Cupping Professionally: Part Four

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This is the final post in a four-part series about how and why we cup coffee at Mill City. Click to read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

Tasting coffee as it cools

After your first pass, you’ll continue to taste the coffee as it decreases in temperature. We try to take at least two passes of the coffee if we’re doing a production cupping. A production cupping is where we’re just “checking in” on coffee we’ve roasted for customers. If we’re doing a purchase cupping, or a paid evaluation where customers have sent us their coffee for feedback, we will do three passes. This gives us a very detailed picture of the coffee and brings any issues with the greens or the roast quality to our attention.

As coffee cools, new flavors become discernible. We find that negative traits, specifically green or roasting defects, are easier to taste once the coffee has cooled. Taints which may not be apparent during the first pass might be totally obvious during our second or third turn around the table.

Take descriptive notes

As I mentioned in the previous post, the coffee you taste during the first pass may still be too hot to capture a lot of detail. The second pass is, for me, a better opportunity to get granular with my flavor descriptions. The second pass is where I’m able to get more specific flavor descriptions in my notes. During this pass, I will make a note about the type of acidity, sweetness, and balance in the cup.

Details and qualifiers like “baked pastry”, “apple cider”, “dried fruit”, or “bakers chocolate” will show up here. I find it easier to perceive both the type and the level of sweetness during the second pass, and begin to make notes on the finish, or the aftertaste, of the coffee.

The third pass is usually my final chance to taste the coffee. During this pass, I ask myself a question, “what am I missing in my notes?” I want my notes from a cupping to fully describe the coffee so that days, weeks, or even months later I can look back and know exactly what I tasted in that coffee.

If I read through my notes and don’t see a description of the acidity, the body, or the aftertaste, I know I need to capture it during the third pass. I will also be thinking about my “overall impression”, which is kind of my personal summary of the coffee.

Translating notes to packaging

Looking at my notes from a cupping we did earlier this week, I have the following words written down:

  • Fragrance: Melon, fruity, tropical
  • Aroma: Cane sugar, vanilla, cinnamon
  • Pass #1: Citrus, tacky, lively
  • Pass #2: Watermelon, balanced, medium weight, darker fruits as it cools

My “summary” of this coffee would be how I might describe it to guests at the café, or what I’d include on the label of the bag. Based on these notes, it might be “A balanced and sweet coffee with notes of melon and vanilla”. That’s a sentence that’s enticing, descriptive, and succinct. I chose the words that most people will recognize and resonate with, and left out the notes that were a little quieter or less noticeable.

Calibrate with a group

If I’m cupping with others, we will calibrate after we’re done tasting. This means we’ll read through our notes together and see where we overlap; where we’ve written the same or very similar words in our notes. Those words are probably going to end up in the final summary of the coffee, because if a few people tasted them they’re probably fairly pronounced.

The process of calibration is a very helpful way to become a better taster. It’s why we always cup together when we’re assessing coffee and why we cup with students in our roasting classes.

Leave time to clean up

Most of the time you set aside for cupping is in setting it up and breaking it down. We joke that cupping is 25% tasting, 75% doing dishes. Still, it’s worth the time and work to do it correctly. Cupping is the best way to get a detailed overview of the way your coffee tastes, smells, and feels. There’s no way to get the same level of information about your coffee if you’re just drinking it as a brewed cup.

“Always be cupping”

We’re always happy to work with customers and help them improve their roasting practices. Many times, the first question we’ll ask in that conversation is “how are you evaluating your roasts?”. If the answer isn’t cupping, that’s the first recommendation we make: cup your coffee regularly. Once you know what’s working and what the issues are in your coffee, you can correct your roasts and improve your final product.

If you enjoyed this series, let us know in the comments. Want to cup with us and hone your own sensory skills? Join us for class.

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