Today we are going to talk about cupping and – thankfully – we don’t mean the ancient - and currently on-trend - alternative medical practice of using cups to suction your skin into bulbous globs of flesh as if out of an old horror movie.
Today, we are discussing coffee cupping.
What does that mean?
Essentially, “cupping” is a brewing method, just as espresso and pour-overs are. Cupping is a method of immersion brewing – think French Press – where all of the coffee is exposed to all of the brew water throughout the entire brewing process.
Coffee cupping is unique as a brewing method, however, in that it’s not a method used to prepare coffee for the purpose of actually drinking it.
So why do it?
Great question. Coffee cupping is really a process intended for use within the industry. There are a few different reasons “coffee people” cup:
- To grade coffee. Calibrated and credentialed tasters called Q-Graders use specific standards and score sheets to assign numerical scores to coffees.
- To make purchasing decisions. This occurs when importers or roasters visit farms and sample various lots of coffees from that farm, or when roasting companies receive small quantities of sample coffees from producers or importers to evaluate what coffees they’d like to bring in.
- To evaluate quality at various points in the supply chain. An example of this would be if an importer tasted coffee samples from a producer to make a purchasing decision and then again tastes the coffee when it “lands”, or arrives in the U.S., to determine whether the coffee was of the same quality they had initially tasted.
- To make profiling decisions. Once a roaster has purchased a coffee, they need to decide how they are going to “profile” that coffee, which means how they chose to roast it to enhance certain characteristics or highlight specific flavors.
- Quality control. Most roasters frequently cup their production coffees on a weekly, or even daily basis to ensure that the coffees being sold are consistent and tasting how they should, or to determine how the flavor of the coffee changes over time, etc.
- Some people even cup competitively. In the circuit of major coffee competitions, one of the events is “Cup Tasters”. This is a competition centered around “triangulation cupping” when coffees are cupped in sets of three – two of the coffees being identical and one be different, or an “outlier”. Competitors are provided 8 sets of coffees and whoever can select the outliers of each set with the greatest accuracy in the fastest time moves on. Yes – it is as difficult as it sounds.
Makes sense, right? But how does that relate to retail coffee shops and cafes?
Here’s how: Engagement.
Engagement with customers beyond simple coffee service is an area where more shops are falling short than are excelling - and it can be a huge missed opportunity.
Real quick, let’s take a step back and examine one thing about the last sentence. We clearly defined our market for this engagement: customers.
Many shops do well engaging people within the industry and home-enthusiasts – “coffee people” – with things like latte art throwdowns and industry events. Honestly, many do it really well at a shop level as well – check out the calendar at Golden Boy Coffee Co – but many are missing a chance to build deeper ties with the customers and their communities.
A cupping is one way to do this.
This distinction that our cupping event is going to be geared towards customers is important because that informs how we design our cupping event.
The first question we need to ask ourselves is: What do we hope to achieve?
- Engagement – As we just discussed, our purpose here is to engage our staff and provide a fun opportunity to the people that sustain our businesses with the purchases they make every day.
- Education – This is a great opportunity to educate your customers on the products you are serving in your shop. Maybe someone gets the same drink or the same coffee every day and finds out during a cupping that they really enjoy an offering they’ve never tried. Maybe they identify the difference between a natural and washed coffee for the first time and now understand the product better.
The more engaged your customers are with your product, the more trust you build with them and the easier it becomes to sell them on new experiences.
- Entertainment – Many folks simply enjoy new experiences and enjoy learning something about a product they are interested in. It’s the same reason people enjoy touring breweries, distilleries, factories, etc. Remember – we are not doing this to source the best coffee possible; no big sale is on the line – the whole point is to have fun.
- Loyalty – In a café, the customers supporting the business are ultimately, the ones funding the shop. Events like cuppings can be great opportunities to provide a fun opportunity to elevate their experience that much more. This sort of engagement leads to better rapport – and more regulars.
