HOW TO BE A BETTER CUPPER

HOW TO BE A BETTER CUPPER

HOW TO BE A BETTER CUPPER

HOW TO BE A BETTER CUPPER

HOW TO BE A BETTER CUPPER

minimum dose size?

I use the Hario switch to brew my coffee and am trying to reduce my caffeine consumption. Hence I would like to brew smaller cups of coffee. I am currently using 10g of coffee with 160g of water. (1:16 Ratio) I am wondering if there is a minimum amount of coffee...

HOW TO BE A BETTER CUPPER

Ahead of the launch of Prodigal, Mark and I cupped for a minimum of one hour each morning. Having such a routine allowed us to calibrate well after cupping more than 2000 samples together. Those sessions also taught us a lot, some of which I’d like to share here.
 
First, I want to credit Ryan Brown. Over the years, I learned a lot not just from cupping with Ryan, but from throwaway remarks he would make. To him, many of those remarks were the equivalent of cupping small talk. To me, they often held pearls of hard-earned wisdom. Ryan is rigorous in creating systems that prevent bias and help to confirm his findings about samples. A good green buyer cups each sample multiple times on multiple days and does everything possible to avoid bias.
 
Until launching Prodigal, most of my cupping was done through the eyes of a production roaster and cupping was mostly an exercise to evaluate roast quality. I focused on problems of baking, roast development, side effects of excessive conduction, and the like. I did not cup to intensely analyze the merits of one green lot vs another. But production-roast cupping improved my green-evaluation skills. 

Herein are what I consider some cupping best practices. 

Always cup blindly

This rule may seem obvious, but in my experience, few roasters follow this rule religiously. I get it: cupping blindly with others can be embarrassing and humbling. But cupping isn’t a competition. You can either protect yourself from looking bad, or you can learn from experience, but you can’t do both well at the same time. Suck it up, make mistakes, and don’t worry if you thought that wet-hulled Sumatra was a washed Kenya. It happens to everyone. 

As often as possible, consder “double blinding” a cupping by having someone else set up the cupping so the cuppers do not know what coffees are on the table. 

To make cupping as blind as possible, consider hiding visual differences in coffees; for example, if you have a variety of roast levels on the table, it helps to cup in bowls with black interiors, in order to not see the colors of the brews. Some training sessions even use sunglasses to decrease visual cues about samples. 

Please do not use the traditional practice of setting a sample tray of roasted coffee next to each cupping bowl. That makes it impossible to be appropriately blind when looking at the roasted beans of a sample. 

Always cup with others

Cupping with others is far more educational than cupping alone. Various people will perceive different flavors in coffees, and some people are better at perceiving certain defects than others are. Cupping with others is a great way to expand your tasting abilities. For example, Mark is better than I am at tasting certain underdeveloped flavors, while I am more likely than he is to detect fade in coffee samples. Cupping together helps us shore up our weaknesses. 

Try to cup with more experienced professionals whenever possible. 

This is a no-brainer. Cupping with more experienced pros is by far the best accelerant if you want to get better at tasting coffee. 

Always take notes during cupping

Please don’t try to memorize your impressions of 5–10 cupping bowls; it is always better to take notes to discuss results with others, for scoring coffees accurately, and for future reference. I don’t believe one needs an official score sheet to score samples accurately, but I do believe it takes months of calibration practice to score accurately and consistently. 

Wait until after everyone has done at least one round of slurping and note taking before discussing samples

I’ve been to many cuppings where people begin discussing the coffees as soon as they begin tasting. That is more fun than taking notes silently, but it also inhibits learning and increases the risk of bias. 

Be as rigorous as possible in cupping procedure

What I mean by this is: use a consistent grind setting (I usually grind at a setting 1-2 integers finer than a typical 20g pourover setting) and water chemistry, weigh grounds to 0.1g resolution, weigh water to within a few grams per bowl, grind, pour, and taste on a timer with a rigorous schedule, and consider cupping at a brisk but comfortable pace to ensure you are tasting all samples at similar temperatures. Ryan taught me to take just one or two slurps per sample and to focus hard on those slurps. That has helped me cup more quickly. Previously I was taking too many slurps per bowl, which was taking too much time, decreased my focus , and caused my palate to fatigue earlier. 

Take one or two slurps, jot down a couple of words in your notes, and move to the next bowl. It’s okay if you don’t perceive an encyclopedia of descriptors after just one or two slurps. 

When cupping to choose green, do your best to optimize cup quality

When cupping to decide what green lots to purchase, sample roasting and cupping should be done in a way that optimizes cup quality.  That will allow each green lot the shine and show its best features. 

When cupping for production roasting QC, consider sacrificing cup quality, if necessary, in order to detect roast defects more easily

Let me explain this idea… Personally, I use an identical procedure when cupping for green buying and cupping for production roast analysis. However, I’ve cupped with many companies whose coffees tasted better when using a coarser grind or lower water temperature during cupping. In those situations, grinding finer or brewing hotter likely highlighted roast defects. If your cuppings taste better at grind settings coarser than your typical pourover grind setting, then there is probably work to do to improve roast quality. But please do not change the grind setting or water temperature to improve the flavor of cupping bowls.

Always cup at least one sample from another roaster on every table for context

I find many roasters are biased in favor of their own coffees. I recommend roasters find the best coffees they can from competing roasters, and to always have at least one such sample on every cupping table for context. 

Test the effectiveness of your cupping system

Many roasters have told me something like “This coffee cupped sharp on day one out of the roaster, was super fruity on day two, the flavors were muted for a few days and then the coffee was cupped great again after one week.” While I don’t doubt that cupper’s experience, it is unlikely the coffee really got worse, better, worse, and better. It’s possible, of course, but it’s more likely the cupping system is to blame, or the coffee has an abundance of quakers or other dodgy beans that show up in some samples but not others. 

To test the reliability of your cupping system, try something like this: 

  • Scatter three bowls of the same coffee among several other coffees on the cupping table. Note whether your tasting notes and scores were consistent for those three bowls. 

  • Taste several bowls of the same coffee several days in a row, again scattered among other samples, to see whether your notes change day to day. 

With a little effort, you can taste the baseline reliability of your cupping system. If the three bowls in each of the trials above tasted and scored identically, your system is probably reliable. If the three bowls varied a lot in flavor

, it’s important to run the same test with a few other coffees to see whether the cupping system or the coffees themselves are inconsistent. 

In general, scattering multiple bowls of a particular sample throughout a cupping table and trying to identify them is an excellent exercise to hone your tasting ability. 

Re-cup your roasts several times over the few weeks after roasting

Once you have shored up the reliability of your cupping system, it is worth tasting various roast batches over several weeks after roasting to perceive how the coffee ages and evolves. You may find your coffees typically peak after a certain number of “resting” days or you may find your coffees peak within a day of roasting and decline from there. 

Regularly testing and monitoring the quality of your roasts as they age can help you optimize your customers’ experience. 

Cup more rigorously when purchasing green than when analyzing sample roasts

When cupping to select green for purchase, I consider it essential to cup multiple bowls of a candidate sample multiple times before choosing a green lot. Not only do I want several looks at a coffee in order to avoid defects that may appear in only some bowls, but I want to confirm my impression of a coffee before committing to it. 

When cupping production roasts, we are usually confirming the consistency of our results, or testing whether one approach works marginally better than another approach to roasting a particular coffee. Occasionally I will re-cup a roast batch to get a clearer picture of its quality, but usually one bowl is sufficient per batch. 

photo credit: @coffeeandlucas

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