Cupping is the technique used by cuppers to evaluate the flavor profile of a coffee. To understand the minor differences between coffee growing regions, it is important to cup coffees from around the world side-by-side. Cupping is also used to evaluate a coffee for defects or to create coffee blends.
Table Preparation: In a cupping session the table is usually set up with 6 to 10 cups per coffee. These are fashioned in a triangular manner. At the top of this triangle you should place a sample of the roasted coffee and a sample of the green coffee. In the center of the table place a cup of room temperature water and an empty cup containing the cupping spoons. I heavily recommend covering both the green sample and roasted sample until the cupping session is over and the fragrance, aroma, and flavor profile have been documented. After this time the samples could be uncovered and additional comments can be written based on appearance. This method will help reduce the common "eye cupping" technique.
Sample Preparation: To prepare the samples place 2 tablespoons of freshly roasted and freshly ground coffee in a 6 oz cup. Ideally one should use 55g of coffee per liter of water. The grind should be between a French press size and a drip coffee size. The coffee should be roasted light (Agtron 65). In the industry we often stop the roast about 30 seconds into the first crack long before the start of the second crack. This allows us to fully evaluate the coffee for defects and for the sweetness and aroma that are burned off at darker roasts. The roast should be similar for all of the coffees evaluated. During an important cupping session the roast similarity can be verified visually by grinding a portion of each sample and lining the samples up next to each other on a black sheet of paper.
Fragrance and Aroma Analysis: While the filtered water is boiling, smell the grounds and write down your observations. The smell of the grounds (before water is added) is referred to as the fragrance.
Then add hot water just off the boil to each the cup. At this time you should also add hot water to the cup containing the spoons so that the spoons stay at the same temperature as the cups containing the coffee. Smell each cup without disturbing it and write down your initial observations of the aroma.
After 1-2 minutes break the crust of the coffee using one of the preheated spoons. Put your nose directly over the cup and push the coffee down. This is the most potent burst of aroma you will have during cupping and is the best time to evaluate the aroma. As you break the crust stir the cup a little to make sure all of the coffee is covered in water and to help the coffee sink to the bottom of the cup. Add any further description of the aroma to the description you wrote before breaking the crust.
Rinse the spoon in hot water and move to the next sample. After evaluating the aroma of all of the samples, scoop out any grounds that continue to float. Due to the high density of the lightly roasted coffee most of the grounds will sink.
Flavor Profile Analysis: After the coffee has cooled sufficiently take some coffee into the spoon and slurp the coffee strongly to aspirate it over the entire tongue. It is important to aspirate strongly since you are trying to cover the entire tongue evenly. Aspirating strongly will also cause tiny droplets of coffee to be distributed into the throat and into the nasal passage where the nose can act as another powerful tasting tool. Most of the flavor observed in a coffee is a result of aromatic compounds present in the coffee. This effect can be demonstrated by plugging your nose while drinking coffee. While the nasal passage is blocked the coffee will likely taste similar to instant coffee due to its lack of aroma. When the nasal passage is opened a full rainbow of flavors will immediately become evident.
Write down your observations of flavor, acidity, aftertaste, and body. Move to the next cup and try to compare the different cups. As the coffee in each cup cools, it is often possible to detect new flavors. Therefore, it is important to cup a coffee when it is both warm and when it has cooled to just above room temperature. The best coffees will have positive characteristics at both ranges of temperature.
If you are cupping more than a couple cups of coffee, it is advisable to spit out the coffee after evaluation. When cupping several coffees it is possible to have too much caffeine, which can adversely alter your cupping ability.
Conclusions: The key to cupping is practice and humility. The best cuppers I know are modest and always eager to learn more. I have served on cupping juries with some of the best in the world and we do not always agree. The beauty is that we agree to disagree while respecting and trying to identify the characteristics that other people find.
Do not be intimidated by people that try to impress you with some abstract description of a coffee. This is more of a romantic tribute to a coffee rather than a reality. Cupping should be fun and interesting, but not a contest of who is more articulate. On the other hand, your description should be more substantial than a reiteration of a textbook definition of a coffee.
Despite the strict, scientific-like protocol to cupping, the method followed in the industry is quite varied and almost every good cupper has his or her own permutation. Cup under conditions you like, but try to stay close to the standards in case you need to cup with other people.
The secret to becoming a good cupper is simple: trust yourself by practicing regularly and be humble enough to continue to learn from others.