The process coffee roasters use to check the flavors in coffee beans is called “cupping.” First, the beans are lightly roasted to highlight topnotes and any flaws. In traditional cupping, the coffee is ground and put in the bottom of a cup. Since aroma determines much of the flavor of any coffee, sniffing the ground coffee is the first step.
Then water is poured over the ground coffee and the cupper sniffs again. The aroma changes, new fragrances may appear and the balance of aromas often shifts.
As shown in the picture above, after the coffee has steeped for 4 minutes, the cupper takes two deep sniffs and a very slurpy sip. The sniffs are because so much of flavor is smell. The sip is slurpy because tastebuds range across the tongue, and it's important for the coffee to spray across as much of the tongue as possible. Theoretically, cuppers spit out the coffee once they've tasted it. Personally, I can never resist the urge to swallow.
Formal cuppers break the coffee's flavor into ten aspects, judging it on its aroma (dry and wet), how bright, sweet or clean the coffee tastes, its body and mouth-feel, etc. They even check how uniform the flavor remains, sip to sip. Formal cupping scores the coffee like wine tasting scores wine. Each aspect is given a score from 0-10. The perfect (and unattainable) score is 100. Specialty Grade coffees (the top 2%) score 85 and above.
At Coffee by the Roast®, we prefer a more analogue approach to judging our coffees. We keep the numbers in mind, but are more interested in the subtleties of flavor. To focus on that, we concentrate on five distinct qualities:
The coffee's aroma, both before and after hot water's added
The brightness (topnotes) of the coffee. That burst of flavor when the coffee hits the tongue.
The coffee's body. Its viscosity and how it feels in the mouth.
The coffee's flavor. Here's where we get into details. Is the coffee sweet or rich? What are the predominate notes? Lively topnotes, rich middle notes or deep bottom notes? How do they combine? Does the coffee taste buttery or like chocolate? Are there fruit notes, apple or peach, berry or lemon? How about dried fruit or candy? Herbs or spice? Maybe a hint of wild flowers or roses? The possibilities are almost endless.
The coffee's finish. Is there a flavor that lingers on the tongue? Is it clean, rich or sweet . Is it unpleasant, bitter or sour?
We always end with comments, our overall impression of the coffee.
This may look complicated. That's because it is. To give an example of how our process works, here are the combined notes our cupping team put together for Colombia Traditional, Los Naranjos de San Agustin.
Aroma (dry): Rich and Nutty
Aroma (wet): Very rich and “dense.” Hazelnut and/or walnut. Apricot and fig notes.
Brightness: Soft acidity, medium to medium-high brightness
Body: Smooth and creamy, medium body (except for one cupper who thought the body was closer to medium-light).
Flavor: Rich. Big middle with some balancing top and bottom notes. Tropical fruit and flowers. A hint of dark cherry. Chocolate notes (rich chocolate, not milk or Bakers).
Finish: Clean and rich. Lingers pleasantly.
The comments were variations on, “Very nice coffee,” “Great Colombian,” and “I like it a lot.” One cupper went on to say he thought it would be particularly good with desserts, particularly Black Forest Cake or Linzer Torte.
You can see why we decided to buy this coffee. But we're not done yet. We still need to roast it.
Next time on A Matter of Taste, The Roast
(Photo courtesy of Cafe Imports)