Cupping. Not the high school dance kind. The other kind. – by Aaron De Lazzer

Ok, ok all cheap attempts to drive readership to the blog. But who am I kidding, readers of this blog are not the lowest common denominator attracted to such suggestive turns of phrase.

To the business at hand, cupping coffee is the kind of cupping I’m referring to today.

Have you heard the term “cupping coffee” before?

Have you been roped into trying it? Had it pitched as an important step in your ascendency as a Foodie? Of course I know a there are always a couple of kinky Foodies who will try anything once.

If yes then bravo. You join a select crowd of contemporary individuals. Of course not everyone can be expected to be so painfully current as to have tried cupping coffee. Some out there are still waiting to attend their first wine tasting….so let’s back up a bit.

Cupping coffee is a process done by coffee professionals to evaluate coffees. To taste them critically for some purpose. The highest purpose (I might humbly suggest) is to make a decision about what coffee to BUY.

The process is disarmingly simple, although informed by a very strict protocol. Small 5oz glasses are loaded with an exact weight of coffee, ground specifically . Water is poured at a precise temperature, before letting the coffee steep for exactly 3 minutes. It is then smelled, stirred and slurped. It is tasted and evaluated.

There are no phones or computers in the room. Everyone is scent neutral. There is no talking. The environment has the air of sitting an English exam. Respectfully quiet, intensely focused. On more formal or professional occasions a score sheet is used to articulate the tasters impressions and ultimately to arrive at a score out of 100-much like wine. Cool.

The process can also (and to my chagrin does) take place casually where no score sheets are used and it would seem the end goal is to provide the most scathing criticism imaginable to some coffees-so beneath the cupper’s good taste they verge on personal insult. In contrast, I often to refer to these coffees as the “merely good” coffees. They are often sound, clean coffees if a bit simplistic. They neither clamour for your attention nor do they beguile with obvious charms. They are however easy to live with and easy to drink.

Other coffees are lauded to the heavens with a rapturous outpouring of praise and superlatives that are limited only by one’s imagination. The more far out the descriptive tasting term (Sage blossom, Satsuma orange, Tea tree oil…) the better. What’s important is that you are sincere in your delivery. Done well, everyone will believe you actually tasted “Satsuma Orange” and re-visit the coffees in search of your attractively described discoveries

This casual process of bringing coffee cupping into the mainstream has become a popular method for the average coffee drinker to get a snapshot  of this unique process that is typically practiced by only a handful of folks tucked away into quiet corners of coffee roasteries across the land.

Is their any benefit to introducing the casual coffee drinker to cupping coffee? Perhaps.

They may gain insight into the coffees and have a palate enrichment experience. There may be some vocabulary expansion and an opportunity to use descriptive terms you might never normally exercise. Perhaps gain sympathy for those who do this for a living. At the very least, you’ll have an interesting topic of conversation at the next dinner party.

All of this sounds pretty cool, pretty harmless. It also totally misses the point of why this is done.

As an aside, a lot of folks introduced this way, realistically will only ever do this once. Cupping once or infrequently…you gain just enough knowledge to be dangerous. Too often cupping ends up being  critique for the sake of critique. Both self-congratulatory and purposeless at the same time.

So what is the primary purpose of cupping? It’s a process to evaluate coffees with the ultimate end of deciding what to buy and then buying it! (yes I am raising my voice.:)

Read that line again. It’s that important.

Coffee buyers cup coffee. Imagine you’re a coffee buyer.  You need coffee. You’re cupping the coffees…, which one are you going to buy? Decide. Buy.

The blowhards who often make the most noise at casual cuppings wouldn’t buy anything, ever, because nothing is ever good enough. And so set against the backdrop of their often very articulate and colourful crucifying of coffee A vs. coffee B, it becomes utterly meaningless.

My new favourite line that captures the reality of coffee buying and in turn coffee cupping is the following:

“Some decisions are not based on perfection but necessity”

Let that soak in for a sec.

Sure, in a perfect world there are just reams of very obvious great choices and very obvious bad choices. There are no supply issues, no late deliveries that you need to cover, no less than fantastic arrivals…

To the casual participant or the barista who cups coffee as a matter of fact it is very easy to line up coffees from one or multiple roasters, bang your way through them and wonder aloud what sort of sensory deprived jack-a-monkey at Roaster Y decided to buy this coffee?

Ah, now see that’s an interesting question. Why DID someone buy these coffees? Rather than a pure critique of what you’ve tasted that has left you wanting, consider that someone, somewhere did make a decision and brought it in for a reason.

Is what you’ve tasted just not to your liking? Perhaps the coffee is sound but there is a difference of personal preference between you and the “cupper” who brought in. Does it taste a bit rough? Perhaps the ongoing high price of coffee is incentivizing producers to throw anything in a bag vs. fussing over and shipping a quality cup. In turn, the overall selection of what is available is lower..

Have I seen it all? Hardly, but I have seen enough to desire to bring some perspective to cupping coffee.  Enough that when called upon to introduce someone to the process I bring an infectious enthusiasm for the process but couch it in some real world perspective.

If you get a chance to cup coffee, jump on it.

If you never cup again, may it have been a fondly remembered experience. More importantly if you do cup again, may it be with an enthusiasm tempered by a smidge of knowledge-not enough to be dangerous but rather just enough to be sympathetic.



4 Responses:
  • Aaron – another great article. Do coffee buyers have a set vocab they use when they cup those bizarre hipsters monkey pooped on coffee? The language of coffee cupping puts me in mind of the single malt crowd and I’ve always questioned the appeal of an appellation w/”tinges of iodine and a hint of tobacco.”

  • Johannes

    very nice article, I enjoyed your take a lot!
    it reminded me of when I was in Hawaii, the only place in the US where coffee is actually grown. hawaiian Kona coffee is known as very expensive, but there are many other great choices. I visited a farm on the Big Island, where you can tour their whole premises through the fields and houses etc. Afterwards, they had about 15 different brews ready to taste. It was quite a lovely time, sitting on the patio in the most beautiful landscape enjoying the various coffees. I didnt critique much. I tried to grasp their individual taste. I bought 3 that i liked the most.
    I dont know when ill get to cup again, but i know it will be quite pleasant.

  • Thank-you everyone for the kind words, your comments and stopping by.

    MTM, So glad you could join us! Thanks for reading.

    j2,some folks resurrect terms like “soft, strictly soft (both terms which mean “sweet”), fine cup, good cup, poor cup.” Straight up simple language is often best. I’m partial to words like “clean, sweet, solid.” If there are additional impressions of a coffee I’ll share those too but the highest praise is making the decision that a coffee will work and buying it. You are absolutely right about the serious single malt crowd (or wine or beer…etc.) Some of the descriptions are fun and certainly can be on point but it can very quickly become a bit too precious and far out for my tastes.

    Johannes, thanks for sharing your experience. There is nothing quite like being where the coffee is grown and experiencing the range of tastes/impressions different coffee can have. There are some lovely coffees from that part of the world, especially from some of the smaller, boutique producers that really fuss over the details. It should also be said that EVERYTHING tastes better when you’re in Hawaii. 🙂
    At least that’s been my experience.

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