When cupping and evaluating coffee, you have to become like a lion or a jaguar hunting its prey, honing the senses to the finest level possible . Human beings, like all primates, are extremely reliant upon eyesight above all other senses. Our depth perception and color sensitivity are excellent, and we can spot sharp movements from a mile away, or track the motion of an insect from two inches off the ground. But we’re not good smellers, we just aren’t — and that makes it inherently tough to cup coffee.
For really important information, we rely on visual cues. Crosswalk lights are devices that display a bright red hand to keep you out of dangerous traffic; if we were scent-oriented creatures, it would be a device that sprayed the scent of chili peppers into the air to make you stop.
But what a coffee looks like is not very important. There are a few visual cues that you should always take a glance at when evaluating a coffee. You should always check out the visual appearance of the green coffee, as well as the roasted coffee, as well as the grounds. There are size, color, and shape clues there that help you evaluate. (These clues can be quite interesting and arcane, but ultimately they aren’t that important, so we will ignore them here.)
Some people look at a green coffee and decide they don’t like it even before tasting it. In the 1960s and 70s, at the height of the mass-produced commercial coffee industry, coffee experts inspected the color and size-uniformity of their beans to determine quality — often without tasting it at all. The practice of “polishing” green coffee at the milling stage is a remnant of those times.
Screen size is just that — a screen size. It’s not an indicator of quality. The best Kenya I ever tried was an “AB”, one screen size down from an “AA”.
Remember, when we serve a cup of coffee to our clients and customers, we are expecting them to pour it into their mouths, not their eyeballs.
This is tough to remember though, for homo sapiens, because we are such visual creatures. Our senses of smell and taste are notoriously less developed than those of many other animals. So when you cup coffees — when you do any kind of sensory evaluation of coffee — try to become like a hunter, a beast of prey zeroing in on its target.
- Eliminate all other smells from the room: no perfumes, no strong body odors, no food, no garbage, no soaps or air fresheners. No durian fruits and no corpse flowers. The only smells when you inhale should be those of the coffee
- Come with a clean palate. Drink water. Avoid extremely strong or spicy foods directly before cupping. Don’t eat anything while cupping; and limit between-table refreshers to neutral foods like water crackers, or very crisp and clean foods like apple slices. Always cleanse again with water before cupping.
- Be quiet. Don’t make a lot of noise. Don’t talk unnecessarily, and certainly don’t start evaluating the coffee out loud until everyone is ready. Try to avoid distracting music and stay away from loud noises like construction (not always possible, of course!)
- Try to keep the visual background as neutral as possible. This doesn’t mean paint all the walls in your lab grey (though… if you were really serious…). But I am not a big fan of labs that put the old SCAA flavor descriptor posters all around the lab. When facing one direction, tasting one coffee, there’s a big sign that says “NUTS” in the background; and when facing the other direction with another coffee, there’s a sign that says “GRASSY”. How can this not affect our cupping?
- Tactile distractions are less of a problem when cupping. But be aware that the kind of spoon you use affects your evaluation. No need to overthink this, but you really ought to use the same type of spoon every time to avoid unnecessary noise in your data.
Learn the Rules. Follow the Rules. Break the Rules.
Probably it seems like I’m not very much fun when cupping (or at any other time, perhaps). But we all know it’s not possible to follow all these rules all of the time. I can’t count how many times I’ve cupped coffee next to a guy wearing too much cologne; I’ve almost never asked him to leave the room (almost never).
I swear to god I’m not an uptight person. Although as I compiled the list above, I noticed that the walls of the cupping room I have set up in my apartment are, in fact, grey with no posters on them. But anyone who’s cupped a lot with me can tell you I break the “no distracting music” rule all the time. I actually find I get into a groove and focus better when I have certain genres of music on. I’m sure it drives other people nuts sometimes.
You just have to make sure that when you break a rule, it’s deliberate. You should have a good reason for breaking the rule; (and “I’m just feeling lazy today,” is not, of course, a good reason).
What to do when the rules are broken for you
Probably at least half the times I’m trying to do a serious evaluation of some coffee, it’s out of a lab setting. Very commonly, this is in someone’s cafe, or perhaps at a farm, or on a show floor.
In these settings, it’s impossible to have lab-style rigor. Therefore you must create it mentally. How to do this? Here’s what I do:
- Run through the checklist of ideal hunting conditions in your mind: quiet, no smells, no distracting signs, clean palate, etc.
- Take note of your environment: is it a noisy, echoing cafe space? Are the people at the next table eating a smelly cheese omelet? Did someone across the table just shout out that coffee tastes like blueberries? Take all these things into account
- Do not overthink it. This is very important. Do not start forming theories about how all these distractions will affect your tasting and evaluation. Simply note them, and accept them. The goal is to let your mind tune out their influence, not to attempt some kind of counterbalancing mental trick. It would be bad if the word “blueberry” influenced you to call the coffee “blueberry-like,” but it would be even worse if that word caused you to say “Well, I know I’m now predisposed to say ‘blueberry’ so instead I’m going to say ‘burnt and carbony’ because that feels like the opposite of blueberry to me.” Big mistake. Just note, accept, and move on.
- Evaluate with confidence. If the distractions are extreme (especially if they involve eating/drinking other foodstuffs), you should treat your evaluation as only provisional, and wait to evaluate again when your environment is more conducive. But since it’s unrealistic (and not very much fun) to expect all our tasting experiences to be in a quiet laboratory, at some point you have to just assert your view.
- Be tolerant of others but impeccable yourself. Inevitably, someone’s going to blurt out their flavor notes while you are still deep in thought. Or the woman with the world’s worst B.O. is going to stand way too close to you as you try to evaluate the aroma. That’s life. But never let the slack standards of others cause you to get sloppy yourself. Impeccable tasting protocols and manners are the mark of a true professional, and people with experience and seniority will notice it, trust me.
Imagine a lioness hunting out on the savannah. There are hundreds of sensory cues going on all the time — insects buzzing around, the wind moving in the grass, the call of a bird far away, the scents of other lions that have passed this way, the sensation of intense hunger pangs in the stomach. But that lioness tunes it all out as she sniffs out the gazelle 100 meters away. Eyes and ears and especially nose are tuned intently upon her prey. Shutting everything else out, she focuses in on the most important sensory cues. Everything depends on those senses.
Just like the lioness, you’re inevitably going to have distractions. But you tune them out and, importantly, you do everything you can to minimize them — so that your experience is just you and the coffee. You’re a primate too, and not a big cat, and so you have an extra disadvantage when it comes to using scent and taste to make evaluations. Tip the scales back in your favor by manipulating your “savannah” so that there’s nothing else to distract you.