Cupping Coffee: The Ultimate Tasting Guide

Welcome to the wonderful world of cupping coffee. Cupping is both more and different from regular coffee tasting. It’s a complex process that requires specific techniques and procedures. But if you want to try new coffees and expand your flavour palette, this is a good, well-known way to learn more. 
Mickey separating his coffee grounds for coffee cupping tasting
When you’re cupping as a professional, you use special equipment. This includes brewing vessels, cupping spoons, and grinders. But it’s very easy to use basic home-based equipment for cupping. Special equipment is nice, but definitely isn’t required.
You do need to choose quality coffee beans. Factors like variety, roasting level, and altitude all come into play. If it’s your first time, focus on using high-quality beans and take notes on the flavours you detect. By the time you’re done, you’ll be able to impress your coffee-loving friends with your cupping skills.
Tasting coffee is what we all do. If you love what you’re tasting, It doesn’t matter if you’re cupping, or just drinking your coffee. You’re doing it right, no matter what anyone says. Don’t let someone tell you that you aren’t doing it right. It’s all in liking what you taste!

Cupping Coffee vs. Tasting Coffee

Cupping coffee and tasting coffee both test the flavour and aroma of coffee, but in different ways.

Differences Between Cupping vs. Tasting Coffee

Josh in background, coffee roaster and tamper in front of him
Feshly Roasted Coffee Beans
Nancy woman drinking tea or coffee from a red mug
Cupping is a standardized method used by professionals to compare different coffees. This process allows for a controlled assessment of the coffee. People who are cupping always try more than one coffee at the same time. 
Tasting coffee is a more casual approach. It involves brewing coffee using various methods and savoring the flavours making notes. It’s done in a variety of settings, such as at home or in a café. It’s rare that someone tastes more than one coffee in a sitting.
So, if you’re a professional comparing coffees, cupping is best. But if you want to enjoy the unique flavours specific to your favourite coffee, tasting is the way to go. Cupping is one way people enjoy trying different coffees, but it is not the only way to enjoy coffee.

What is Cupping?

Cupping is the fancy term for analyzing the flavours and aromas of coffee. The methods used in cupping are standard, so the focus remains on the odors and tastes of the coffee. During cupping, we pay attention to the notes in a coffee. The sweetness, acidity, body, flavour, and aftertaste are all key aspects. We’ll cover each of these for you. We also explore them all in more depth in the Coffee Flavour Wheel blog post.
The Cuppers layout for cupping coffee with mugs, ground coffee, water and a Coffee Flavour Wheel
First, let’s start with sweetness.
This is the natural sugars in the coffee beans that give it that oh-so-sweet flavour. These can be light and very mild, right up to thick and syrupy.
Next up, acidity.
This isn’t your stomach acid, folks. It’s the bright, sharp flavour that can add a little zing to your coffee. It’s a little kick to get you going in the morning.
Now, think of the body.
Body describes the mouth feel, or texture of the coffee. It can range from light and watery to thick and velvety. It’s like a cozy blanket for your taste buds.
How about the flavour?
Of course, we can’t forget about flavour. This can include notes like chocolate, nutty, or fruity. It’s like a fruit salad, but in coffee form. This includes flavours that you might think are unpleasant or undesirable at first. Think of tobacco, woody, or earthy. Sometimes these flavours pair with the other flavour notes in your coffee. And then they surprise you at being what you like the best!
Last, aftertaste.
Aftertaste is the last in all respects. These are the lingering notes that stay in your mouth after you’ve swallowed your coffee. It’s like a goodbye kiss from your favourite coffee.
Is there additional flavour info?
For more information, make sure to check out our blog post on the Flavour Wheel. It’s a tool used to help define and expand on the flavours and flavour notes you taste in your coffee.
Cupping is a process of analyzing and appreciating coffee. We like to keep it playful and avoid gatekeeping. There is no right or wrong outcome from cupping coffee… it’s all about liking what you find in your cup!

