Coffee has become quite a fashionable product lately, which is fantastic as more attention was necessary to the culture and provenance of this product that we drink various times a day, but know absolutely nothing about. Still, as a coffee professional working mostly with other coffee professionals, I think there is little information available to the consumer, at least nothing immediately accessible. You really have to look for it on your own to find out more.
That is why I will be writing various pieces on what it is to be a coffee taster, how coffee is assessed, how it can be extracted, so you can know more easily which coffee to choose and how to best prepare it! So How do you evaluate a coffee’s flavour and quality?
What is coffee cupping?
This kind of extraction and tasting is used to assess the quality of a coffee and is not used for consumption. But this is a very important step when the coffee has been harvested and processed, before exporting, when importing and when the coffee arrives at the roastery.
This part is a bit like a wine maker tasting the wine during production to assess its quality.
How is it done?
The coffee is roasted very lightly because it’s important to see the quality of the coffee itself rather than the roast. Cupping has to be done with a freshly roasted coffee from 8 to 24 hours after the roast.
As you can see in the photo above, there are 5 cups per sample of each coffee. Why? Because even one grain of coffee can alter the uniformity or give off a defect. It might be an unripe bean that will give a lot of astringency, a moldy bean or a chemical tasting phenol bean (tastes a bit like the dentist’s). This said, the beans will have to be weighed out for each cup individually and ground for each cup individually in order to isolate the one defect, rather than spreading it out on all the cups. This will help us count the defects later on and assess the overall quality of the sample.
The coffee will be brewed in infusion, no filters are used, so it is ground very coarsely in order for it to not extract too much taste and make it bitter. Most good quality coffees shouldn’t really be bitter.
The water is important, it shouldn’t be too bland or too hard, and of course it should be completely odourless without any strange taste to it.
The optimum temperature is fundamental, we don’t want to burn the coffee but neither do we want to under-extract, so it should be around 93 degrees Celsius.
When the cups are brewed for 3 to 5 min, the upper part with coffee particles called the “crust” will me moved or “broken” with the help of a spoon. This is where all the vapour will come out and it will be the best time to evaluate the fragrance.
When the coffee arrives to an acceptable temperature to put it in the mouth, the cupper will use a big spoon to slurp it. Yep, SLURP IT. The sound your parents or grandparents told you not to make when eating soup? That’s the one you have to do!
The idea is to get as much oxygen and aromatic molecules up your retronasal pathway as possible, that way you can perfectly evaluate the taste (sour, sweet, bitter, salty, umami), the mouthfeel (creamy, tea-like, light, oily…) and the aroma (fruity, floral, chocolatey…). These three together are defined as flavour.