How to set up a coffee cup tasting from home
Matt Haw speaks with champion barista Nicole Battefeld-Montgomery to find out about the role of cup tasting and how it can be carried out from the comfort of your home.
Many newcomers to the intricate world of specialty coffee often recall that strange, sharp slurping noise; others remember the odd shape of the spoons.
However, what might have initially seemed like an eccentric performance is later revealed to be one of the most important stages in the coffee supply chain: a cupping.
A coffee tasting or “cupping” is the standardised practice of brewing and tasting a coffee sample – or more often a range of samples – to comparatively assess their overall quality and sensory characteristics.
Cupping has a long history within the coffee industry, dating back to the quality control measures implemented by 19th-century coffee merchants. Today, it’s standard practice across the entire coffee supply chain, from farm to café.
Initially, green coffee buyers “cup” at origin to decide which lots to purchase. Roasters, on the other hand, perform coffee tastings to undertake quality control of each roast, while baristas cup to select coffees for a menu or to decide which coffees they are going to buy from roasters.
The practice of cupping has, in recent years, been standardised by the SCA and an extensive list of protocols and best practices has been delineated. For those new to coffee, these protocols can appear intimidating, but they ultimately serve a crucial role in assessing and grading coffee.
Despite the meticulous rules and rituals built around it, cupping is a great way to develop your coffee knowledge. As such, it’s absolutely something that people can and should recreate at home.
Nicole Battefeld-Montgomery is the 2021 and 2022 German Brewers Cup Champion.
“It’s only by tasting many coffees side by side that people can begin to better understand some of the fundamental differences between factors like origin, variety, processing method, and roast level,” says 2022 German Brewers Cup champion, Nicole Battefeld-Montgomery.
Setting up a cup tasting at home
Professional coffee tastings are often performed using expensive grinders, and dedicated kettles, bowls, and cupping spoons.
Many roasteries even designate certain spaces to cuppings, and cafés may sometimes use these spaces for their own sessions. However, as Nicole explains, “The beauty of a cupping is that anyone can do it”.
She says that the only specialist equipment you really need is a coffee grinder, while the rest of the equipment can be readily sourced from even the most basic of kitchens. For example, the “industry standard vessel” is a cupping bowl, but Nicole says that any cup will do.
In her case, she often travels with just a grinder and will cup coffees on the road using the SCA’s Golden Cup Standard, which recommends a coffee-to-water ratio of 55g per litre – plus or minus 10%.
“All I have to do is find out how much water the cup can hold,” she explains. “I then go to the SCA website to find the standard cupping recipe and use this to calculate how much coffee I should use for this volume.”
The basic technique, she says, is to add the appropriate weight of ground coffee to your cupping vessel, fill it with water just off the boil, allow it to steep for four minutes, stir three times, and skim the foam off the top.
“I usually let it sit for ten minutes, ”she notes, adding that the flavours become clearer as the coffee cools. The actual tasting is done by spooning a little off the top and aggressively slurping it, ensuring that the coffee is spread across as many of your taste buds as possible.
There are numerous cupping guides out there that can be used as jumping-off points, but to get the most out of a home cupping experience, the best place to start is with a variety of coffees. Professional cuppings can often involve 20-30 different coffees, but an ideal starting point is four or five options.
Many cuppings are also structured around a particular coffee origin or producing region. Alternatively, a home cupping session could focus on a specific process or roast style.
Nicole recommends one fantastic sensory exercise in particular, which involves cupping a single bag of coffee as it ages by taking a sample from the same bag every day, marking its age, and then freezing it until the next session.
“By cupping the samples together at the end of this process, you begin to really understand how a coffee develops from tasting green and gassy to peak flavour, and then stales,” she explains.
Advice for aspiring coffee cup tasters
Though the SCA protocols are incredibly stringent, they ultimately exist to make the process consistent and limit the variables associated with different brew methods.
“At my first cupping, I didn’t quite understand what they were doing,” Nicole admits. “But I quickly began to appreciate that I was tasting a coffee in which the flavour had not been manipulated by technique.”
However, while Nicole has enormous respect for the work that has gone into making coffee tasting as objective as possible, she stresses that there is no right or wrong way to cup. There are, however, a few things that can ensure a home cupping is an enjoyable experience.
“I would always recommend using filtered water,” she illustrates, explaining that this mitigates any effect water quality may have on taste.
She adds that the SCA grading form is also a valuable tool for keeping things objective. This is the form by which all coffees are professionally graded and scored, culminating in a score out of 100. Anything above 80 points is considered specialty coffee.
Referring to these throughout a cupping helps to remind Nicole that sweetness, bitterness, and acidity all play a part in a balanced coffee. The form itself is available as a download from the SCA store and is free to all SCA members.
Although this may make cupping seem complicated, the process can be stripped back to its essential elements at home. She encourages people to focus on perceiving general sweetness, acidity, body, and aftertaste, rather than any unusual flavour descriptors.
There is also a social aspect to cupping that’s sometimes overlooked. Nicole recalls that pre-pandemic, young baristas in Berlin would often meet to cup after work, each bringing a different coffee.
“I don’t do this because I don’t have friends,” she jokes. Ultimately, though, she admits that a home cupping is a perfect opportunity to invite fellow coffee enthusiasts over and develop your coffee knowledge together.