The History of Cupping Coffee

The Origin of Cupping Coffee

Clarence E. Bickford worked as a green coffee broker in San Francisco in the late 1800s. He developed a technique that revolutionized the coffee game. He’d weigh his beans, grind them up, and pour in boiling water. Then he’d wait for 4-5 minutes before tasting them with a big spoon. He called this the “Cup Test”. He realized tasting coffees in a controlled environment allowed him to better assess the quality. Before his testing, experts only graded coffee by its appearance. Smaller green beans were often associated with lower quality coffees. By tasting different coffees from all over, he realized some small beans have big flavour!

1885 black and white coffee advertisement for John Bowen Coffee company
Black and white advertisement for a coffee mill from 1890's
Red Cross Coffee Advertisement from 1880's
Bickford was the first individual to cup coffee. His work paved the road for Hills Bros. to step into the cupping game. They were the first commercial roaster to use cupping. They felt this added credibility to their coffee even before they roasted it. This gave more info and provided these flavour notes to their customers. 
Following Bickford and Hills Bros. was B. D. Balart. Balart took their work and formalized cupping standards as a set process. He developed more specifics about the vocabulary and methods used in formal cupping. His methods were solid enough, he would completely recognize the process if he came to a cupping now.
It’s important to note that both Bickford and Balart supported ‘blind’ cupping. This is where you do the cupping while you don’t know the coffees you’re trying. You only find out when you’ve finished the process. This removes all pre-conceived notions, memories and biases from what you’re trying. (We also think it makes it more fun!)
woman cupping or taste testing coffees

The Evolution of Cupping Coffee

In the years since Bickford, the Hills brothers, and Balart, coffee cupping has evolved. Professional coffee cuppers control the tasting environment as much as they can. This means sometimes tasting coffee in special closed labs that are scent free. Often the light is reduced or only in red so the visual is removed. They can even control the temperature, humidity, and air flow in the room. so that nothing affects the flavour of the coffee.
The good news is that you don’t have to make it that complicated to do a cupping of your own. If you want to start cupping at home, you absolutely can. You don’t need to worry about finding a completely sterile room to try and taste your coffee.

The Purpose of Cupping Coffee

Identifying Coffee Quality

At Cupper’s, we test every coffee before we purchase them. First, we order small sample batches of the coffee from our suppliers. When we receive our samples, we test-roast these at several different roast levels in our tiny sample roaster. We confirm the quality and taste profiles of our regular coffees, and do extra testing on any special coffees we’re ordering. Only then do we place our orders of the coffees we want for our Cupper’s customers. 

8 Cups of roasted coffee bean samples beside a mini-coffee roaster at Cupper's

When brokers are sourcing green beans they also need to ensure the quality of the coffee they are buying. People in the coffee industry hire Quality Graders (Q Graders) to test coffees. We have an excellent relationship with our coffee suppliers. This includes our main suppliers at Royal Coffee. Their coffee is rigorously tested before and when they receive it. They have a team of Q Graders who are always developing their pallet and fine tuning their skills.

Once we receive the pallets of coffee, especially if it’s a new coffee or a new crop year, we’ll cup it at least one more time to test it again. It’s then that the final determination of the flavour notes are done by our roaster. It’s his decision based on his cupping and tasting the coffee that sets the roast we’ll do for our green beans.

Understanding Flavour Profiles

Understanding flavour notes of coffee is valuable for anyone in the coffee industry. Knowing the nuances of each coffee can help a roaster or coffee shop owner create the perfect cup. For a barista, it can mean the difference between a mediocre cappuccino or a masterpiece. For more information, check out our blog post on the Cupper’s Flavour Wheel. It’s a great way to help you define and expand on the flavours and flavour notes you taste in your coffee.

