Tasting platters of beer, wine and liquor (also known as “flights”) have become staples of the craft beverage culture. The gourmet coffee scene is a bit different. Since brewing hot coffee involves so many variables – how its roasted and brewed beforehand, the water quality, cooling temperatures – it’s difficult for a single tasting or flight to capture the unique flavors and aromas of a particular coffee. That’s where coffee cuppings come in.
A coffee cupping involves pouring hot water into a cup of roasted, freshly ground beans and steeping for three to five minutes. The concoction is mixed, the foam is removed, and the tasters sniff, slurp and expel the coffee into a spittoon.
Hosting a coffee cupping can be a great way to take your coffee knowledge to the next level, introduce new people to the hobby or just have fun with friends for a couple hours. Here are the do’s and don’ts of hosting your own coffee cupping.
DO: Includes examples of (and exceptions to) each style
The regions and altitudes where coffees grow typically impart certain aromas and flavor profiles to the beans. Including coffees with qualities true to those styles is important, but the exceptions that prove the rule, so to speak, are equally informative. Comparing and contrasting those coffees, as well as discussing where and why they diverge, helps ground the drinkers and set expectations for coffees they’ll taste at the cupping and in the future.
DON’T: Overcrowd tasters’ palettes
In the coffee cupping world, you can definitely have too much of a good thing – after a while, you’ll start even start confusing your Sumatras for your Ethiopians. Over time your palette just gets overstimulated. According to Barnie’s Manager of Coffee Programing Dustin Fleming, the magic number is seven tables, with five cups at each table. Your friends will have enough coffee varieties to sip and slurp without their palettes becoming exhausted.
DO: Cluster similar regions
Arrange your coffees by country, side by side and from light to dark roast, at their own table. Tasters can move down the color spectrum, keeping super roasty “palette wreckers” from coating the mouth and muddling the taste of your more fragile roasts.
DON’T: Neglect the water
Cuppings have the coffees front and center, but the easiest way to bungle a cupping is literally right in front of your face. If your steeping water is too acidic or basic, it can hijack the body and flavor – even the aroma – of the coffee. The Specialty Coffee Association of America guidelines recommend brewing with water that clocks in at 150 parts per million of total dissolved acids, five grains of hardness and about 7 pH. But don’t worry: for your purposes, bottled and filtered (but NOT distilled) water will more than suffice.
DO: Meet people where they're at
How you communicate with guests at a coffee cupping might even be more important than what you’re actually trying to say. Not everyone will have the vocabulary to discuss coffee like an importer or roaster, nor should they. Your friends all bring different experiences, skills and perspectives of the coffee to the cupping table. Find common flavor comparisons and touchstones to discuss the coffee with. Speak their coffee language, not yours.
DON’T: Talk “through” people
The point of a coffee cupping is not to lecture your friend or dazzle them with your voluminous coffee knowledge. It’s allowing guests to discover their own tastes for coffee and giving them the opportunity to articulate exactly what they’re experiencing. Instead of telling your friends what they should be tasting and smelling, ask questions that help them dig deeper into their senses and, by association, the coffee. If your friends are participating, they’re more likely to enjoy themselves and commit to another cupping.
DO: Supplement the cupping
Provide notepads or journals for each guest to jot down their thoughts and opinions on each cup. Try taking things to the next level with a scale rating each coffee’s flavor, aroma and color. Allowing guests to compare their notes and encourage conversation can really help new coffee drinkers and aficionados alike engage with the coffees and, more importantly, each other.
DON’T: Make a mess
The reason you don’t drink your heart rate through the roof at a coffee cupping is the same reason sommeliers don’t get inebriated at a professional wine tasting. Guests at a cupping sip and expel each coffee into a receptacle or spittoon. Needless to say, it may take some time for newcomers to acclimate to cupping’s slurp-and-spit tasting process, and a haphazard environment will only make things more difficult. Keep your cupping tables clean, organized and – please – keep spittoons and other receptacles discreet and sanitary.