They call it "cupping" -- tasting coffees in as neutral a setting as possible, to suss out their faults and features and to compare various beans and roasts. You could just brew a bunch of different coffees in your percolator and drink them, but following the established formal procedure makes it easier to evaluate the differences and similarities and learn to recognize different beans' characteristics. Here's a rundown of how to do it with a group of friends.
What You'll Need
- A set of different coffees you want to compare. Select an array of coffees which provides an interesting comparison: four from the same region, perhaps
- A coffee grinder
- Hot water
- A kitchen scale
- Small cups, at least two for each coffee
- Two tablespoons
- Trays or glasses for displaying the beans
- Paper labels
- A table
- A clock or timer
- A Thermometer
- Optional: Notebooks or preprinted forms for taking notes
Tip: All sorts of cupping supplies and resources can be purchased from the Specialty Coffee Association of America.
How to Proceed
Place a quantity of each bean in a tray or glass for viewing, handling and sniffing. Notice the shape, color and texture of the beans. Keep track of which is which. You can label each with its name, or just with a letter code if you want to conduct a blind tasting.
Next, prepare the coffees. Here's how.
Step 1: Brew and Steep
For each coffee, you want to weigh out 14 grams of beans and grind them quite coarsely. Dump the ground coffee into one of your tasting cups, give everyone a quick chance to sniff the ground coffee and take notes, and then, before too long, pour in 7 fluid ounces of 202-degree water to thoroughly soak the grounds. Prepare two such cups for each coffee; the duplication minimizes the risk that a single bad bean will throw off the tasting.
Try to keep the grind consistent for every batch. A burr grinder is far preferable for this purpose than a spinning-blade grinder.
To obtain water of the proper temperature without a thermometer, bring a kettle to a boil and then let it cool for about 30 seconds before pouring.
Step 2: Break the Cap
After a cup has steeped for 4 minutes, it's time to "break the cap." A crust of grounds will be floating on the top of the cup. Get your nose right up to the surface of the cup, take a spoon, and push it down through the cap to break it up. You will be rewarded with a waft of aroma. Evaluate this aroma. Give each participant a chance to break a cap.
After the caps have been broken and the grounds have settled a bit, use a pair of spoons in tandem to skim any floating grounds off the top of the cups.
Step 3: Taste
At this point, the pros let the coffees cool for 20 minutes since they're primarily looking for flaws in the beans. But you don't have to wait quite that long.
With a clean spoon, take a scoop of liquid from one of the cups and suck it in as noisily as possible. This mixes the coffee with air and distributes it nicely around your mouth (and hopefully not elsewhere). Breathe in and out through your nose. Taste as thoroughly as possible.
Try each coffee.
Step 4: Take Notes
Don't talk about the coffees while you're tasting them -- write down your notes and compare notes afterward.
You can write impressionistic notes, or fill out questionnaires if a more structured tasting is helpful.
Download some samples of cupping forms for taking notes.