As much as people drink coffee on a daily basis, you might expect that there’s nothing to coffee tasting — however, the art of coffee tasting is much more than just sipping on a fresh brew and deciding whether you like it or not.

In this Coffee Tasting 101 lesson, we’re teaching you everything you need to know about the process — which happens to be known as cupping. Coffee tasting is also known as cupping because historically, coffee has been taste-tested using porcelain cups, which are perfect for retaining the heat of a tasty, steamy cup of coffee. Nowadays, glass cups are also used as an alternative, allowing tasters to analyze the look of the coffee that they’re tasting as well.

Although the term “cupping” and even the concept of coffee-tasting may be new to you, just reading the packaging of your store-bought beans reveals the results of its tasting, with descriptions of flavor notes that range from light and fruity to deep, indulgent characteristics that are described as being reminiscent of caramel or cocoa.

These flavor profiles are often based on palettes that are developed over time; and while you may not be able to taste those hints of flavor upon first sip, when it’s done mindfully, you may be surprised with what your taste buds pick up.

What flavors can be found in coffee?

You may already be familiar with the relationship between taste and smells. When we discuss the flavor of coffee, we’re also referring to its aroma. The taste of coffee (or anything else) comes from the combination of smell and taste, which combines at the back of the throat.

Here are some of the flavors/aromas that you might find in your coffee:

  • Veggie or herbal — refreshing and green
  • Fruity — ripe and naturally sweet
  • Sour — acidic and lemony
  • Sweet — sugary like honey
  • Nutty — earthy and toasty
  • Floral — light and fresh
  • Spicy — (not hot spicy) but warm like cinnamon

If your coffee tastes too sour or too bland, this may signal a defect. Other negative characteristics a bad cup of coffee might have is tasting too medicinal, burnt or bitter. Some coffee beans go bad if they aren’t stored properly (typically in a burlap bag), which gives it a taste that’s described as “baggy.”

What else affects the flavor of coffee?

Other characteristics that the pros analyze are the acidity, aroma and body of coffee.

Acidity in coffee is desirable because it’s what creates that lively spark to your cup of coffee. The acidity of your coffee shouldn’t be overpowering and should be balanced along with its sweetness and bitterness.

The aroma of coffee is emitted directly from the beans when they’re ground and brewed. The smell of freshly ground coffee is referred to as its “dry aroma.”

Coffee tasters also analyze the body and mouthfeel of coffee, which are physical characteristics of coffee that are experienced in the mouth. Similar to the difference between the way cream feels in the mouth compared to water is how one would assess the body of a coffee. Body is created by the fats, sugars, protein, acids and carbohydrates feel in the mouth.

How do you “taste” coffee?

The process of cupping begins when the hot water is poured over the coffee sample. As for the brew, for cupping a coarser grind and lighter roast are used. After the pour, allow the grinds to rise to the top and form a crust that you’ll break to release the aroma. Take in the smell, and then you’re ready to take a sip.

In order to really try coffee tasting like the professionals, you can use the “quick slurp” method to spray the coffee across your tongue, front to side and back to cover your tongue evenly. Some professional coffee tasters will spit out the coffee after they’ve tasted it — otherwise, swallow it and then you’ll get to experience the aftertaste.

The aftertaste can last long or short on the tongue and what you’re evaluating is how pleasant it tastes. Sometimes it may be the lingering flavor that you like or perhaps it has a desirable clean finish.

How do I start practicing my cupping skills?

Here’s how you can start your journey into cupping. Choose at least 2 coffees to compare (you’ll need 2 coffee brewing setups) and prepare a water kettle with cold, fresh water and then set the kettle’s temperature to 205 degrees. Coarsely grind your fresh beans.

Set a timer from when the water touches the coffee and at four minutes, break the crust that’s formed on top of your cup. Stir the cup to release the aroma. At around 8-10 minutes you can take a sip (and slurp)! When you’re ready to try the next coffee, clean your spoon by dipping it in hot water. Drink the coffees again once they’ve cooled to review how their flavors have changed.

Happy coffee tasting!