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Behind the Scenes at a Starbucks Coffee Cupping

Cupping: A Surefire Way to Learn More About Coffee

While in Seattle for Starbucks Coffee College, I had a chance to do everything from visiting the first Starbucks location to learning how coffee beans get roasted. But my favorite experience took place in the company's tasting rooms, where I learned how to evaluate coffees by a practice known as "cupping." See how I took my coffee appreciation to the next level — and how you can, too — when you read more.

Tasting, or "cupping," allows professionals to evaluate a bean's flavor and aroma characteristics by smelling and slurping coffee. At Starbucks, coffee cupping is done for purchasing as well as quality control — although our two sessions were purely for educational purposes. In the first session, an "around the world cupping," we compared the aromas and flavors of single-origin coffees from of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Indonesia in a side-by-side tasting, to understand the distinctions on the palate between coffees from a multitude of countries. In a second tasting, we compared flavor profiles in coffee blends, noting their varying levels of acidity, body, and earthy, floral, citrus, and fruity characteristics.

If you enjoy coffee but don't consider yourself an educated drinker, I highly recommend conducting a cupping; you'll not become a more sophisticated coffee taster, but you'll also take away the ability to articulate which specific attributes you like in your coffee. Here's how to begin:

  1. Start with several bags of just-bought coffee, either with different flavor profiles, or from different countries (or both). They should be fresh, and ground finely, in the manner of an espresso grind.
  2. Be sure to have buckets for spitting on hand. If desired, lay out sensory cues for reference, like berries, citrus, caramel, nuts, and florals.
  3. For each brew, use four tablespoons of coffee to eight or nine ounces of water — double the strength of regular coffee. This helps make flavors more pronounced and unveils potential defects. Place the grounds in a small bowl; pour over 200ºF water, and allow grounds to infuse for about four minutes.
  4. Observe the smell first, breaking the crust of grinds on top and stirring the bowl gently. Scoop away any left on the top of the bowl with spoons.
  5. To taste, bring a spoonful of coffee up to your mouth, inhale, then slurp the coffee to the roof of your mouth and sides of your tongue, detecting any flavors and fragrances. Compare various cups side by side; note the differences in body, aroma, acidity, sweetness, and astringency.

Have you partaken in coffee cuppings before? If so, what were your takeaways?

Getting ready for our "around the world" coffee tasting, in Element, one of several rooms used for cupping.

A highly concentrated cup of coffee before its seal has been broken.

Starbucks's June Ashley demonstrating how to break the seal.

A single origin brew, ready for tasting.

I was given a "coffee passport" to help navigate me through the tasting.

Each page represented one of Starbucks's many, many single origin coffees and blends from around the world.

For educational purposes, we were given sensory references such as cremini mushrooms and herbes de Provence to compare with the coffee's flavor profile.

Strawberries and cocoa were the flavor profile for one coffee.

One Latin American coffee had prominent freesia, grapefruit, and lemon notes.

An Asia-Pacific coffee with caramel-like undertones.

At another of our cupping sessions, CEO Howard Schultz popped in to say hello. "Not unlike wine, the more you spend time learning about coffee, the more you realize you don't know," he remarked.

In our second cupping session, rather than comparing coffees by origin, we compared them by flavor profiles: Acid and citrus, floral and citrus, earthy, etc., and noted the distinctions.

A spoon is used to taste from each cup. In between cups, we rinsed our spoons in hot water.

The first step in cupping is to note any prominent aromas.

Slurping is highly suggested in order to get as much aroma and flavor as possible — the louder the better!

The method: Smell, slurp, spit; dip in water; repeat, all the way down the line.

Spittoons for the already-tasted coffee.

Fifteen people comprise the Starbucks coffee quality team; together, they taste more than 250,000 cups of coffee a year. Yes, 250,000. The label pictured here is typical at a cupping, and denotes crucial information about each batch, including its origin.

The long line of coffees waiting to be tasted by the Starbucks Coffee team.

The Starbucks team in action. Considering the sheer volume that must be sampled, palate fatigue is not an option. Tasting is hard work!
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