Cupping Coffee


Cupping Coffee

Story and photos by Matt Kelly

The art and science of roasting coffee to taste just right is not for the faint of heart. Especially when it comes to a brand new bean.

“It’s hard to know how a new coffee is going to react when roasted,” says Ben Turiano, co-owner of Joe Bean Coffee Roasters in Rochester.

There’s no way of knowing exactly how to manipulate temperature and time to pull out the best flavors and aromas. Heck, there’s no way of knowing what flavors and aromas are even possible. You don’t just drop the beans in the roaster and hope they turn out good. When you get a new coffee like Rwanda Gishamwana, where do you start start?

“We just drop the beans in the roaster and run them through every heat profile until we find one we like.”

Right. But Ben and Wade Reed don’t just drop the new beans once. To start, they run small batches through every end temperature until they find one that produces flavors they like. Then they roast all new batches to that same end temperature but at different lengths of time, to find a timeline that make the flavors even better. Finally, they roast a third round of beans using the same end temp and timeline but completely mess around with how they hit the different stages of roasting within the timeline. By the time they’re done, Ben and Wade will have roasted about thirty different batches of the new beans.

And they will have cupped each and every one of those thirty batches.

Cupping is the process of turning beans into beverage to methodically assess taste and smell; to find the most pleasing roast for your cup. The team at Joe Bean does it by the book, following the cupping protocols provided by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA).

imageStep one: Grind and Smell

Within 15 minutes after samples have been ground, the dry fragrance of the samples should be evaluated by lifting the lid and sniffing the dry grounds. ~SCAA

“This is how we start looking at what a particular coffee has to offer,” Ben says.

There are several tin containers lined up on the table. Each one has a different roast of the Rwandan beans, ground and waiting. He and Wade open the tins one at a time, inhaling deeply.

“The dry smell test is how we get a good sense of those floral, fruity enzymatic characteristics.”

Step Two: Add Water and Smell

The water should be freshly drawn and brought to approximately 200° F (93°C) at the time it is poured onto the ground coffee. The hot water should be poured directly onto the measured grounds to the rim of the cup, making sure to wet all of the grounds. The grounds to steep undisturbed for a period of 3-5 minutes before evaluation. ~SCAA

There are several ceramic cups lined up on the table. Wade measures ground coffee from the tins into the cups.

“We really get to know the personality of coffee by introducing water,” says Ben, pouring steaming water on to the grounds. “This is when the characteristics from the sugar-browning and dry distillation stages really become apparent.”

After infusing with water, the crust is left unbroken for at least 3 minutes but not more than 5 minutes. Breaking of the crust is done by stirring 3 times, then allowing the foam to run down the back of the spoon while gently sniffing. ~SCAA

“You’ll get a big burst of aromatics when you do this.” Ben puts his nose right down in each cup, inhaling deeply.

image-2Step Three: Taste, taste, and taste

The cupper’s preference for the different attributes is evaluated at several different temperatures (2 or 3 times) as the sample cools… The liquor is aspirated into the mouth in such a way as to cover as much area as possible, especially the tongue and upper palate. ~SCAA

This is a fancy way of saying, “Slurp the coffee.” Ben samples the first cup by quickly sucking a spoonful through his teeth.

Ben and Wade will make three passes through these particular roasts. The first thing they’re looking for is general flavor. “What’s my initial impression of the coffee?” Wade says. “Is it sweet, sour, bitter?”

Then they taste the cups a second time, trying to be more specific about the taste. “Is it light and delicate? Is it heavy and bold? Is it sharp and tart?” Ben says. “Does it balance across the whole palate?”

On the final pass through the cups, they’re looking at how the roast finishes. “Does it leave a taste? Is it a pleasant taste? What is the taste?” Wade says.

The SCAA has a Flavor Wheel roasters can use to describe what they’re tasting. There’s a broad range of descriptions on the wheel: wintergreen, lemon, garlic, almond, toffee, nutmeg, tar.

“Meat nuggets,” Ben says.

Meat nuggets?

“You think it tastes like meat nuggets?” Wade slowly lowers his spoon.

“Meat nuggets” isn’t on the taster’s wheel. But the wheel is just a guide; roasters can describe a coffee however they want. And Ben’s description is pretty clear: the flavor profile for this roast is either completely savory–not sweet or floral at all–or just completely gross. Either way, it’s a solid indication that this particular combination of temperature and time isn’t right for the Rwandan beans.

Ultimately, Ben and Wade settle on a roasting profile that brings out the following flavors: Pear, Grapefruit, Boysenberry, Clover Honey, Floral, Fig.

Excellent stuff. And solid assurance that your morning cup won’t be full of meat nuggets.

Matt Kelly is a writer living in the Finger Lakes, slowly turning his home into a self-sufficient, food-independent, backwoods place of his own. He currently works with Fruition Seeds in Naples and Small World Food in Rochester. Which is why he drinks so much coffee. He writes regularly at

For more of Matt Kelly’s coffee pieces, click here.

Please Support Our Sponsors!

Related Stories