicy, etc.
Some Additional Terms:
Here are some additional terms used is describing coffee. This list is just to give the coffee taster a place to start; It is by no means exhaustive.
- A taste description given to underroasted coffee, or coffee roasted too slowly at too low a temperature, so that the flavor is underdeveloped.
- A harsh, unpleasant taste detected on the back of the tongue. Found in overextracted brews as well as in overroasted coffees and those with various taste defects.
- A bitter, burnt flavor characteristic of dark-roasted coffees.
- Said of an oily body or texture in the mouth. Denotes full flavor and rich feel.
- Opposite of dirty. Characteristic of all fine coffees. Does not necessarily imply clarity of flavor impression (see natural or wild coffee).
- Characteristic sweetish smell of completely stale roasted coffee (see stale).
- An undesirable unclean smell and taste which is slight to pronounced. Dirty implies a defect, such as sourness, earthiness, or mustiness (see natural or wild coffee).
- A dirt odor and flavor taint picked up by coffee when dried on the ground; also called groundy; can be considered desireable or undesireable (see musty).
- A dull lifeless quality due to lack of acidity.
- Opposite of stale. Applies to roasted coffees.
- A flavor said to come from overripe fruit pulp; it can be desirable or undesirable.
- A flavor taint from use of swamp water for washing, or from improper drying (see Growing and Processing).
- Crude raw taste; used to describe certain Brazils and robustas.
- Used to qualify aroma, acidity, or body; a light coffee would be delicate in flavor.
- Full, well-balanced, satisfying coffee; implies low or medium acidity.
- A smell and taste taint caused by mildew; similar to earthy.
- Natural Coffee
- Aroma and flavor characteristics of coffees processed by the dry method (see Growing and Processing). They are often blander than washed coffees, and may lack clarity of flavor and pointed acidity. Some may have intense complex flavors, and a full, thick body. (see wild)
- A characterless, flavorless coffee which is inoffensive to insipid. It is without virtue (safe for economical blending) but without defect. A desireable character in lesser quality robusta and otherwise undistinguished Brazils.
- Said of coffees that lack coffee flavor (also peanutty). Also a specific flavor nuance, suggesting almonds, and so on.
- Indicated depth and complexity of flavor and a full, buttery body.
- Low-acid coffees are described as soft, mellow, and sweet.
- Not to be confused with acidity. A distinctly sour, rank, or rancid taste is a defect, often due to improper processing.
- Said of fine aroma or flavor suggestive of spices.
- Roasted coffee that has faded in quality after excessive exposure to air. Aroma of stale coffee changes from flat to rancid and finally to cocoa-like. The flavor of stale coffee changes from bitter to rancid and tastes cardboardy.
- Said of a smooth, palatable coffee, free from taints or harshness.
- Said of coffees with watery body and lack of flavor. It is typical of low-grown coffees.
- Coffees with extreme flavor characteristics, or odd, tangy nuances in aroma and taste. Usually applied to natural coffees. These characteristics may be intriguing or undesirable. (see dirty)
- Sometimes used to indicate thick body and mellow quality, but also used to denote a snappy, vinous acidity. Characteristic of certain fine coffees.
- A flavor taint caused by overlengthy storage in warm wood sheds. It is also a characteristic scent and taste of old, past-croppish coffees.