Providing experiences that your customers cannot receive elsewhere gives your business a competitive advantage.
- Palate Development – Your palate, like any muscle, requires exercise and stimulation to develop. The more that consumers increase their abilities to taste the nuances of the particular coffees we are serving them and can really see the differences in coffees, it helps validate our narratives about supply chains and value and why specialty coffee is worth that extra couple bucks.
This can be an important step in overcoming the “coffee is a cheap commodity” mindset that many still harbors and help them to see the value in paying for specialty coffees. This step really isn’t as difficult as it may first seem either. Put a washed coffee and a naturally processed coffee side- by-side and more often than not, even the novice can identify the difference.
We’re just about ready to get slurpin’ (more on that later) but first, let’s consider: what equipment do we need?
- Cupping Bowls – First of all, we are going to need cupping bowls – the vessels in which we will actually be brewing the coffee and tasting from. These are typically going to be glass or ceramic cups or bowls ranging from about 5oz – 7.5oz (it is important to know the volume of your bowls or cups so that we may determine the appropriate amount of coffee to use).
Pro-Tip: Save some cash by heading to your local restaurant supply store and stocking up on some Gibraltar glasses to use as your cupping vessels.
- Cupping Spoons – Cupping spoons are spoons that feature large, deep bowls. They’re intended to scoop up enough of the liquid coffee sample to get a decent sized sip to evaluate.
- Cupping Trays – Cupping trays are really an optional item but are a good way to provide a visual point of comparison for the coffees being tasted. This can be interesting in identifying differences in sizes and shapes of beans as well as comparing variations in roast profile.
- Coffee Grinder – A quality burr-grinder will be necessary to get the most out of this exercise. The grind size of the coffee should be a medium-coarse grind, between where you would do a pour-over and a French Press.
Pro-Tip: Between each different coffee you grind for the cupping, grind a very small amount of the next coffee and discard before grinding the full dose of the next coffee. “Purging” your grinder in this way will help ensure coffee grounds help back in the chamber of the grinder don’t mix in with the new coffee.
- Scales – As with any brew method, it is important to accurately weigh your coffee doses. Refer to the chart later in this article to determine the best dose of coffee for your cups.
- Timers – A timer will be required to ensure that we are performing the appropriate steps of the cupping protocol at the right time. The timer on your phone is fine!
- Hot Water – Water should be about 205 degrees Fahrenheit for best results. An electric kettle is great for these purposes as you can use it to pour as well.
- Water Kettle – Unlike pour-over brewing, with cupping we do not need a goosenecked spout with a thin opening. A wide-mouth, large kettle works great to quickly saturate all of the grounds. If you are using goosenecked pour-over kettles, pour quickly and aggressively!
- Water Cups – Cupping participants will be using the same spoons throughout the cupping exercise. Have cups of clean water accessible between each set of cups so that cuppers can rinse their spoons between each cup.
- Spit Cups – Spit cups are also optional, however, when cupping lots of coffees it is easy to become over-caffeinated and that’s never fun. Many cuppers prefer to carry an empty cup with them to spit the coffee samples into after evaluating to reduce the risk of ingesting too much caffeine.
- Cupping Forms – There are a variety of cupping forms available to add some context to what we are looking for when cupping coffees:
- Is there acidity? These are the “bright” notes like green apple or lemon.
- Is there sweetness? It may be jam-like, candy-like, molasses.
- Is it balanced? Do the flavors work well together and are they in balance?
- What is the mouthfeel? Is it syrupy? Thin? Is it silky?
The SCA cupping form is more complex than what is necessary for an exercise such as this. Here is our simplified, KLLR Cupping form:
The SCA has a recommended protocol, which is intended for the industry purposes we discussed previously. The intent of these strictly defined parameters is to create a protocol that is consistent for everyone grading a coffee – if even they are doing so at different times or even in different places.