Cupping Coffee: The Step by Step Process

Are you curious about coffee flavour? Do you want to improve your coffee game? Cupping coffee at home is a great way to taste and test different roasts and regions. By cupping, you can discover which flavours and aromas you prefer. It’s a fun and interactive way to explore the world of coffee. With a few simple tools and some quality beans, you can become a coffee connoisseur in your own kitchen.
A home spread for cupping coffee
Cupping is also a process that works best when you are doing it ‘comparatively’. By that, we mean that you should cup several different coffees at the same time to compare them to each other. This is the best way to help narrow down on what you like and don’t want in different coffees. 
Start with three very different coffees to find the similarities and differences. As you gain more experience, use coffees from the same regions, or of the same roast levels. This is also a good way to give yourself a cupping challenge!

Equipment Needed for Cupping Coffee

1. Brewing Vessels

A stack of colourful cupping bowls
In a typical cupping, the coffee brews in a cupping bowl. Professional Q-Testers use specific cupping bowls that hold exactly 200 ml.
For your cupping, use any set of cups or bowls – as long as they hold approximately 200 ml (just under 1 cup) of fluid. They also need to all be the same size and of the same material if possible.

2. Cupping Spoons

a Pile of cupping spoons

A cupping spoon is a bit deeper than a regular spoon. It has a specific shape made to scoop the most coffee grounds out of your testing cup. It is common to see cupping spoons made of non-reactive metal or ceramic. Any tablespoon will work for you, and several tablespoons are better. You don’t need to overthink the spoon.

3. Coffee Grinder

If you are grinding your beans yourself, make sure you use a burr grinder. Don’t use a blade coffee grinder. These don’t provide a consistent grind for your coffee. To learn more about coffee grinder, check out our Definitive Guide to Coffee Grinders.
It’s better to have your coffee ground fresh, but it’s not feasible for everyone to invest in a grinder. If you are starting to learn about specialty coffee, don’t rush out and buy a $900 coffee grinder. We are happy to grind your coffee for you at Cupper’s.

4. Weigh Scale

small weigh scale with a bowl of roasted coffee beans
For this style of cupping we recommend using a scale to measure out 10 grams of ground coffee for each sample. If you don’t have a food scale, use a consistent level scoop of coffee so it’s the same amount in each cup. The most important thing is consistency. Use the same amount of water and coffee in each sample, and use the same style of cups and spoons for each. As long as you follow that, you’re on the right track.

5. Timer

Bright green digital Timer

You’ll need a timer so you can time the extraction of each coffee. You can either use a digital one that you might have in your kitchen, or be like us. We used our cell phones. They’re precise, easy to use, have large clear displays, and pretty much everyone has one.

6. Rinse Cup

large glass of water with a spoon

Every time your spoons switch between coffees, you want to avoid crossing flavours. Your rinse cup or glass is a good, fast way to clean your spoons off. The exception is if you are using new spoons for each coffee.

Either way, for a solid cupping, you want to avoid crossing flavours with a dirty spoon. 

7. Hot Kettle

You will need a good kettle to heat up your water. Electric or stovetop doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it reaches a consistent temperature every time. The idea with cupping is to cut as many variables as possible. So, your coffee should steep in the same temperature water in each cup. We like the Bonavita Gooseneck Variable Temp Kettle. You can set the temperature at exactly what you want.

8. Grounds Vessel

A closeup of wet coffee grounds in an Aeropress brewer

You’re going to need a place to put the discarded grounds during the cupping process. Any bowl or tabletop dish will do. This doesn’t need to be fancy, it’s just needed to hold the wet grounds. Lots of wet grounds!

9. Cupper's Coffee Flavour Wheel

Cupper's Coffee Flavour Wheel, complete

The Coffee Flavour Wheel is a great, useful coffee tasting tool. It breaks down the tastes in your coffee into different categories. It also makes it easier to compare what what you find in different coffee samples. It’s designed to make sure everyone is using the same words to describe the same flavours in what you’re tasting.

How to Cup Coffee

As stated above, cup several different coffees at the same time to learn about each of them. Do the full cupping process with all the coffees you are tasting all at the same time. Don’t do them one at a time, or a true comparison is difficult.

1. Measure Out Your Coffee

Measure out 10 grams of coffee for each cup. As stated above, if you don’t have a scale, use the same measuring spoon and use the exact same amount in each. This gives the consistency needed if you can’t weigh it.

