Based in Toronto, Ontario, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Archival posts from my former blog, Walking and Talking

Coffee Cupping: How to Taste like a Pro


If you hang around "third-wave" coffee houses or coffee geeks you probably have heard the term "cupping." Yesterday I learned the basics of how it works at Irving Farm Coffee Roasters' spanking new Loft, not too far away from Union Square.

"Cupping" is the term coffee buyers use for tasting and evaluating coffees. At my Intro to Cupping class, we learned there are three categories of aromas that we'd be looking for. Enzymatic aromas relate to the plant-based characteristics of the coffee bean, and include the floral, citrusy and berry-like. Sugar burning aromas are the result of the sugars in the bean meeting heat. Not surprisingly, these tend to the deeper end of the spectrum: nut, malt, syrup, honey, chocolate or vanilla. Then there are the dry distillate aromas, which go even deeper, into territory that might be described by expert cuppers as smoky (pipe tobacco), ashy, medicinal (camphoric), or warming (cedar, pepper).

Our instructor Josh Littlefield even provided us with this handy flavor wheel to arm us with some descriptive adjectives to apply to our smell and taste sensations later on. As with my sake tasting experience, a big part of being able to identify the different aromas you discern is having the descriptive vocabulary to attach to them. Those terms make it easier to remember and describe different coffees or sakes.




The tasting was a two-part process: first we tasted from coffee that had been brewed with 205-degree fahrenheit water poured over grounds and steeped for about four minutes. A "crust" forms on top, so we slid our spoons in at 45-degree angles to break the crust and scoop up clean brewed coffee. We slurped and inhaled at the same time to maximize access to the aromas, tasting five different coffees that ranged from super peanutty to tea-like, to umami-filled, to one that tasted like blueberries. Our favorite was the Los Ninos honey process from El Salvador, which instead of being put in a mechanical dryer, is left to dry in the sun, giving it richer, honeyed deliciousness. (To learn the full story of how this coffee farm, Talnamica, and its owners, Hermann and Nena Mendez and their daughter Mayita, became part of the Irving Farm family, read my Edible Manhattan story on Irving Farm here.) Unfortunately Irving Farm has only made a small experimental batch of the Los Ninos; it'll be gone soon.

We then tasted pour-over versions of the same coffees, which lost a bit in aroma bandwith compared to the steeped coffee. To get the fullest range of aromas, Josh recommended a French-press coffee maker.

Here is another cool thing we got to sample: 36 tiny bottles of different coffee aromas (rose, coriander, hazelnut), synthetically replicated by Le Nez du Cafe, a kind of study guide or cheat sheet for coffee professionals or highly motivated amateurs.



And for a peek into the detail that the pros go into when they cup, here's a page out of Irving Farm's cupping notes, sprinkled with scribblings like "jam toast" or "cherry cola."


Josh told us that there are over 400 aroma/flavor compounds in coffee, more than twice that of wine, though he admitted that wine people might take issue with that claim to tasting complexity hegemony.

For those who are interested, every Thursday at 10 am, Irving Farm holds a public cupping at its Loft.

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