How to set up a home coffee cupping

Coffee cuppings are used throughout the coffee industry to identify the qualities and characteristics of different coffees, and they’re also able to be set up at home. If you’d like to taste coffee like a professional, here’s how to set up a home cupping.

What is the Purpose of Coffee Cupping?

Coffee cuppings provide a consistent and objective method of assessing the quality and profile of a coffee. From the brewing process to the taste assessment, every aspect of a cupping is standardized to ensure uniformity in the process. It’s this uniformity that allows coffee industry professionals to accurately talk about different coffees with one another.

The Role of Cuppings Within the Coffee Industry

Industry professionals use cuppings to determine which coffees they might be interested in and to grade coffees against one another. At almost every stage after processing, coffee is cupped to confirm quality and characteristics. A typical coffee might be cupped numerous times by different professionals:

Processor: A coffee processor will cup to determine the profile and quality of their different coffees. The cuppings will form the basis for how they combine (or don’t combine) coffees together, and for how they grade the different coffees.

Importer: An importer will cup to confirm quality and characteristics, and to compare different coffees with one another. The cuppings will be a primary consideration when deciding which coffees to import.

Roaster: A roaster will perform multiple cuppings. They’ll cup much like an importer, checking quality and comparing options when deciding which coffees to purchase. They’ll then perform one or more profile roasts to determine how best to roast each of the coffees they purchase. Some roasters will continue performing spot-check cuppings to ensure their production roasts meet their quality standards.

The importer and roaster cuppings will be collapsed together in direct trade relationships, where the roaster buys coffee directly from a farmer or processor. In other situations, some industry businesses are so large that multiple graders, buyers and/or roasters will cup a coffee before it reaches the customer.

The Role of Cuppings at Home

Cuppings take on a slightly different role when done for personal use at home. While a few home coffee aficionados might use cuppings to profile different roasts if they roast at home, the home-roasting community is a small minority of coffee drinkers. For most, home cuppings’ primary roles are to help coffee drinkers explore and compare different coffees.

The cupping rubric serves as a useful paradigm through which you can explore a coffee. While you’ll undoubtedly notice certain features on your own, cupping will force you to consider every possible aspect of the brew. This often includes considering aspects that you’d likely overlook, and can increase your appreciation for a coffee as a result.

When cuppings are done alongside one another, they allow you to accurately compare two different coffees. Comparing coffees in a home setting can be difficult, as maintaining consistency across all brewing variables isn’t easy without a professional setup. Should even one variable change when brewing different coffees, the variable can impact the brews and interfere with truly tasting each of the coffees.
By standardizing all steps of the brewing process, cuppings ensure that the only thing you change is the coffee itself. Therefore, you can accurately see how two (or more) different coffees taste under the same brewing conditions.

What Is a Cupping Score?

A cupping score is the rubric through which a coffee is assessed. The overall score reflects the coffee’s quality, and the category scores (which contribute to the overall score) show the coffee’s profile. From a cupping score, you know how good a coffee is and what it’s like.

The Cupping Score

The cupping score is comprised of 10 categories that are as follows:

  • Fragrance/Aroma (Dry and Wet)
  • Flavor
  • Aftertaste (Finish)
  • Acidity (Brightness)
  • Body
  • Uniformity
  • Balance
  • Clean Cup
  • Sweetness
  • Overall

Each category is ranked on a 0 – 10 scale (10 being the best), and the overall score is the sum of the categories. The maximum overall score is thus 100, but there’s likely never been a true 100 coffee in the history of specialty coffee. Virtually no coffee is perfect in every category.

According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), the category scores can be described with these adjectives:

  • 6.00 – 6.75 is “Good”
  • 7.00 – 7.75 is “Very Good”
  • 8.00 – 8.75 is “Excellent”
  • 9.00 – 9.75 is “Outstanding”

The SCAA doesn’t have adjectives for scores under 6.00, because coffee with category scores below that level won’t qualify as specialty coffee. The SCAA also does have a place to subtract points from the overall score for taints (2 points each) and faults (4 points each), but most coffee that’s sold by specialty coffee shops and roasters won’t have these negative traits.

The standard cupping form from the SCAA has a grid for cupping scores, and the grid also includes places to note the roast level of and any personal notes about a coffee.

Once a coffee is cupped, however, it can be helpful to diagram the cupping score on a circle where each category has a place on the circumference and there are ten rings from the center to the edge. Each category score can then be mapped onto the circle, giving a visual of where the coffee is strong and where it’s weak.

Cupping Score Subjectivity

Even though cuppings are highly standardized and there’s consensus within the coffee industry on what different scores correspond to, any judging system like this will still have some inherent subjectivity.

