Cupping isn’t just for professional green coffee buyers. Any coffee lover can cup coffee at home with a few simple tools. Read below to learn more about how to taste coffee like a pro and how to set up a coffee cupping at home. We’d recommend checking out our Blend Sample Box and Single Origin Sample Box. Each sample box features six best selling coffees, each at the perfect dose for one brewed cup of coffee and a small cupping sample.
THE FOUR FACTORS OF FLAVOR
There are four key factors that affect the flavor of coffee -- geography, variety, processing, and roasting. We’re going to briefly break down why these elements matter when learning to cup coffee at home.
The best tasting coffee is the most complex coffee. Complex coffee flavors are a result of slow maturation under ideal growing conditions. The most optimal growing conditions are at higher elevations that are filled with sunny days and cold nights. While some coffee can survive frost the world’s best coffee is found within the “coffee-growing belt” that is no farther north than the Tropic of Cancer and no farther south than the Tropic of Capricorn.
There are hundreds of different coffee varieties. Typica was the first variety to be cultivated outside Ethiopia (the birthplace of coffee) and went on to circle the globe. From this initial variety, hundreds of other varieties have been mutated or carefully selected for coffee production. A few common varieties in production today are Bourbon, Catuai, SL28, and SL34.
How coffee is processed greatly affects the final flavors. There are three primary processes:
RESULTS: Clean & Bright
This is the most water-intensive processing method and is best suited for large volumes of coffee. The coffee cherries enter a flotation tank to be sorted before moving on to be depulped by hand or by machine. The seeds soak in water for up to 24 hours during which fermentation breaks down the mucilage. The next step is to wash the coffee to remove anything remaining before being transferred to drying beds to dry in the sun.
RESULTS: Balanced & Juicy
In more water-scarce countries, the honey process is a go-to processing method for its water-saving abilities. The coffee cherries enter a flotation tank to be sorted before moving on to be depulped by hand or by machine. Instead of washing, the mucilage is left on then is transferred to raised beds to dry in the sun.
RESULTS: Sweet & Fruity
This is the least water-intensive process and is often the typical method for extremely dry climates. The ripe coffee cherries are fully dried with the seed inside. While water use is minimal, dry processing is much more labor-intensive and subject to higher defects. Without the water to act as checks and balances the cherries must be manually sorted for underripe or defective cherries.
The Verve approach is to celebrate the inherent qualities of a coffee. Our goal is to expertly roast a coffee to showcase the meticulous care that went into producing it. From the farmer who grew it, to the mill who processed it, to the many other hands who helped bring this delicious coffee to your cup. Our roasting team has created thoughtful roasting profiles (recipe guidelines) to maximize the complexities and sweetness while balancing out all the coffee’s unique attributes. Our coffee has two categories:
Goal: Vibrant, Unique & Limited
Our single origin coffees are seasonal and available in limited supply.
Goal: Balanced, Consistent & Year-Round
Our blends deliver for daily drinking throughout the year.
HOW TO IDENTIFY A REGION BASED ON KEY FLAVORS
The flavor of coffee from Latin America is most often described as “classic” but the third wave has brought awareness to the diverse range of coffee profiles found in this growing region. Take note of the pear-like acidity from Guatemalan coffee, to Costa Rican coffee’s clean body, while Honduras brings black currant flavors and the structured body of a Colombian coffee.
The birthplace of coffee can be characterized as “vibrant.” From the rich coppery-red soil to wild coffee trees going in dense forests, African coffee brings the brightness. Most coffee in this region is produced by small scale farmers who are dependent on local wet mills to process and export their coffee. A hallmark of Kenyan coffee is big acidity with tomato soup notes, while Ethiopia owns florals and Rwandan coffee is well-known for sweet potato flavors.
Every now and again we are able to offer extraordinary coffee from the East. This coffee-growing region is made up of thousands of islands and known for producing “rustic” flavors. A common processing method “Giling Basah” or wet-hulled results in a more earthy and herbaceous tasting coffee.
THE SCA COFFEE TASTING WHEEL
Originally published in 1995, the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel has become one of the most iconic resources in our industry. In collaboration with the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon, the wheel was updated in 2016, building on its solid foundation. With the input from dozens of professional sensory panelists, scientists, coffee buyers, and roasting companies a new wheel emerged. This is an amazing result that memorializes the largest and most collaborative piece of research on coffee flavor ever published.
HOW TO DESCRIBE COFFEE
Our single-origin coffee offerings are always changing but we’re here to help you learn the basics of how to describe a coffee’s flavor. There are themes within each growing region along with roasting profiles. After some practice, you’ll begin to see patterns and eventually learn to taste for them.
TOP LEVEL TASTING CATEGORIES
Green & Vegetative: An aroma or taste that is associated with fresh grass, herbs, or unripe fruit.
