What is Coffee Cupping?

Coffee cupping bowls lined up on a table

Honolulu Coffee Cupping Lab

What is Coffee Cupping?

A coffee cupping is a coffee tasting or sampling event! An experience, if you will. At the store level, it’s a way for us to check for quality and consistency in the coffee that we are roasting day to day. On a global level, cupping is how coffee is evaluated, graded and eventually priced all over the world. It is a universal procedure that is done the exact same way across the globe. This creates a common language so that a coffee farmer in Guatemala, a coffee importer in London, and a coffee roaster in Hawai’i are all using the same process and terminology to taste and evaluate their coffee.

Honolulu Coffee Cupping

Coffee Cupping, Step by Step

Step 1: Setting the Table

The table will be set up with a group of cups for each coffee being tasted that day. Often you are tasting several coffees on the same day, so there will be several groups of cups set up. Each cup for each coffee will contain exactly 10 grams of coffee beans that will all be ground on the same setting. We generally use multiple cups for each coffee being tasted to ensure that each coffee gets a fair chance; with so few beans being used in each cup, a single bad bean can throw off the quality of the entire cup! By using several cups for each coffee, we can ensure that we are getting a more well-rounded tasting. 


Step 2: The Fragrance

After the beans are ground you take note of the smell of the dry grounds. This is known as the fragrance. Scent is a very strong sense; sometimes when smelling coffee we are reminded of a particular food or even a memory. All of these little pieces of information help us figure out what is going on in each cup. A helpful tip is to smell the back of your hand between each coffee, this is a way of hitting “reset” on your sense of smell. 

Honolulu Coffee Cupping


Step 3: The Brewing Begins

After you smell the fragrance of each cup, 6 oz. of hot water (about 200 degrees) will be poured directly on top of the grounds. This is the most honest way to experience what a coffee has to offer. No filters, no coffee machines or fancy brewing methods, just the grounds and the water. Once the water is added, a crust of coffee grounds will begin to form on the surface of each cup. Now the coffee must brew for four minutes. From this point on, it is best to leave the cups where they are on the tables to avoid any jostling of the coffee grounds. During the 4 minutes that the coffee is brewing, you should smell each of the cups again. The scent of the wet grounds is known as the aroma. You might smell something completely different in the aroma than the fragrance, or the aroma might reinforce the same thoughts you had with the fragrance!

Step 4: Breaking the Crust

After 4 minutes have passed you will take a spoon and “break the crust,” releasing all of the pent up aromatics that were held in by the crust. Next, very gently stir the top of the cup so that those previously floating coffee grounds will now go to the bottom of the cup. After that, there will then be a film on the surface  that you will then have to scrape away with spoons. This film is made of oils and particulates that would disrupt the taste of the coffee. 

Honolulu Coffee Cupping Breaking the Crust

Step 5: Tasting Round 1

The coffee will then have to sit for an additional 6 minutes so it can cool to a proper tasting temperature (it should be about 10 minutes from when you initially added the water). Once it has, you’ll use a spoon to taste the coffees, rinsing the spoon between uses to make sure you are starting with a clean slate every time you taste a new coffee. When you taste, remember to slurp as much and as loudly as possible. This serves two purposes.  First it engages your olfactory system, which is important since smell makes up roughly 75% of what you taste. It also ensures your entire palate is exposed to the coffee all at once. So, slurp loud and proud! The first round of tastings often takes place in silence (or at least without talking about what we taste). The human mind is incredibly susceptible to suggestion, so as soon as someone says, “Oh, this tastes like strawberries!” that is what everyone is going to taste, too! We want everyone to have an opportunity to develop their own thoughts before the discussion begins.


Step 6: Tasting Round 2

As the coffee cools, you will notice that you might taste new flavors. So, typically, you will have several rounds of tasting. At this point, the host of the cupping will say when it’s okay to start talking about what you’re tasting. 

Honolulu Coffee Cupping

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And that’s that! A Coffee Cupping from beginning to end. Here at Honolulu Coffee Company, coffee cuppings are a regular part of our work-flow.  Everyone from our roasters to our baristas attends these cuppings to keep our palates sharp, ensure quality week to week, and make sure we are very in tune with the coffee that we are serving on a daily basis. 


A Note on Tasting 

When talking about what you taste in coffee, it is common to have an SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) Flavor Wheel nearby. This is a wheel of flavor descriptions that was put together by over 1,000 tasting experts from various fields, and it is a great tool to use during a cupping. The wheel goes from very broad descriptions to very detailed descriptions.


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