Because of the subjectivity, cupping scores are most helpful when in these three situations:

  • The score is determined by someone with certification from the SCAA and has proven they can assess coffees according to industry standards
  • Multiple scores are determined by the same person, who may be subjective but should be subjective in the same way across all of the coffees they cup
  • The score is determined by you, as you can give a personal assessment of how you view a coffee

Scores from multiple uncertified individuals should be considered carefully, because the individual scorers might not rate the same way. This is especially important to keep in mind when roasters or cafes are selling coffee, as they may have an incentive to inflate their scores slightly.

How To Set Up a Home Cupping

While the steps for a coffee cupping are detailed and standardized, cuppings actually require very little specialized equipment. As long as you have a burr coffee grinder and whole bean coffee, you likely have everything needed to set up a home cupping. All other equipment requirements have potential workarounds.

What Equipment and Supplies Do You Need for a Home Cupping?

Before beginning a home coffee cupping, gather the following equipment:

  • Coffee Grinder: Should be a burr grinder for consistent grind size.
  • Kitchen Scale: If you don’t have a kitchen scale, get a new bag of coffee and measure how many tablespoons are in the bag. Then, use a ratio to determine how many tablespoons you need in order to have the right amount of coffee based on weight. (E.g. If a 12-ounce bag of coffee has 36 tablespoons, each tablespoon equals 0.33 ounces.)
  • Temperature-Controlled Kettle: Cuppings should be completed at ~200o F. If you don’t have a temperature- controlled kettle, you can use a thermometer or wait 30 seconds after a kettle boils. A half-minute will cool the water to approximately this temperature.
  • Coffee Cup: Cuppings are brewed directly into a coffee cup. A small cup, akin to a teacup will work better than a large coffee mug.

How Much Coffee Do You Use for a Cupping?

Coffee should be weighed rather than measured volumetrically (i.e. with a scoop), because density can vary depending on bean varietal, growing conditions and roast level. Weighing coffee ensures a more consistent ratio of coffee to water.

The official coffee-to-water ratio for cupping is 8.25 grams of coffee per every 150 milliliters of water, and the guides allow for a variance of +/- 0.25 grams. 150 milliliters is ~0.63 cups, so most people use either 8.25 or 16.5 grams of coffee per cupping. Many people choose to double the amount of coffee they’re cupping, so they can enjoy drinking the coffee after scoring it.

If you don’t have a kitchen scale to weigh coffee by the gram with, an alternative method is described above. A little less than 1 gram of coffee will likely be sufficient for a cupping of 300 milliliters, but the coffee should be accurately measured out because precision is the reason to conduct a cupping.

How do You Grind for Cupping Coffee?

The coffee for a cupping should be ground fresh, otherwise the coffee’s full range of aromas and flavors won’t be present in the cup. Official SCAA guidelines call for grinding coffee within 15 minutes of cupping, or 30 minutes if you cover the grounds.

The grind size should be just slightly coarser than what you’d use for a paper drip filter, which is typically a medium grind. A half-step coarser than medium is about the right grind setting.

How Do You Brew When Cupping Coffee?

Once the water and coffee grounds have been properly prepared, the process of actually brewing coffee for a cupping may be the simplest way to make coffee:

  1. Place the grounds in the bottom of your cup.
  2. Pour the hot water over the grounds.
  3. Allow the grounds to steep for 3 – 5 minutes.
  4. Break the crust by stirring three times.

The grounds should fall to the bottom of your cup when the crust is broken, and you sample the coffee directly from the cup with the grounds still in it.

How Do You Score When Cupping Coffee?

The process of scoring a coffee cupping is more complex than the brewing process. Scoring involves a detailed process:

  1. Fragrance/Aroma: Sample the dry fragrance/aroma by sniffing the dry grounds after grinding. Sample the wet fragrance/aroma by letting the foam drip down the back of your spoon after stirring to break the crust. Mark both the dry and wet fragrance/aroma.
  2. Flavor, Acidity, Body, Balance & Flavor: After the coffee has cooled to 160o F (8 – 10 minutes after brewing), aspirate or slurp the coffee so that it covers your palate. Mark flavor and aftertaste first, as the flavors are most present when the coffee is still warm.
    As the coffee continues to cool from 160o F to 140o F, assess the acidity and body. Then, assess the balance based on how well the flavor, aftertaste and acidity go together.
  3. Sweetness, Uniformity & Cleanliness: After the coffee cools to room temperature (at least below 100o F), evaluate sweetness, uniformity and cleanliness.
  4. Scoring: Once all categories have been scored, assign an overall score and add all category scores for a total score.

The ten category and overall scores are your cupping score for the coffee.

Appreciate Coffee More by Cupping

Cupping coffee at home isn’t so much to judge a coffee, but rather to increase your knowledge of and appreciation for different coffees. Try cupping different coffees, and see how you learn to experience the aromas, flavors, bodies, acidites and overall profiles of coffees even more. You’ll gain knowledge that will serve you well both when cupping coffees and when simply drinking a good brew.