Sour & Fermented: An acid flavor that is similar to lemon juice or apple cider vinegar.
Fruity: An aroma or taste that is juicy, ripe, or sweet without noticeable acidity.
Floral: A mild aroma or taste of fresh flowers such as jasmine, rose, honeysuckle, etc.
Sweet: A taste or aroma that can be similar to honey, candied, or saccharine.
Nutty & Cocoa: A taste or aroma with a clean earthy flavor that is similar to freshly toasted nuts such as almonds, walnuts, macadamia etc.
Spices: Not to be confused with spicy or savory spices (black pepper, oregano, rosemary etc.). This is the taste or aroma of warming spices such as clove, allspice, cinnamon, or nutmeg.
Roasted: Flavors or aromas that are reminiscent of grains (ex: wheat, barley) or tobacco.
Other (Chemical or Paper): Aromas or flavors that signal a defective coffee.
HELPFUL COFFEE TASTING TERMS:
Aroma: The smell emitted from freshly ground wet coffee is referred to as wet-aroma.
Balanced: The amount of sweetness, bitterness, and acidity in the cup. When each is proportionally equal the cup is “balanced.”
Body & Mouthfeel: The physical properties of brewed coffee perceived by your mouth after tasting. Brewed coffee is mostly water but the mouthfeel is created by the coffee solubles: fats, sugars, proteins, caffeine, acids, fiber and carbohydrates. For example heavy, light, smooth, creamy, thin etc. Pro tip: Assess the coffee body or mouthfeel as if you were describing the different levels between heavy whipping cream to water.
Finish: Also known as the aftertaste, this is the taste of the coffee after being swallowed.
Fragrance: The smell emitted from freshly ground coffee is referred to as dry-aroma.
Full-Bodied: Referring to a robust taste or aroma that is rich or intense. It can also be associated with a heavy mouthfeel.
Smooth: The mark of a balanced cup of coffee. There will be no pronounced finish.
FLAVORS THAT SIGNAL DEFECTS:
Acrid: An intensely harsh sour or tart taste.
Baked: A result of coffee that is roasted too slowly and becomes “baked”. The flavor will be dull, bland or flat.
Baggy: This flavor can be a characteristic of a coffee improperly stored in a burlap bag. The coffee has taken on the bag flavor and possibly has mildew issues.
Bitter: The telltale sign on the back of the tongue that the coffee has been over-extracted, over-roasted, or overall defective.
Medicinal: A smell or taste that reminds you of medicine. This iodine-like flavor can be the result of cherries that have dried on the plant.
Quaker: If a bean didn’t develop the proper compounds when cracked in half it can be reminiscent of an unroasted peanut. This can indicate that unripe or underdeveloped cherries were processed.
Scorched: A strong flavor that is a result of coffee that was over roasted, burnt or not tumbled properly.
Tobacco: There can be pleasant, fresh tobacco notes but the defective notes would be a noticeable burnt tobacco or tobacco ash flavor.
Woody: A signal that the coffee was poorly stored or is an old harvest.
PROFESSIONAL COFFEE CUPPING...WHY DO WE SLURP AND WHY DO WE SMELL?
We have five different taste receptors on our tongues; sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. When we slurp coffee we are trying to turn the liquid into gas to help pick up on the nuanced flavors of a cup profile. Many people might not know that we also have thousands of cilia that live in our olfactory system (the sense of smell) that gives us the ability to perceive taste. When we are smelling coffee we are trying to identify the fragrance or aroma emitted from the whole coffee beans or freshly brewed coffee.
WHAT IS A "SUPER TASTER"?
If you’re one of the lucky people that fall under the “super taster” category then your cupping experience is going to be off the charts. This is someone who has extreme sensitivity to flavors. Super tasters have a heightened ability to pick up on extremely nuanced flavors due to their tongue having more fungiform papillae aka taste buds than your average person. They aren’t necessarily “better” at tasting but are born with the ability to access flavor information more efficiently.
A QUICK GUIDE FOR HOW TO CUP COFFEE AT HOME
We created an easy-to-follow guide for coffee cupping at home. Compare two coffees for a quick tasting or go for all six from our latest sampler boxes: Blend and Single Origin Coffees.
Download and print out our cupping sheet so you can take notes about each coffee you’re tasting.
Choose a few smaller-sized ceramic vessels (based on the number of coffees you’ll be tasting, 1 per coffee) It is optimal if they are parabolic-shaped.
Fill a water kettle with cold, fresh water. Set temperature to 205ºF.
Using our golden ratio of 1:15 (grams of coffee to water), grind 10 grams of each sample of coffee to coarse. About the feel of kosher salt or breadcrumbs. Place ground coffee in their respective vessel. Set the remaining 15 grams of whole bean coffee aside.
