Cupping is a tool that provides us with a consistent, qualitative platform to evaluate coffee samples. Why is this so important? Cupping resonates to the very core of our business, it’s how we come to understand specific origin character, it enables us to compare and contrast previous samples, to indentify faults or taints and, most importantly, it’s how we select coffees for purchase.
The technique and Specialty Coffee Association of America protocol for cupping is widely accepted throughout the industry. This makes it easy and transparent to communicate with people anywhere in the world about samples you’ve both cupped. Included in these protocols are standards for roast colour, dose, water, temperature, particle size and steep time and, when followed correctly, the result are easily repeatable. This means we’re comparing apples with apples (so to speak) and the lines of communication are much straighter and to the point.
If there’s one thing I see over and over, it’s that the variation in quality from one region can be very large. The quality of coffee from most producing regions ranges from bad to mediocre to good, with a small amount of truly great coffee. This makes it impossible to buy coffee based simply on the region or name, you must taste it. We’re often asked why we don’t just taste a bean as espresso, or as a flat white — ‘I mean,’ goes the conversation ’that’s how it’s served in Australia’. We’ve had many a discussion over the years about the relevance of tasting coffees in a manner that seems to be more directly aligned with filter coffees. The answer is simple. Make yourself three or four espressos and taste them … how do you feel? Saturated?
To select a great coffee, we not only assess its profile, but also its ability to consistently deliver that same profile. This means that when we cup, we’re often sampling five to 10 coffees from each region, and we cup each sample coffee five times so that we can assess its consistency. Can you imagine trying to evaluate 50 espresso samples in one sitting? Not only would be impossible to have them all the same temperature at the same time, but your palate would quickly become tired, and it would be difficult to distinguish the subtle variations that we are looking for. Over the years, we’ve learned what to expect as espresso from different cupping profiles. This is something that only comes with practise — the more you cup, the better you become at identifying good and bad qualities, as well as how that coffee will translate to espresso.
The next step in cupping is scoring. The CQI (Coffee Quality Institute) has been actively training and calibrating cuppers from both producing and buying countries to score coffees on a standard 100 point scale. The idea behind this is to enable cuppers around the world to speak a common, reliable language. All of a sudden, trained and practised cuppers understand the value and meaning of, for example, an 85 point coffee from Guatemala versus a 92 point coffee from the same region. The former would translate to having distinct origin character as well as a clean and balanced cup, while the 92 point coffee would have all of that plus some added intricacies, complexity and nuance. Learning the scoring sheet and calibrating with certified Q graders is a good way to start speaking this growing international language.
Lately, cafés and baristas have become more interested in cupping coffees as an exercise in indentifying and communicating distinct flavour profiles to their customers. This year, we’ve held four Cup of Excellence cuppings at various cafés in Perth and Melbourne. These cuppings included 25 to 30 of the best coffees to come out of El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras. We have another two coming up later this year, so if you’ve missed out, it’s not too late! These cuppings will include some great Rwandans and Brazilians. I’m off to Rwanda next month to help cup and select the winning COE lots for this year’s competition as a jury member. What a treat, really looking forward to it!