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What's up with cupping?

Maybe you’ve heard about a coffee tasting ritual called ‘cupping’. If you haven’t, it’s the traditional way that coffees are scrutinized side-by-side when buying decisions are made. Though an impressive display, cupping is fraught with limitations making it less than ideal as a universal tool for ongoing quality control. Still, there is absolutely a time and place for tasting coffees in this manner.

Professional cuppers are looking for specific things in this process. Some are trained to find ‘defects’ that are the result of harvesting, sorting, or processing issues. Others may simply be looking for a certain cup quality that they need for their customers. In any case, cuppers can end up tasting well over 100 different coffees in one day. The minimalism associated with cupping is what allows for this volume.

HOW IT IS DONE

Measured coarsely ground coffee samples are distributed into either rocks glasses or small soup bowls. Heated water (‘eye-balled’ not measured) is poured directly onto the samples to produce an unfiltered ‘cowboy’ style extraction. After a prescribed amount of time, the brewed coffee is disturbed and any floating grounds are removed with spoons. After the samples cool (usually to around 120 degrees Fahrenheit), the actual tasting will begin. This is done by aggressively slurping from large spoons.

WHAT MAKES A GOOD CUPPER

In traveling to different coffee farms, I discovered that no two cupping tables are the same. Producers will have slightly different roast styles, different grinders, different types of water, and different ratios of coffee to water. What really makes someone a valuable cupper is the ability to recognize quality in spite of these roadblocks. A truth that dovetails well with this is that real quality will shine through, regardless of roasting and brewing variables.

Cupping is more about finding raw material or potential than it is about identifying something that has already been perfected. Many beginners focus primarily on acquiring a large taste vocabulary. Being able to describe what you taste is important but, for a buyer, it is not as important as simply being able to classify a coffee as either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. Most of the time, I am looking for something very specific. I may taste 15 or even 25 coffees before settling on a single ‘yes’.

HOW CUPPING IS MISUSED

Visually, cupping impresses people. It is a window into an exotic and timeless side of a very established industry. I think this is the main reason it is used inappropriately. I only cup when I have no other option. I avoid cupping when the real goal is to explore a few really exciting coffees or test some roast experiments. This can be done much more satisfactorily with a couple pour-over devices or even using an espresso machine. 

Quality control should be a sampling of what we are actually serving customers or what we are asking them to make at home. There is no ‘cowboy coffee from a soup spoon’ on our menus or in our brew guides, so this shouldn’t be how we are keeping in touch with our product.

YOU ARE NOT MISSING OUT

Don’t feel like you have to be a good cupper to be a coffee lover. It just isn’t true. Cupping is an important practice that is indispensable to a buyer but can be very off-putting for those of us who just want to taste a polished beverage derived from layers of intentional craft.

If you have an opportunity, you may enjoy seeing and participating in a cupping just to know how one works. Don’t be surprised if it isn’t what you expected. And don’t be afraid to say you don’t really like the experience. It is a tool for analysis not a method for enjoyment. It is along the lines of watching an oscilloscope instead of listening to a symphony.