When the water is ready, quickly set one vessel on a scale, tare, then pour 150 grams of hot water into the vessel. Continue with each vessel filled with ground coffee.
Start a timer as soon as the water hits the coffee and at the 4-minute mark, break the crust. Stir the surface of the coffee to agitate the coffee grounds and release the aromatic compounds underneath. Skim the surface grounds into a separate catch-all bowl. Place a separate bowl of hot water in the center of the tasting cups. This will be your spoon cleaning bowl.
What is skimming? It’s the functional removal of the foam layer to allow for a cleaner sample to be tasted.
PRO TIP: Our recommended skimming technique is to hold two cupping spoons at the top of the vessel so that the spoons slightly nest into each other. Pull them apart so they run along the sides of the vessel while you slowly move them from the back of the vessel to the front. Carefully scoop the grounds out. It’s okay if you didn’t capture everything.
When the timer hits between 10 minutes, you’re ready to start tasting the coffee. The majority of the grounds are still in the vessel, so using a spoon, take a small dip of coffee and then slurp! The slurping aerates the coffee and allows your taste buds to pick up on a wider range of flavors.
When you are ready to move on to the next coffee, dip your spoon in the hot water bowl in the center to prevent cross-contamination.
We’d recommend going around the vessels again after the coffees have completely cooled to taste how their flavors and aromas have changed. A complex coffee will have noticeable differences from hot to cool.
THOUGHTS STARTERS: QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF WHILE CUPPING
If you’re having difficulties picking out the differences between the coffees you’re cupping, we’re here to help. We’ve pulled together a shortlist of thought starters to ask yourself to help your senses notice and understand each coffee’s unique characteristics.
- Which coffees matched my expectations? Which coffees didn’t?
- How does the coffee feel in my mouth?
- Does the coffee leave a coating?
- Does my mouth feel dry or puckered?
- Does this coffee remind me of anything [sweet, sour, savory, etc.] I’ve tasted or smelled before?
- Does this coffee remind me of any [spices, herbs, foods, etc.] I’ve tasted or smelled before?
- What flavors or aromas did I taste or smell while it was hot?
- What flavors or aromas did I taste or smell while it was cool?
- How do the different growing regions compare?
- How do the different roast levels compare?
- How did the temperature of the coffee affect the flavor?
6 TIPS TO HELP DEVELOP YOUR PALATE
It might be a little intimidating when you're just starting to learn about coffee. One of the most common things we've heard from people beginning their coffee journey is how to develop their palate. We've rounded up a few tips and tricks from the coffee and training department to get you going.
CREATE A MENTAL FLAVOR LIBRARY
The best method to start understanding taste perception is to analyze your everyday meals. For example, when eating a piece of fruit: ask yourself how sweet is it? What level of acidity (light, medium or intense) does it have?, and what is the texture of the fruit (soft or crisp) when you take a bite of it? Taking the time to remember and focus on the eating or drinking experience will help create a library for you to pull from later on.
NARROW IT DOWN FROM BIG TO SMALL
Another helpful way to develop your palate and flavor identification is by stating what you perceive in a grander scale then honing it into a more specific identifier. An example to help you identify a particular aroma: This coffee smells sweet...sweet like chocolate...a heavy sweetness...this smells like dark chocolate. Another example to identify a particular flavor: this coffee tastes acidic....a sweet acidity...similar to a sweet fruit...this tastes like a mango.
If you feel like you’re just not getting it and can’t seem to say what it is you are tasting, there are perception enhancing tricks to help heighten your sense of smell. We recommend gently pinching your nose closed as you take a sip of coffee. Hold the coffee on your palate for five seconds then release your nose. You’ll notice the change in flavor when your sense of smell is reintroduced.
THE ORDER MATTERS
Our tongues are very sensitive. The tongue’s ability to pick up on flavors can be hindered if you expose it to intense flavors before more subtle ones. We’d recommend setting the lineup starting with lighter roasts then moving towards darker. When you flip the lineup or just set the vessels up randomly, you might miss the opportunity to pick up on a coffee’s subtle flavors because the previous coffee’s intensity is overpowering your palate.
With any skill comes lots of dedication to practice. It will take time to develop your mental library of taste, flavors, and vocabulary to describe what you are experiencing. Don’t give up!
There are scents around us all the time. Sometimes we pick up on them, and other times we don’t. There is a scent happening around you right now that you probably won’t pick up on until you leave the room for a while then come back. This is the same as smelling the coffee. A trick to help distinguish the aroma or fragrance is to hold the vessel of coffee next to your nose, breathe in third times, and on the fourth breath move the vessel directly under your nose to breathe in.