Coffee Tasting for the Non-Coffee Geek

Coffee beans

Relax and let your senses do the work!

Ever wonder how the coffee you drink gets picked to be sold in the first place?  Well maybe you are not that inquisitive but I am going to tell you anyway.  Who knows, maybe you are just looking for a way to get more sophisticated and being a coffee geek is on the top of your list.  If so, this is how you can impress friends after your coffee-food pairing dinner parties.  Go for it!

Cupping is the fancy way we say tasting.  So if you are taste testing coffee, you are cupping it.  You want to start with about 7-8 grams of coffee beans, thermometer, about 5oz water, grinder, soup spoon, cup and a desire for java.  Grind the coffee coarsely; it should look flakey.  You can ‘snort’ the grounds to smell the ‘fragrance’.  Place the grounds in a shallow cup; a typical 6oz ‘rocks’ glass works great but you can use any mug or cup that is about 6oz.  You do not want it any larger due to the ability to easily spoon out the sample to cup and for capacity reasons.  The measurements given here are best for cupping.

Boil your water to between 190 and 200 degrees.  Pour the hot water over the fresh grounds and stir with a spoon so the water totally saturates the coffee and let it steep for about 3 minutes.  Snort it again as it is steeping.  Smell the ‘aroma’?  When the time is up place your nose over the cup again and break the ‘crust’ of the grounds with a spoon by stirring to let the full force of the aroma come out.  Then smell the foam running down the spoon.  Yes!  Mmmmm that is what I’m talking about now!  Remove the grounds with your spoon and discard.  You are going to love what comes next.

Now for the tasting part, ready?  As the coffee cools to about 160ºF, you can begin cupping.  Slurp it!  Yes, slurp it!  Put the spoon in, take out a spoonful of liquid like it is soup and slurp it.  This is done so as the coffee enters your mouth it’s immediately dispersed evenly on your tongue, roof, and sides.  This will enable you to get the complete mouth feel.  Let it roll all over your tongue.  If you slide your tongue along the roof of your mouth you will feel the weight of the coffee.  Feel the nasal sensations by swallowing and exhaling through your nose.  Oh that’s nice!

Now in the professional coffee cupping world we would ‘rate’ the coffee.  We would put samples of the raw green coffee beans and roasted coffee beans out on the cupping table.  We use an intensity scale and our personal preferences to rate.  All rating is done on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being the lowest and 10 the highest.  If you then add up all the numbers, you get the final score.  Each farmer and wholesale coffee broker is hoping for a perfect score of 100 but that is very rare.

When we rate the coffee we rate on the following:

  • Fragrance – that is how the coffee smells before the water is added.  The stronger the smell, the fresher the sample.
  • Aroma – the smell after the water is added.  Stronger and pleasing smell, the higher the score.
  • Acidity – this is the relative brightness of the coffee.  Pleasing would be a sharp sweetness scoring a 10 all the way to musty and sour (not too good!) for a score of 1.
  • Body – rub your tongue against the roof of your mouth and feel the coffee as a liquid.  If it’s thick and syrupy (Ideal) it would be a score of 10.  If it’s thin it would be a score of 1.  Thus anywhere in between.
  • Aftertaste – the longer the taste or aroma sensations remain in your mouth the higher the score.
  • Flavor – excellent would score a 10, poor obviously a 1.  Flavor is a combined impression of all the taste bud sensations and retro-nasal aromas that go from the mouth to nose.
  • Balance – if some of the attributes are overpowering or lacking, the score is reduced.
  • Sweetness – Sweetness refers to a pleasant fullness of flavor as well as any obvious sweetness.
  • Clean cup – any non-coffee-like tastes disqualify the cup.
  • Uniformity – several samples of one roast should be cupped and if they differ in any way a lower score will be given.
  • Overall – This is how the cup is perceived by the cupper because even a high scoring cup may not be a pleasant one.  This could be the personal enjoyment of the cup.
  • Defects – poor flavors that detract from the quality of the coffee. They would either be a taint, that is an off-flavor that is noticeable, but not overwhelming or a fault.  A fault is an off-flavor that is either overwhelming or makes the sample unpalatable.  The latter would be a lower score.

So in all if the final score is 90-100, you have an “Outstanding” cup; 85-89.99 is considered “Excellent”; 80-84.99 would be “Very good”; and 80 and below is “Below Specialty Coffee”.  Next time you buy coffee beans, think about cupping a sample.  Now you may not be grading your cups but if you do try cupping, it will open up a world of sensory perceptions you probably didn’t even know you had.  Cheers!

I roast and sell coffee, plain and simple.  If you like the best coffee at great prices come and get your coffee beans!


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