How can strawberries & cream, Sour Patch Kids, and Concord grapes possibly describe a coffee? Doesn’t coffee just taste like - well, coffee? Similar to wine, a whole range of factors affect the taste of coffee. The soil, the altitude, the growing practices, the variety of plant, and how it is processed can all dramatically change the taste of coffee before we even get our hands on it. Prior to us selling a coffee in our stores we cup several beans before picking our favorites.
Cupping coffee is how we pick out our tasting notes and decide how to describe the coffee to our customer. If you have never cupped a coffee before it can look ridiculous with lots of slurping and up close sniffing. We start by grinding the coffee into ceramic cups and smelling it dry; we then pour hot water on the grounds and sniff again. The amount of water and coffee, the water temperature, and even the cups we use all follow the protocol set forth by Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). By following the same rules every time we know for certain that the differences we taste are from the coffee and not our brewing methods!
After a four minutes we break the coffee by pushing the grinds across the surface of the liquid while, yet again, taking deep whiffs of the aroma. Next, we use spoons to skim the grinds off the top, so we can finally begin tasting the coffee.  We take a spoonful of coffee and slurp it very loudly to cover the entire tongue. Each coffee is sampled several times to pick up on all the subtleties and different aspects of the coffee. We follow the SCAA cupping form and rate each coffee on aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, uniformity, balance, sweetness, whether it’s a clean cup, and it’s defects. By the end of a tasting everyone in the room is highly caffeinated.

As you can imagine, cupping coffee is a learned skill which our staff has to practice often in order to effectively describe our coffee. We use a flavor wheel to guide us, but figuring out what citrus –whether its grapefruit or tangerine- a coffee tastes like takes a skilled palate. Coffee is wonderfully complex and the subtleties found in each cup can delight anyone who wishes to challenge and hone their taste buds.