Cupping Professionally: Part Three

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

The first pass

After breaking and cleaning your cups, you’ll wait to allow the coffee to cool. How long you wait to take your first tasting pass around the table is up to you. At Mill City, we wait until our timer reaches the 9-minute mark. Our friends at Cafe Imports wait until after 12 minutes have elapsed. The point is that very hot coffee is hard to taste, and will only burn your mouth. Giving the coffee time to cool off will make it easier to taste the flavors and protect your tongue from being scalded.

Slurp to taste

Once it’s time, take a small spoonful of coffee to your mouth and quickly slurp it into your mouth. Slurping, while considered rude in most places outside the cupping table, does two important things. First, it allows you to taste hot coffee without burning your tongue. Second, it aerates the coffee into a spray so that all of the flavor compounds are spread evenly across your palate.

Spraying the coffee across your palate gives you more information about its flavor. It also sends a big wave of aroma up through your retro nasal cavity and into your nose. This helps you feel like you’re “tasting” more of the coffee. Our noses really do the heavy lifting when it comes to taste, so getting more information to the olfactory system will help us better experience the coffee.

Taking notes

In the first pass, the coffee is still hot, so I will take very general notes. I may make notes on the acidity level and any initial flavor impressions. If I don’t get a lot of impressions on the first pass, I might write a word like “quiet” or “muted”. Sometimes, I’ll taste a category of flavor like “red fruit”, “citrus”, or “cane sugar”. As the coffee cools, those flavors might come into focus. Once they’re more defined, I may clarify those notes as “apple skin”, “blood orange”, and “light caramel”. Initially, though, it’s ok if they’re simple.

When you’re new to cupping or tasting coffee in general, it’s always going to be helpful to have more than one coffee on the table. When I talk about this in classes, I call it “tasting through comparison”. It’s more difficult to describe a single coffee on its own than to compare it to another coffee next to it.

As I move around the table, I can say “coffee A has higher acidity than coffee B”. In my notes for coffee A, I’ll write “high acidity”. Without that comparison, how can I know what the level of acidity is? Comparison is also helpful for making notes on body or mouthfeel, as in “coffee C has a heavier weight than coffee D”, and so on.

Tasting through comparison is a helpful way to help you develop a description of a coffee by saying what it does or doesn’t have compared to other coffees around it. As you taste more, you’ll be able to effectively describe a coffee on its own because you’ll have a broad lexicon of other coffees that you’ve tasted and made notes about in the past.

Click here to read the final post, where we discuss why we cup coffee at Mill City.

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