"Breaking Grounds" with Coffee Cuppings


What does "cupping" have to do with coffee?  If you do an Internet search for the term “cupping,” the top hits are for things that don’t have much to do with coffee. But once you make it past graphic tales of the traditional Chinese skin therapy (and the open letter to Michael Phelps to stop doing it), you’ll find our friends at the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) use “cupping” to describe standards and protocol for assessing coffee quality.

We often say in our shops that a customer’s impression of coffee quality depends on the customer’s preferences. So we try to figure out what kind of flavor profile a customer’s looking for based on six primary flavor categories (which correspond to the SCAA’s identification of over 100 particular flavors, as discussed in our last blog post).

But in choosing to source and roast varietals that bring out those flavor attributes, coffee professionals rely on cuppings to compare, evaluate, and rate different coffees by smell and by taste.  The higher the rating, the “better” the coffee in objective terms.  During each cupping, coffee importers and roasters follow a rigorous process that helps them focus on assessing various characteristics, such as fragrance, aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, and body. 

So what does the choreography of a cupping actually look like? It begins with freshly ground beans, sniffed for indications of “fragrance.” Water pours over the grounds, and the wet coffee is smelled again for “aroma.” At both junctures, the nose is looking for specific analogies, and trying to determine whether a coffee's presentation is pungent or muted.

Then, the tasting begins. The first slurp (yes, you must slurp!) should yield an evaluation of “flavor,” again by analogy. The focus progresses to “aftertaste,” which requires deliberation about how clean a cup of coffee is and how long the flavor lingers in the mouth.  Up next is “acidity,” which tasters might distinguish in terms of fruit such as orange or lemon (citric acid), or green apple or pear (malic acid). Finally "body,” also known as mouthfeel, is the concept for assessing how heavy or light a coffee tastes, similar to the way in which whole milk feels "heavier" than skim milk.

Coffee cuppings aren’t just for connoisseurs––anyone can participate! Our coffee educators regularly offer free cuppings that are open to the public so that customers can learn how to taste coffee and develop a flavor palate. Every Friday at 10:00 am, join us at our shop in Pentagon City––all you need to do is RSVP to hold your spot, and we’ll look forward to walking you through it!

RSVP by clicking here. Happy cupping!

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