An Introduction to Coffee Tasting
“I’m a firm believer that understanding is developed through the act of comparison.”
Coffee tasting—what is it and how does it work?
As with other types of food and drink tastings, the objective of a coffee tasting is to compare the qualities of different samples of the product in question. As part of an ongoing process, coffee tastings allow the taster to build a mental Rolodex of flavors and aromas to facilitate future comparisons.
The full definition is a bit more nuanced. To lay the groundwork for appreciating that complexity, we need to start with a key delineation: the difference between coffee tasting and coffee cupping.
Coffee Cupping vs. Coffee Tasting
Most articles on the topic use the terms cupping and tasting interchangeably, giving the impression that the two are equivalent in connotation. They aren’t.
To frame this in Venn diagram terms: all coffee cuppings are coffee tastings, but not all coffee tastings are coffee cuppings.
This is the part where you say “toe-MAY-toe” and instead of saying “toe-MAH-toe,” I say: “After infusing with water, the crust is left unbroken for at least 3 minutes but not more than 5 minutes. Breaking of the crust is done by stirring 3 times, then allowing the foam to run down the back of the spoon while gently sniffing.”
In other words, coffee cupping is a very standardized set of procedures used within the coffee industry. Cupping protocols are precise and consistent, designed specifically to create a level playing field for comparison.
The official Specialty Coffee Association of America cupping protocols take up a full seven pages. Within those pages are extremely detailed guidelines covering the equipment, the environment (clean, well lit, quiet, comfortable temperature, no interfering aromas, minimal distractions) and the sample preparation (roasting, measuring, preparing and pouring). The evaluation procedures (four out of the seven pages of the protocol) describe the methodology for evaluating the samples based on ten fundamental attributes: Fragrance/Aroma, Flavor, Aftertaste, Acidity, Body, Balance, Uniformity, Clean Cup, Sweetness and Defects. Individual scores for each of these components are compiled in an overall score representative of the evaluation of that sample.
A Field Guide to Identifying Your Coffee Event
To take this discussion from theory to practice—how is a cupping different from a tasting, in practical terms?
To help you identify what type of coffee event you might be at, we offer the following guide:
- If there is a surplus of spoons but no brewing devices in sight, you are probably at a coffee cupping.
- If the majority of the attendees are professional coffee buyers, you are probably at a coffee cupping.
- If there is a table like this one, you are definitely at a coffee cupping.
- If you hear a very loud and very strange slurping sound (best described as a “cloying, grating, revolting cacophony”), we hope you are at a coffee cupping.
- If milk, sugar or other coffee related condiments are offered, or if the coffee is paired with food, you are definitely not at a coffee cupping. Is there more than one type of coffee on offer? Is care being taken to prepare and present these samples in a similar manner? Are comparisons being made between samples? You are probably at a coffee tasting.
(Keeping in mind that if you are at a cupping, it is a tasting, albeit a very specific sort of one. The nomenclature gets a bit confusing here with nested sets.)
What’s in a Name?
“I strongly believe that the rituals and practices of cupping and were not created with the primary goal of tasting the coffee better. Most of cupping’s routine is about searching for potential defect, looking for consistency, and trying to discern as much about the raw material as possible before purchase.”
Returning to the toe-MAY-toe/toe-MAH-toe debate, why does it matter which term you use?
As world champion barista James Hoffmann notes (and as this author strongly concurs), the primary goal of cupping is different than the primary goal of tasting. Cupping is an industry practice. It is a technical process designed, in large part, to highlight flaws and consistency issues with the beans at a bulk scale.
The goals of a tasting are more likely to be education and pleasure. As other authors have noted, cupping represents a clear break from the way in which most of us interact with and enjoy our coffee. Most notably, during a cupping coffee grounds are added directly to the serving vessel, where they spend an extended period of time in contact with the water.
All of the above noted, cupping and tasting are both comparative processes, and both provide opportunities for developing that all important mental Rolodex of flavors and aromas.
Iron Barista: The Cupping Edition
Cupping might not be necessary for a consumer to enjoy coffee, but it absolutely has the potential to be both fun and educational.
Attending a cupping hosted by a local roaster gives a consumer the opportunity to get to know the faces behind the coffee they buy. Having a seasoned professional lead you through a formal process is a lot like having a personal trainer direct you on the moves needed to build certain muscles. It also provides a quiet time (well, quiet outside of the slurping portion) and a contemplative space for sharing knowledge and experiences, which is a critical part of building a local coffee community.
After attending a few, it can be a crazy amount of fun to host a formal cupping at home. (Ask your local roaster to recommend specific samples for this purpose.) Think of this like foodies hosting an Iron Chef-style cooking competition. You might not hit every procedural mark precisely on target, but the attempt gives you a new appreciation for the process.
For more reading on cupping, we recommend:
- A beginner’s guide to cupping
- Cupping: A tasting technique for coffee
- The Coffee Cuppers’ Handbook
- Hosting a Successful Public Tasting
Have you cupped, tasted or both? Share your coffee event experiences with us in the comments below!