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:
- 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.
- Be sure to have buckets for spitting on hand. If desired, lay out sensory cues for reference, like berries, citrus, caramel, nuts, and florals.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?