Cupping is the procedure used by professional coffee makers to perform sensory evaluation of samples of coffee beans. The cupping room is where a lot of coffee tasting and decision making takes place!
The perfect cup of coffee isn’t just about where the coffee comes from - whether it is a world renowned origin or a legendary farm. Every batch of quality coffee, if roasted with a great deal of care and brewed accordingly, has the potential to reach perfect status.
It does also rely upon our senses, values and overall perceptions but if we were to remove these from the equation, we’re left with the following criteria:
The coffee should smell truly amazing, both when it’s been freshly ground and when brewed. In a broad sense it could be chocolaty, nutty, fruity, spicy, citrusy, earthy or floral, but hopefully a finely tuned combination.
The coffee should taste naturally sweet – due to the ripe coffee cherries and careful roasting - and not need any additional sugar. The sweetness will really enhance the flavours, but should never be cloying.
It’s surprising how easy coffee is to taint. The idea of a “clean” coffee is one where all of the aromas and flavours are allowed to really shine, and where they are not masked by unwanted flavours (such as too much earthiness) and taste sensations (starchiness, for instance).
A coffee does not have to have been wet processed or “washed” in order to taste clean, as you can get clean tasting, dry processed “natural” coffees too. However, more care and attention in quality control on the farm is required to get a really clean tasting, natural coffee such as an Ethiopian Harar or from a top Brazilian estate.
The flavour is really a combination of aroma and taste, because as we drink the coffee our noses are monitoring the aromatic compounds, and our tongues perceive the taste sensations. The best flavour is that which is complex, with lots to keep our senses interested, but without bitterness, skewed tastes or unpleasant aromas.
The word “acidity” when used in the context of drinks, such as crisp, acidic white wines, often seems to put people off. In a way, acidity in coffee is similar to the use of chillies in cooking as both give a generous lift to the flavours involved.
Some coffees have high acidity (especially the washed coffees of East Africa), and these can be an acquired taste let alone hard to pull off effectively (bad acidity is pretty sour but a perfectly realised, acidic coffee is majestic). But without any acidity, a coffee would taste flat, dull and flabby and it does contrast really nicely with sweetness.
This is all about texture and feel. A great coffee should be smooth, rounded and sensual. It could have a light or full body, but ideally it will feel silky and complement the coffee’s flavours.
Like a classical orchestra, you could have the very best individual elements but if they are all playing a different tune, then the effect is a shambolic disappointment, not a sensory treat. So this is the case with great coffee – the individual characteristics must combine and work well together – balanced and harmonious.
The final question is; does the coffee stay with me? Do I still have positive flavours in my mouth when I’ve put the cup down? If the answer is a resounding “yes”, then the coffee is finishing well. So what we actually want is a sweet, aromatic, complex, lively, smooth cup of coffee, with great balance and a satisfying aftertaste.