2. Grind Your Coffee

If you have your own grinder, grind your coffee after you’ve weighed it. For best results it should be coarse like sea salt. Think of the same grind that you would use for brewing a French press.

If we’re grinding it for you, simply add the 10 grams of ground coffee to your cup.

A young woman smelling coffee grounds in white cups as part of a coffee cupping process

3. Smell the Coffee

Did you know that there is a correct technique for smelling coffee? You don’t use your hands! Don’t pick up the cup. Leave the bowl on the table and lower your face down to the coffee. Then while you inhale through your nose, also keep your mouth open. This is so you also use your taste to fully experience the coffee.
To start assessing the aroma of your coffee you first smell the dry grounds. Make notes on what you are smelling in your ground coffee. Does the smell remind you of anything? Is it sweet, sharp, or earthy? Pungent or light? Do you like it?

4. Steep Your Coffee

Start your timer as soon as you start pouring the hot water on the dry grounds. We use water at approximately 85 degree Celsius. A meat thermometer is a good way to check the temperature of your water if you aren’t sure. The most important thing about water temperature is to make sure it’s the same for all your samples.
Pour the water slowly into the cup so all the grounds get wetted. You don’t want to do this too fast or some of the grounds will float above the water and never steep. Don’t stir the coffee after adding the hot water. The bloom that develops on the top of the coffee is part of the process.
You also want to use filtered water if you are able. Tap water can contain chemicals used to make your water safe to drink. These chemicals can also affect the flavour of your coffee. If you are able to use filtered water, you remove that variable. Remember, consistency is key, so either way, do the same thing with all the coffees you plan to cup.
a hand holding a goose necked kettle pouring hot water over coffee grounds in a white cup as part of the coffee cupping process
hands breaking the crust formed after pouring hot water over coffee grounds in a white cup as part of the coffee cupping process

5. Break the Crust

After 4 minutes you will want to ‘break the crust’ on your coffee. This means using two spoons to push the grounds that are floating on top of your cup from the middle to the edges. Gently insert your spoons into the centre of the crust and pull the coffee grounds to the sides of the bowl. Do this until the middle of the cup has a clear area of liquid visible.
Then lower your head down to the coffee bowl and smell the coffee. Use the same nose inhale, mouth open method that you used to smell the dry grounds. Think about what you’re smelling and feel free to make notes about what you’re sensing. Do this process for each of the coffees you are cupping. Make sure to rinse off the spoons between each cup of coffee.
After you’ve finished smelling the coffees, you need to remove the rest of the crust. Using your spoons, skim the remaining grounds from the top of your bowl. Deposit the grounds into the bowl you have for the discarded coffee.

6. Taste the Coffee

At last! It’s finally time for you to taste your amazing coffee! First, don’t pick the bowl up. Grab a fresh spoon and stir the coffee. This allows the remaining grounds to settle out to the bottom. Then lower the spoon, fill its bowl, and take a small slurp of coffee. Don’t worry if you get a few grounds in your slurp… that’s going to happen and it’s okay!

This is where your Cupper’s Coffee Flavour Wheel really comes into action. Make sure to sip and taste your coffee while looking at the broad flavours first. Once you identify a few of those, you can expand outwards, getting more specific as you go. But remember… there’s no right or wrong here. Flavour is a very subjective thing!

Josh B tasting coffee during a cupping

7. The Slurp

We need to talk about the coffee slurp. When people slurp coffee it looks pretentious. Yet, slurping coffee does serve an important purpose. You want as much air in your mouth as possible when you’re tasting coffee and the slurp accomplishes that. It also helps distribute the coffee over your entire mouth. Choose for yourself if you do or don’t want to be a coffee slurper, but know that it actually does serve a good purpose. 

