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Cupping?

[This is something I wrote over a year ago. Maybe it’s a good primer, but I reserve the right to disagree with myself on any of these points!]

Coffee Flavour By Numbers:

(Many people would disagree with the intention of this post, which is to in some way quantify the flavours of different roasted coffees. My brain works best with numbers and figures, so I indulge it. I don’t have any delusions that one can completely describe a coffee using a table. Nevertheless, I’d be interested in feedback, as long as it isn’t outright abuse!)

Bit of an intro. Even though describing flavours is very subjective, we find that we can usually agree on the broad characteristics of a coffee’s flavour. For example, I recently described an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe as having an aroma of “peach”, while someone else used the descriptor “apricot” for the same elusive aroma. Obviously, it’s coffee, not peach or apricot juice… but these descriptors are similes – they describe the actual aroma according to what it is like. This is what coffee cupping is all about.

So, without further apologetics or disclaimer, here is a technique we use to help us express what we’re tasting when cupping.

Graphing a Coffee’s Flavour Profile:

This method came from one of my mates who instinctively interpreted the flavour profiles of coffees as “shapes”. No, we’re not talking synesthesia – it’s just that coffee flavours seem to fit into broad categories of “low”, “middle” and “high”.

Low-end Flavours Middle Flavours High-end Flavours
Earthy
Musty
Leathery
Tobaccoey
Smokey
Spicey
Cedary
Herby
Chocolatey
Caramelly
Vannilay
Nutty
Malty
Buttery
Toasty
Grainy
Woody
Fruity
Berryish
Citrussy
Winey
Floral
Acidy
Tart
Lemony

NB. these are all terms I have actually used while cupping – albeit after consulting a cupping vocabulary sheet once or twice.

This makes it possible to draw the flavour profile of a coffee. Here’s a few examples:

Brazil Daterra Peaberry

My cupping notes read – “grainy/toasty spiciness, woody. Full, rounded and sweet. Low acid”. “Spicy” and “woody” describe low-end flavours, most of the others describe “middle” flavours; “low acid” means it doesn’t have much high end. Hence:

Papua New Guinea Wahgi AA

My cupping notes read – “sweet, choc/caramel, earthy and rounded, mellow acid/berry, buttery. Light, clean balancing acids”. In comparison to the Brazil Peaberry, the PNG Wahgi has significantly more balancing acidity (high end), but an over all lower intensity of flavour (lower over all profile). Hence:

Ethiopia Yirgacheffe

My cupping notes read – “floral, fruity (peach), jasmine blossom? Vanilla, marshmallow, citrus sweetness. Sweetly acid, with some lower balance. Forceful acidity”. This is a very different coffee to the other two. Its lack of low and middle flavours means the flavours can get lost in milk-based coffees (though in a blend for milk it is wonderful), but in any black coffee it is interesting and intense. Its shape is very different:

A Note on Blending:

Though I haven’t decided for certain yet, I suspect that when you are blending, you want to use beans that have a mixture of low, middle and high flavours (for an “everyday” blend, in any case). My personal taste seems to be a blend using a middle-heavy beans as a base, with something like the Yirgacheffe to give it a high-end “lift”.

Limitations of this Method:

  • Coffee is about more than flavour – what about body and mouthfeel, for example?
  • It is primarily a measure of the way you roasted the bean rather than a measure of the bean’s inherent characteristics –  a light-roasted bean will generally be acidic whereas a dark-roasted bean might be “smokey” etc.
  • Cupping descriptors are subjective in the first place – this method takes them one step further away from objectivity.
  • Some of the terms might belong in another category.

But I’m not too worried about all that. Give us a hoy if you have any comments.

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