Remember our audience though: customers. They are coming wanting to have a good time – and maybe inadvertently learn a thing or two while they’re at it. Don’t be afraid to keep things casual and fun.
That said, here are some basic cupping protocol to get you started.
- Grind! Grind the coffee as close as possible to the introduction of water to the coffee. It can be helpful, especially with larger cuppings, to weigh the whole bean coffee out for each cup ahead of time but try to hold off on grinding. Up to 50% of the volatile aromatic compounds in the coffee can leave the grounds within 15 minutes.
Pro-Tip: If you have to grind further out than 15 minutes, cover the cups with plastic wrap.
How much coffee? The amount of coffee required will depend on the size of your cupping bowls or cups. The SCA recommendation is 8.25g of water to 150ml of water.
Short-Cut: If your cup is between 5 and 6 oz., use 9g of coffee. If your cups are 6.5 or 7oz, use 12g of coffee.
- Sniff! Once the coffee is ground, encourage participants to visit the cups and evaluate the aromatics of the fresh ground coffee. When the coffee has been freshly ground, there are gases and volatile aromatic compounds leaving the grounds rapidly and this is typically the most aromatic point to evaluate the coffee.
- Pour! Once everyone has had a chance to evaluate the fragrance, it is time to add the water. Make sure to use filtered water, as you would to brew on any of your equipment, that is heated to around 205 degrees Fahrenheit. Fill the cups as quickly as you can, ensuring to thoroughly mix the water and ground coffee.
- Wait! At this point the grounds need time to steep in the water and extract the coffee. Wait until each cup has been poured for about 5 minutes before proceeding.
- Break! The next step is what is known as “breaking the crust”. While the coffee has been brewing, you’ll noticed that a solid surface of ground coffee has formed on the top of most of the cups. Beneath this layer of “crust” are gases and aromatics waiting to escape. Get your nose as close you can to the surface of the coffee and slowing break this crust layer with your cupping spoon. For best results, break the crust with the back of the spoon and push the grounds and liquid back about 3 times, being sure to get the spoon down toward the bottom of the cup with each push.
- Slurp! About ten minutes after pouring the water, the coffees should be at a good temperature for evaluating. There are taste buds located all throughout your palate and mouth. For this reason, it’s important to spray as much coffee around as much surface area as possible. We do this through aspiration – a high-pressure slurp. So, forget your table manners and make some noise!
- Repeat! The flavors of the coffee – and the way they affect your palate – change as the temperature of the coffee changes. After you go through the cups while they are hot, revisit them a few times in intervals of several minutes and see how the aromatics and flavors evolve.
Write it Down! Record your experiences as you evaluate the coffees. Thinking intentionally about the different aspects of the coffee on the cupping sheet is a great way to build the skill of associating vocabulary with the flavors you are tasting in the coffee. Taking notes will also allow you to compare notes with your fellow cuppers and to have a resource to look back at in the future.
Add Value The point of an event like this, as we have mentioned, is to engage with the community and add value to their experience as our guests. An effective tool in adding additional value – and ensuring that potential attendees who signed up actually show up – is to add a ticket price to the event that is the price of a retail bag of coffee – and include a bag of coffee with each ticket.
If someone has invested in their ticket, they are much more likely to show and providing the bag of coffee reinforces your café as a location to purchase coffee for the house.
Schedule Strategically. A common mistake that leads to a decline in attendance, and eventually a discontinuation of cupping events, for many cafes is scheduling them too frequently. The people in attendance are likely to be regular customers and customers that are especially enthusiastic about coffee. There will likely be a good deal of overlap between attendees of each event. Scheduling cuppings too close together will exhaust your base of attendees.
We recommend doing these events quarterly. Another effective way to schedule cuppings is to schedule them around events like holidays or around the times when you are rotating your coffees offerings, allowing your guests to taste all of the new offerings at once.
With the information about you should have all the tools you need to conduct a fun and engaging coffee cupping event at your café.
When you do, be sure to post photos and tag #kllrcoffee!