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Jenni Uusilehto

What is Coffee Cupping?

There are endless flavour notes to coffee. You can practise observing these through a coffee tasting technique called coffee cupping. Paulig’s chief taster describes how to get started.

The sound of slurping fills the lab. Paulig’s Chief Taster Marja Touri takes a spoonful of coffee from a cup, pours it into another spoon, slurps it into her mouth and then spits it out. It takes no time at all for her to go through all of the ten cups on the table.

The tasting technique used by Touri is called coffee cupping or cup tasting. This is how coffee is tasted by producers and buyers around the world to check the quality of a batch of coffee. In cupping, coffees are scored for aspects such as cleanness, sweetness, acidity, mouthfeel and aftertaste.

How to taste coffee notes

According to the cupping protocol, hot water is poured onto freshly roasted and ground beans directly into the cup and allowed to steep for 3–5 minutes. The infusion is then mixed and the foamy head removed.

The coffee will need to cool before tasting in order to avoid burning your tongue and to allow the flavours to emerge. Two spoons are used, one going in the cup and the other in the mouth. Touri tastes 200–300 cups of coffee during a workday, so spitting out is a must.

In addition to being a quality control method, cupping is an excellent way to increase your knowledge about coffee. Tasting helps you learn how to identify differences between cultivars and countries of origin.   

Comparing helps discover coffee flavours

”Many people think they probably won’t be able to taste anything and are surprised to discover how different coffees actually taste when you do flavour comparisons”, Touri says.

At first it is a good idea to explore the nuances by focusing on whether the coffee tastes nutty or chocolatey or whether it has notes of berries or fruit. Once you start being able to identify flavours, you can start thinking which berry or fruit it could be.

Just like with wine, you can find endless flavour notes to coffee as each harvest is different. Flavour is directly affected by weather and altitude, but the most important roles are played by the soil and the cultivar. Kenyan arabica is acidic and with notes of blackcurrant, while Ethiopian cultivars are floral and delicate. After picking, the flavour of coffee is affected by processing, transport, roasting, grinding, brewing equipment as well as the water used.

”The flavour can go wrong at so many points before the coffee’s in the cup,” Touri points out.

Decades of tasting needed to become chief taster

Although tasting can be practised, becoming a master taster is a different matter altogether. Touri already noticed as a little girl that she had a keen sense of taste.

”The others would be enjoying a fish dish, but to me it tasted just like mud. My mum thought I was picky and difficult.”

Touri started at Paulig in 1985. At first she was a note-taker at quality control.

”The dignified male tasters would taste the coffees and us girls would write their comments down. Once the session was over, we’d take our own spoons and try to find the same flavours in the coffees.”

Before becoming chief taster, Touri was apprentice to the previous chief taster, Lasse Tackman, for 19 years. Rising to the role of chief taster calls for huge interest in coffee as well as patience and good listening skills. A taster has to create a mental bank of flavours from which to look up information as required.

”You use mental images to enter the flavours into your mind file. For example, the off-taste called Rio is impossible to identify if you cannot figure out what it resembles. For me it was easy to learn because it reminded me of the smell of the school chemicals cupboard.”