Defining the quality of a coffee is not so easy because of our consumer behaviours; our taste and cognitive biases can affect our tasting.
The Cupping protocol by Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) comes to our aid by setting some standards, that are reference instruments established to try and limit data errors due to human subjectivity.
At the end of this post I will collect all the useful resources to download or to find on the web.
You will not need them straight away. For now I need you to pay attention: I will show you everything you need step by step.
Now, let’s proceed by grade.
Some of them concern its preparation, others concern the procedure to follow
SCA Standard Protocol defines:
How to roast a coffee sample for cupping
How to grind a sample for tasting
The ideal size of cupping vessels
The quality and temperature of water needed
The coffee/water ratio
The timeframes you need to run every action
Guidelines on how to fill the cupping form
Let’s keep aside for the moment the cupping preparation because I want you to understand first of all the reason for sensory evaluation.
There are three reasons why you run a sensory analysis:
To determine the sensory differences among the samples prepared.
To describe the flavour of your samples
To establish the quality of samples
The aim of cupping protocol is to set the taster’s (also known as cupper) perception of quality. This perception of quality is expressed by using a common language for all cuppers all over the world: this ensures that even cuppers very far away from each other (and therefore with different consumer habits) can discuss together speaking the same language.
The quality of sensory attributes of each coffee are evaluated also based on past cupping experiences. Therefore the more you taste the more you can build a professional lexicon.
The quality and quantity evaluation of every aspect of the coffee is rendered with a number and one or more descriptors, in order to assign a final score to your sample and to be objectively comparable with other samples (of the past, of the present, of the future, yours, of other cuppers).
The cupping form is a valuable tool to objectively analyse your coffee sample, because it allows you to break down the sensory evaluation into a set of different components. It is a lot like having a first impression about a person (that is in fact a cognitive bias) or evaluating one by one every shade of one’s personality in an objective way: it may turn out that the first impression is not always the right one.
The coffee characteristics that are investigated are:
Fragrance, aroma, flavour, aftertaste, acidity, body, balance, uniformity, clean cup, sweetness, defects and complexity.
For some of the sensory perceptions there is a double scale for evaluation: one for the intensity of sensation (vertical scale) and one for quality perception (horizontal scale).
The evaluation starts from the moment you grind the coffee in the cup by taking note of the colour degree of your roast and of the fragrance of the sample (olfactory analysis of dry coffee ground).
This is followed by steeping of coffee in water and then by the aroma evaluation (olfactory analysis on wet coffee ground).
It consists in the evaluation of retro-olfactory and taste perceptions (known with the unique name of “Flavour”) and how these ones change as the brewing temperature drops.
During this phase (in which both smell and taste are envolved) you will evaluate some aspects of the coffee divided into three levels:
If these characteristics are absent for one or more cups this will lower the coffee score.
There is also a particular section in which you can mark defects and their intensity.
Pay attention because what is intended here with “defect” is the detection of an olfactory or flavour sensation of something that is completely off from the typical descriptors (for example notes like medicinal, mouldy, fermented).
Just to be clear: if you perceive an unpleasant sensation of dry fruit shells this is a negative aspect but it's not a coffee defect.
If you perceive something that reminds you of burnt rubber, then this is a defect.
This is actually the only part a little bit more subjective, because it looks at the coffee as a whole and it answers the question “How much do you like it?”.
By the count of all the positive scores (visual analysis + retro-olfactory analysis + overall rating) and all the negative scores (analysis of negative aspects) you can get a final score which provides an objective parameter for the evaluation of that coffee, for its comparison with other coffees and, last but not least, the discussion with other cuppers.
It’s very important that you write down all you can perceive during every step of your evaluation. To help yourself you can refer to the Flavour Wheel for the aroma, the fragrance and flavour, but don't forget to write down also the type of acidity, the consistency, the aftertaste and of all those sensations that the liquid leaves in your mouth.
These will be useful for you for three basic reasons:
To help you understand the quality of the coffee: the more positive notes you will find, the more your coffee will be of higher-quality.
To help you recall to your mind that particular coffee: an unlimited series of numbers does not say that much, particularly after you tasted a lot of samples during the same cupping session. A sensory attribute instead, links you immediately to your experience and the exact moment it happened.
Furthermore, you can discuss with other cuppers about sensory the notes you found: you will be surprised how many of those you share!
But stay silent for now: your impressions can disturb or worse influence other cuppers. The discussion does not come until the very end.
Some links where you can find some useful resources:
Here SCA talks about the cupping protocol:
Usually the cupping form can be found online but for a fee if you want it in high resolution.
I share the copy that we use at Bloom Coffee School for our students
Find it here:
Same goes for the Flavour Wheel. Here it is: