November 28, 2016

How to Cup Coffee & Improve Your Palate


Whether you’re a roaster, barista, or consumer, learning how to cup will enrich your coffee experience.

Roasters, this is a vital skill for you: how else will you evaluate your beans and roasts? Baristas, you need to cup to purchase coffees. And coffee drinkers, you don’t need to learn how to cup – but I guarantee that you’ll appreciate your coffee more if you do. You’ll understand the intricacies of the flavours. You’ll be able to detect the roast, the origin, and even the impact of the processing method.

You’ll never drink a coffee in the same way again.

I’m the Head Roaster of Cloud Picker Coffee, so cupping is second nature to me. I’m here to explain how to do it – and how to improve at it.

Spanish Version: Cómo Catar Café y Desarrollar tu Paladar


The start of the cupping process. Credit: Agnieszka ( Aga) Baranowska  

Leave Your Preconceptions Behind

The first thing we need to do, even before we prepare the cupping table, is make sure we have the right mindset.

Maybe you, like me, prefer light roasts over dark roasts. Many specialty lovers do: it’s much like preferring your steak rare or medium rare over well done. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy a well done steak on occasion – or a dark roast. We just have to accept it for what it is.

Don’t drink that coffee thinking “This is a dark roast and so I will only taste that roast”. Instead, be open to the flavours.

As a coffee enthusiast, I judge every single cup I drink. That doesn’t mean deciding which ones are “no good”. It means being genuinely interested in what that coffee has to offer.

Gather the Essentials for Cupping

Okay, let’s get ready to cup! You’re going to need the following:

  • Your coffee(s)
  • A kettle
  • Weighing scales
  • Water
  • Some glasses/cups
  • A timer
  • Two cupping spoons (similar to soup spoons)
  • A grinder (unless you bought the coffee already ground)

Your cupping essentials. Credit: D. Kelly

Set Up Your Cupping Table

You want your coffee to be a medium grind (similar to sand). Put 10g in each cupping glass or bowl. Don’t forget to label them with which coffee it is! You may prefer to use numbers or letters so that you’re doing a “blind cupping”; this will remove any (unconscious or not) expectations.

Next, boil your water and pour 150 ml into each glass. Start the timer as you do this.


How to set up your cupping table. Credit: Café Jen

Break the Crust

You’ll notice that, after a minute or so, a layer of coffee grounds will settle at the top of the glass. This is called “the crust”. Four minutes in, it’s time to break that crust. This is also going to be your first opportunity to analyse the coffee – by its aroma.

Take your spoon and put it about 2 cm towards the edge of the glass closest to you. Lean in close to the coffee so you can really smell it as you do this. Slowly push the coffee bed away from you using the underside of the spoon (just like in the picture below).

Now you’ve broken the crust, you need to remove it. Use two spoons to scoop it out from the top. Try not to disturb the coffee or take too much out.


Breaking the crust. Credit: D. Kelly.

Start Tasting

Now we can get to the most exciting part – tasting the coffee! But first, I like to leave it to cool a little first. Not everybody does this, so do whatever you find works best for you.

When you cup, dip your spoon in to get a small amount of coffee, and slurp. Yes, slurp. The louder the better. The reason is that slurping aerates the coffee. This means it is being spread across your tongue, allowing the taste receptors to help out.

After slurping the coffee, you can swallow it or spit it out. Most people spit, since they don’t want to be over-caffeinated. You can carry a small cup around the table for this purpose.

You’ll want to do a few rounds of tasting the coffee. The flavour will change as it cools. Sometimes it will be a subtle change, but other times it will be an overwhelming difference. This is primarily because our ability to taste depends on the temperature. In a cupping, it’s also because the coffee is still extracting.


After breaking the crust, you’re ready to taste the coffee. Credit: Wogan Coffee Roasters

SEE ALSO: VIDEO: Why Cup Different Roast Profiles?

Record Your Cupping Scores

Cupping isn’t the only way to taste coffee, but many think it’s the best way to score it. And that’s a really useful way not  to only evaluate coffees but also to compare them.

A basic score sheet might have the following categories: sweetness, acidity, body, and balance. For beginners, these are great labels to start with. After you’ve done enough cuppings, you’ll notice that you can easily identify sweetness or acidity.

Once you’re confident in this, you’re ready to move onto specific flavours such as blackcurrant (common in Kenyan coffees).


Record your scores to keep track of your impressions. Credit: Kengi Tsui

Identify Specific Flavours

I recommend keeping a flavour wheel to hand and then using the process of elimination. Start, for example, by asking “Is this coffee nutty?” If yes, try to decipher which nut. If no, maybe move to “Is it fruity?” If yes, “Is it more like citrus fruits or berries?”

And if you’re stuck – if, for example, you think it’s almost tangerine, but not quite – take a look at the flavour wheel for inspiration.


Just some of the flavours you can find in coffee. Credit: Jacques David via Pixabay

Develop Your Palate

Developing your palate is something you can work on constantly. Practise, practise, and practise cupping. Try to identify the profile of every coffee you drink.

What’s more, you can develop your palate even when you’re not drinking coffee. Stop just eating your food and learn to actually taste it. Appreciate the flavour. And try to remember it. Because how can you recognise blackcurrant in a Kenyan coffee if you don’t know what blackcurrants taste like?

One fun game to play is blind tasting. I actually got it off of Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen, and it’s hard! Close your eyes and get someone to feed you mystery food. See if you can guess what it is. Because if you can identify those blackcurrants just by the taste and texture, it’ll be even easier to recognise them in the coffee.

Cupping might seem intimidating, but with a little practise it’s not actually that hard. What’s more, it’s an easy way to learn more about coffee. Coffee has over 100 different tastes, aromas, and textures. When you can distinguish them, you’ll begin to appreciate your drink on a whole new level. So get ready to start tasting!

Perfect Daily Grind

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up to our newsletter!