First official attempt at coffee cupping

14 May
I know how cupping should be done; I know that I am supposed to use very small samples of single origin green coffee beans, roasted to order to a light Vienna or half-City roast. I should then grind these to French Press level – not too coarse, not too fine. Then I have to smell it. Then I add boiled water straight on top of the beans, and allow it to cool and for the grinds to settle. After that I break the ‘crust’ – that is, all the grinds still forming a skin on the surface of the liquid, with my trusty Cupping Spoon, smell it again, then slurp it off the spoon, and slosh it round my mouth. Unlike wine tasting, I have to swallow it, because I am also supposed to record the aftertaste as well. After washing mouth out with water, I am supposed to repeat this with many different types of coffee from many different origins. There are people who are paid to do this. These people, be it unwittingly in some cases, hold a great deal of power: if they don’t like the flavours and aromas of the coffees they’ve cupped, it doesn’t command a high price globally. Given the state of the gree coffee market at the moment, this can actually mean life or death, survival or starvation for the farmers.

Not wishing to demonstrate any signs of hubris, I am not going to ‘cup’ in this manner. Mainly because I can’t – I have no access to green beans, single origin or otherwise. I have no roasting machine. I do not have a grinder of sufficient quality. Also, pouring hot water on to coffee grounds does not for a pleasant drink make, anyway. And finally, because I sincerely doubt anyone really cares what I think of coffee.

Instead, what I have got is independent-coffee-shop house blend, called Mokarabia. It’s an 100% arabica blend, from Costa Rica and Mexico. Espresso roasted – that is, very dark, the grinds are almost black, and still shiny with oils. (which is unusual for 100% arabica). This roast has less of the sweetness and caffeine, and more of the smoky, heavy flavours, designed to make good, Italian style espresso. I am putting it in my little French Press pot – a cafetiere to anyone who isn’t American. This means that the coffee is squashed through the hot water and reserved. I won’t get the ‘crust’ to break through as I would with traditional cupping, but this method does at least produce a palatable cup of coffee!!

At first sniff, the ground coffee smells delicious. Not a strong, overpowering smell – though this is possibly because it is not freshly ground. It is sweet, like melting black chocolate, but the smell in the air is more vanilla and caramel. It is almost synthetic, far more like the blasphemous Frappe Lattes at Caffe Nero, where the tiniest amount of espresso is drowned in a pint of milk and blended with vanilla-sugar powder. To me, this would make a good after-dinner coffee, possibly with a shot of rum in it.

Pouring on the hot water releases a whole new array of smells; not very pleasant ones, either. Very acrid and slightly bitter, and smoky to the point of being burnt. Hot rubber: like burning tyres from a distance. You know it’s there but it’s not choking. Nothing like the scent of the grounds on their own, but also nothing like the scent you are supposed to perfume your home with to lure estate agents….

Pressing it and pouring it rids it of unpleasant burnt aromas, it is still smoky but with a savoury, nutty tone. On first taste, there are walnut notes, a slight metallic base. The flavour is acidic but not heavy. A big slurp (and I like doing this) results in a full, strong but bright flavour – ‘clean’ in that it doesn’t cling round the mouth, and there are some hints of the fruity black chocolate that the original smell promised. The aftertaste is nicely bitter but floral – to me, it tastes like eating dandelion stalks. It does not linger too long.

Interestingly, in swigging this (8oz cup, black, unadulterated), I still get the little buzz of the stimulants. I know that this blend/roast would rid the coffee of most of its natural caffeine, so maybe it is psychological. The colour and the fragrance give the impression that this is strong coffee, and guzzling any hot liquid quickly and actually concentrating on the drink must focus and stimulate the brain a little!

Such is my first recorded tasting. I don’t think I’ll be indulging in this experiment again. As with any food critiquing, identifying flavours and fragrances has a tendency to sound highly pretentious. Also, I don’t think it says anything useful about the coffee. Dandelions, metallic notes, burning tyres, bitter black chocolate, smoke, acidity… none of them sound particularly appealing! Overall, the coffee tastes good. It tastes like Good Coffee. I may not be a supertaster, with my tongue honed and trained to pick up every little subtlety, but then, that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate coffee. I certainly drink enough of it. Personally, although finding these flavours is interesting, and testing my taste ability is a new experience, I can’t see much use in being able to pronounce a coffee ‘floral’ or ‘acidic’ or even why I should want to!


Posted by on May 14, 2008 in Uncategorized


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2 responses to “First official attempt at coffee cupping

  1. swag

    May 15, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    There’s a reason people get paid for cupping — it’s unglamorous work done largely to detect defects. So why did you want to do a cupping? It’s not analogous to wine tasting, despite what some yucks might tell you. You wouldn’t want to do your own meat inspection — examining pig carcasses for lesions, TB, and all — so why cupping?

    A simple comparative tasting sounds like a much more enjoyable and education option for you.

  2. Bel

    May 15, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    It’s cos I’m studying the coffee industry at uni at the moment. The cuppers employed by the major coffee roasting companies actually have a huge amount of power, controlling what coffee is imported from which regions etc and then how it is marketed to us.
    You are right, it’s not like wine tasting, but it is a form of grading and judging, and it just astounds me that a huge global industry like this is based on such a subjective way of sampling.


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