Much like a formal wine tasting, professional coffee graders can leave first-timers feeling a little bewildered by the specialised and seemingly whimsical tasting terminology that is thrown around: “Caramel, with hints of clementine and green grape finish.”
A hint of nuttiness, maybe – but green grapes, really?
Distinguishing between complex flavour profiles may at first feel impossible, but training your palate simply takes practice.
“The more we consciously expose ourselves to the different flavours and attributes of coffee, the more skilled you become at distinguishing between flavour profiles,” says Beau Nimnual, Langdon Coffee Merchant’s sensory expert.
Aside from the pure enjoyment of tasting a beautiful, natural product, cupping is a formalised methodology for tasting, evaluating and calibrating coffee beans’ quality.
“Cupping is central to how we build trusting, long term relationships with suppliers and customers,” she explains, “It gives us a standardised understanding of what defines ‘quality’ and how to talk about characteristics of the coffee.”
The Coffee Flavour Wheel
Before you go to your first cupping, Beau advises printing off a coffee flavour wheel and familiarising yourself with some of the more common coffee flavours: “Lay out a selection of flavours and work your way through smelling and tasting each – maybe start with lemon, grapefruit, orange, green apples, raspberries, 70% dark chocolate, salted nuts, and butter biscuits.”
Beau also recommends practicing with the Le Nez du Cafe kit, if you have one handy, and keeping notes on what you’re smelling and tasting, for example: aromatics, flavours, mouthfeel, aftertaste, taints.
“It’s a good habit to get into for cupping and always refer back to the flavour wheel and the Le Nez du Cafe to get used to the categories.”
You can find the SCA flavour wheel here.
How a cupping works?
As an importer of green beans, cupping is central to the quality programme at Langdon Coffee Merchants and is therefore a disciplined and serious process.
Beau explains: “Cupping provides the framework to assess and then articulate the quality of our green beans to customers. We cup ‘pre-shipment samples’ before coffee goes ‘afloat’, upon ‘arrival’, and then routinely to track the quality.”
At LCM, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) standard is used to cup ‘blind’, i.e. without knowing what the coffee is or where it comes from, so as to avoid preconceptions and bias the scoring.
Using the SCA method, a sample of green beans is roasted at a light filter colour and rested overnight. The sample itself is also very precise: 8.25g of coffee/150ml of filtered 93-94C water ratio with a fairly coarse grind size.
Beau describes the process:
“Before adding water, we take notes on the dry fragrance. This is exactly what comes to mind when we smell the coffee ground, for example: sugar, chocolate, nut, fruit, floral, stone fruit, etc. Sometimes you’ll only detect one note, other times there may be many.”
Next the water is poured on top: “Make sure all the coffee ground is wet and left to stand for 4 minutes. At this point, we break crust with spoon pushing the crust away from you to the back of the cup for wet aroma. Then scoop out the coffee ground and foam from the top to allow access to the liquid – using 2 spoons is very handy!”.
The coffee is then allowed to cool and the fun really starts with slurping at around 13-15 minute mark.
“Try to taste three rounds at hot, warm and cool temperatures as flavours, body, acidity and notes may change at different temperatures,” says Beau.
And just like wine tasting, don’t be afraid to have a good slurp!
“Slurping allows the coffee to cover the entire tongue’s surface and palate, increasing the oxygen inside your mouth which heightens sensation while your nose picks up the aroma,” says Beau.
After the tasting component is completed, there is always lots of discussion where individual scores are revealed and notes exchanged as part of the calibration.
Don’t cup alone!
As coffee cupping has become something of a bucket-list item for enthusiasts, many roasteries, coffee shops and coffee lovers’ networks now host regular sessions. Listening to and talking about your experience will help develop your palate and articulate what you’re experiencing.
Langdon Coffee Merchants love to host cupping sessions for our customers – if you’d like to join us for a cupping at any of our South Melbourne, London or Auckland offices, contact us here. We’re also happy to come and cup with you at your roastery or warehouse!