Best Coffee Beans for Cupping

Factors to Consider When Choosing Beans for Cupping

Coffee Varieties

While there are many varietals of coffee, the two most common are Robusta and Arabica. These strains are the ones most commonly enjoyed by coffee lovers everywhere. Robusta is often stronger, harsher and more bitter. They often have grainy or rubbery overtones. It is usually considered the less desirable coffee. Arabica coffees are smoother and sweeter with more pleasant flavour notes. All Cupper’s coffees are of the Arabica varietal.

Coffee Roast

The degree of roast for the coffee will also affect the flavour. Coffee roasts can be light, medium or dark, with many shades in between. For more info on coffee roasting, check out our Ultimate Guide to Coffee Roasting.

Region and Altitude

Coffee is a picky plant, preferring to grow near the equator. But coffee growing is not just about location, location, location. Region, soil type and quality, altitude, temperature, and rainfall all affect the taste. A bean crop will usually have consistent flavours year after year. The more delicate flavours can vary a bit depending on the season.


Before roasting coffee, it must first get processed into dry green beans. To get green coffee, the cherry of the bean is separated from the fruit pulp. There are several different ways to do this. Each processing method has an impact on the sweetness, body, and acidity of the coffee once it’s brewed.

Top Coffee Beans for Cupping

When trying out any coffee we recommend trying the coffees that sound the best to you. Don’t spend a lot of time and money on a coffee that someone else says is the best. If you are just starting out with specialty coffee or are new to cupping, try to stick with beans you know and love.
With that said, we have curated a list to showcase a good sampling of Cupper’s fresh roasted coffees. If you have no idea where to start with trying coffees, try these popular Cupper’s coffees:

Our classic medium roast, our Ethiopia Yrgecheffe is a true gourmand’s delight. You might wonder why isn’t everyone drinking this coffee? The aroma tantalizes with a hint of citrus and a soft caramel finish. The full-bodied coffee offers layers of flavour. You’ll pick up on notes of cocoa nibs, brown sugar, and cashew, with a subtle hint of black pepper spice. It’s no wonder why this coffee from southern Ethiopia is highly prized all over the world.

The Brazil Bourbon Santos as a medium roast coffee is amazing! The fresh roasted whole beans have a sweet, cola-like aroma. The aroma carries over into the brewed coffee. The body is rich and syrupy. These sun-dried beans have a stone-fruit sweetness, with brown sugar and molasses notes. At the end of the coffee, you’ll taste a subtle dark chocolate note. We’re in love with this coffee!

We source our Guatemala Antigua medium roast coffee from the Quezaltepeque area. It’s an organic, fair trade, and high-altitude coffee. It’s medium-bodied with a creamy texture and superb balance. In the aroma, delicate magnolia and chocolate are present. In the flavour notes, cashew nuttiness comes forward. Milk chocolate and buttercream compliment those notes. This Guatemalan coffee is extraordinary at both medium and dark roasts.

Our Indian Mysore medium roast coffee is amazing! This comes from the Mysore region of India and is Rain Forest Alliance certified. The aroma is super stunning, so take a good whiff! You’ll get a preview of the flavours: nutmeg, sweet pipe tobacco, and a hint of almond. This coffee has a light, silky body at our medium roast, and the flavours are delightful. You’ll taste an earthiness, with hints of molasses, licorice, and sweet pipe tobacco.

Our Kenya AA medium coffee from Kilimanjaro is the bomb dot com! You won’t find a more distinctive aromatic and flavourful coffee anywhere else. African coffees are famous for their fruity notes, and this one is no exception. It’s got a slight dryness and crisp acidity that sets it apart from other African coffees. Some coffee aficionados swear they taste blueberry or blackcurrant. The flavours of our Kenya AA Medium Coffee are cantaloupe, allspice, and cinnamon – yum!


Cupping is an excellent way to train your taste buds and palette for coffee, and a whole host of other foods as well. Think of wine tasting, cheese tasting, or beer tastings. Coffee cupping is very like these in one regard. It doesn’t matter what anyone else likes or doesn’t like in the final product. What is important is what you get out of tasting your coffee. If you find a coffee you really love, and you like to compare to other coffees, you’re doing a great job of cupping!

Micah and Jensen cupping coffee at Cuppers
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