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The Difference Between Good Coffee And Great Coffee

Did you know coffees get graded like wines? That’s right. Professional coffee graders use their senses to smell, sip, slurp, and occasionally spit in order to find the best of the best. It’s all part of what’s known as coffee cupping. The professionals can easily differentiate between good and great coffee.

But how do the pros do it? What qualities separate one brew from another? Are they as complex as the characteristics that distinguish, say… miscellaneous cabernet sauvignons from Napa? Let’s look into cupping a little deeper.

From farmers and roasters to buyers and baristas, experts at every stage of the production process use coffee cupping. But cupping isn’t just for professionals. Learn how you, too, can become a true coffee guru by following these cupping steps with us.

Step 1: Grind the beans

According to the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), the coffee used for cupping should be freshly ground so that 70-75 percent of the grinds pass through a 20-mesh sieve. To accomplish this, use a medium to coarse grind setting and aim for your grounds to be similar in texture and size to sea salt.

The SCA’s optimal ratio of coffee to water is 8.25 grams to 150 ml. At this point, you’ll want to have your cups lined up and ready to receive the grinds. Measure out your 8.25 grams into each cup – and don’t forget to prepare at least two cupping bowls per sample! This will help you determine consistency when it comes to the taste and flavor of each sample.

Step 2: Smell dry grounds for aroma

When cupping your grounds, it’s helpful to use a cup with a wide mouth so you can really get your nose in there during this second step of the cupping process. What flavors are coming to mind for you at this stage? Do you smell caramel, vanilla, or honey? It may be helpful at this point to start jotting down notes about the aromas for when it’s time to compile your findings at the end.

Step 3: Brew coffee for 3-5 minutes at 200F

Next, get ready to brew that tasty cup! The most important thing to remember at this stage is temperature. Always use clean, potable water for your brew – never distilled or softened — and heat it to 200º F. Once it’s hot enough, pour the water directly over the grounds. Be sure to fill it up to the rim, so that all of the grounds are wet and completely covered in water. You may be eager to start tasting, but it’s not quite time for that. First, you’ll want to let the coffee brew for 3-5 minutes.

Step 4: Break the crust

Once your coffee has been steeped, the coffee grounds will form a “crust” along the top of the cup. Now it’s time to break out the spoons and break that coffee crust! To do this like a pro, use the back of your spoon to push the coffee grounds toward the back of the cup, allowing them to sink to the bottom. Time to use your sniffer once again. Do the wet grounds smell different than when they were dry? How do the two aromas compare? Take some additional notes here.

Step 5: Clean the coffee

Once the grounds have settled on the bottom of the cup, use your spoon to skim out any remaining grounds and foam that may have accumulated at the top. It’s helpful to keep a dumping bowl nearby for this part of the process. Dump those out into your bowl and be sure to clean your spoons between each cup. We’re talking to you, double-dippers!

Step 6: Start slurping/tasting coffee

Now the fun really begins. Fill your spoon with coffee and start slurping! After all, this is no time for polite sipping. The goal with slurping is to make sure the coffee is aerated and spread all over your mouth, completely covering your tongue and palate with each spoonful. This will allow you to taste the range of flavors the coffee has to offer. As it cools, the range of flavors will, too. So be sure to take note of these differences.

Step 7: Insert notes about the aromatics & flavor

Once you’re done tasting, take notes on the aroma and flavor of each sample. Does it have a fruity or floral scent? Is the taste sweet or sour or chocolatey? How do the different samples compare to one another? This is where you will begin to see the complexity of flavors that exist within each individual blend.

Step 8: Pat yourself on the back

Congratulations! You’ve made it to the end of the cupping process. Now that you’ve tested the different coffees, it’s time to give them each a coffee cupping score. This is the part where the SCA’s Q graders distinguish commercial and specialty coffee. Now that you know how coffee cupping works, read our blog post on coffee cupping scores to see how to grade your coffee like a pro, too!

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