Coffee Cupping and Craft Coffee

A supplement to my group coffee cupping and presentation. The post covers a brief history of coffee, how to brew good-tasting coffee, and how to taste and maximize enjoyment of coffee.

What is Coffee Cupping

  • A specific way of brewing/tasting coffee
  • Eliminates variables that may affect flavor such as brew method
  • Many people in the coffee industry cup coffee along the supply chain to understand the beans
    • Roasters do it to decide what notes to list on the bags
    • Cafes do it to decide what coffees to serve
  • See References for a link to the cupping guide

Three Waves of Coffee

Wave Aka Brands Packaging Flavor Species
1 Commodity Coffee Folgers, Maxwell House, Green Mountain “premium”, “gourmet”, pre-ground Super dark, bitter Robustica
2 Specialty Coffee Starbucks, Peets, Caribou Slight recognition of the country of origin Fairly dark, bitter coffee Arabica
3 Craft Coffee Smaller/local roasters Specific origin, tasting notes, roast process, roast date Light and medium roasts from fruity to nutty to chocolatey, etc. Arabica, sub-species

Wave 1

  • Aka: Commodity Coffee
  • Brands: Folgers, Maxwell House, Green Mountain
  • Packaging: “premium”, “gourmet”, pre-ground
  • Flavor: super dark, bitter
  • Species: Robustica
  • History:
    • Coffee became popular in the US after the Boston Tea Party (1773)
      • The Government encouraged citizens to stop buying tea, so they turned to coffee
    • The first wave started in the 1800s
      • The US was consuming a quarter of the world’s coffee production
      • Giants like Maxwell House and Folgers grew to prominence
      • At this point, market share was more important to them than quality
    • First wave coffee was bought and sold on commodity markets like wheat, sugar, etc.

Wave 2

  • Aka: Specialty Coffee
  • Brands: Starbucks, Peets, Caribou
  • Packaging: Slight recognition of the country of origin
  • Flavor: Fairly dark, bitter coffee
  • Species: Arabica
  • History:
    • By the late 1900’s, people we’re getting tired of boring commodity coffee
    • Places like Peets and Starbucks started, instead, to focus more on quality and community
      • Peets opened in 1966
      • Starbucks opened in 1971
    • Used higher-quality Arabica beans instead of the more bitter Robustica
    • Started publishing country of origin on bags
      • Instead of buying from commodity markets, they often contract directly with producers
    • Made coffee more interesting, but didn’t really change the roasting. It was still very dark
    • Began focusing more on the experience of the coffee over quality
      • Starbucks infamously over-roasts their beans for consistency’s sake

Wave 3

  • aka: Craft Coffee
  • Brands: Smaller/local roasters
  • Packaging: Specific origin (sometimes down to the farm), tasting notes, roast process, roast date
  • Flavor: Artisanal, light and medium roasts from fruity to nutty to chocolatey
    • Single origin coffee flavors are affected by what other fruits may be grown next to them
  • Species: Arabica
    • Many varietals: Typica, Bourbon, Heirloom, Arabica/Robusta hybrids
  • History:
    • In the 1980’s a small community starting playing with new styles of roasting/brewing that was highly focused on the beans
    • In 1982, the Specialty Coffee Association of America was founded
      • Gave a platform to this new style of roasting/brewing
    • Not as well-defined as specialty coffee
      • Many third-wave coffee producers/roasters/cafes call themselves “specialty coffee”
      • Has a general focus on the ethics of coffee and coffee as a craft

Brewing Craft Coffee

The goal with brew methods is to extract the good tasting stuff from coffee into the water while leaving behind the bad tasting stuff.

Coffee Compounds

These are some of the things that may make it into your cup

  • Insoluble oils
    • More visible when brewed without paper filters
    • Affects the mouthfeel; oily cups are described as “creamy” or “buttery”
  • Soluble gasses
    • Main contributor to aroma
    • Different gasses are released at different temperatures; coffee smells different as it cools
  • Insoluble solids
    • Large protein molecules or tiny pieces of grounds (“fines”)
    • Affects the mouthfeel; many solids => “gritty”
  • Soluble solids
    • Determine how sweet, salty bitter, sour, or savory the coffee is
    • Naming a few:
      • Fruity acids
      • Maillard compounds
      • Browning sugars/caramels
      • Dry distillates

Strength and Yield

  • Strength: measure of total dissolved coffee solids (TDCS)
    • or, the amount of soluble solids in the coffee => the more flavor compounds dissolved in a cup
    • Usually measured in percentage
    • Technically speaking, the more TDCS, the stronger the cup
      • People usually use “strong” to describe the flavor or the perceived caffeine content
      • “Strong” technically refers to the body of the cup
        • A strong cup may feel thick on your tongue
        • A weak cup may feel thin, more like water
    • 1% is generally weak; 2% is generally strong
  • Yield: measure of extraction
    • or, the amount of material the water has removed from the grounds
    • Can be measured by weighing the grounds and water beforehand, and the extracted coffee afterwards
    • Max possible: ~30%
    • Good tasting: 18% - 22%


  • The roasting process introduces CO2 into the beans
    • This is good for the whole bean in packaging
    • Helps preserve the freshness of the roasted beans
  • The CO2 is not good for the final cup
    • It makes the coffee bitter and acts as a barrier between the grounds and the water; the water can’t extract the good stuff
  • So when brewing, we wait for the CO2 to dissipate before continuing
    • You’ll observe the grounds sort of expand or “bloom” kind of like a dough

How to Affect Flavor, Briefly

Without getting into the weeds, the following are things you can change about your brew method to affect the flavor:

  • Brew Ratio: amount of coffee and water you use
    • The more coffee you start with, the more compounds available to end up in your cup
  • Grind Size/Contact Time
    • Fine => more surface area, faster extraction; slows flow rate; more contact time; be careful of over-extraction
    • Course => less surface area, slower extraction; faster flow; less contact time; be careful of under-extraction
  • Water Quality
  • Water Temperature
  • Pour method


  • Measure everything
    • Weigh your grounds and water
    • Check your water temperature
    • Time your bloom/brew
  • Take notes
    • Write down your roast, method, brew ratio, grind size, timing, and flavor notes
    • Adjust the next time you brew
  • Buy a burr grinder

Buying Craft Coffee


It’s important to remember that taste is subjective and is based on many factors like preference, personal experience, and genetics (does cilantro taste like soap?). When tasting coffee, it’s not about being “right” in picking out the correct notes or being perfectly precise in your descriptions of the flavors.

The point of tasting is to find out what you like and don’t like in coffee so that you can increase your overall enjoyment of it. Intently tasting and enjoying coffee can be thought of as a form of mindfulness. You’re able to bring your mind into your body and focus on your senses and what you’re feeling in this moment.


Following are some flavors you can think about while tasting your coffee.

(Perceived) Acidity

  • On the pH scale, coffee isn’t all that acidic (pH ~5)
  • There are some acids in coffee that also show up in fruit, e.g. citric acid, malic acid
  • As you taste, think about these descriptors:
    • fruity, juicy, bright, lively, crisp, refreshing

(Perceived) Sweetness

  • Not exactly the same as actual sugar in coffee
  • Sometimes the molecules in coffee can leave the impression of something sweet
    • e.g. some coffees are described as chocolatey because they leave the impression of chocolate


  • Coffee is inherently bitter
  • If you like coffee in general, but one cup seems extra bitter, you might be tasting sourness
  • Sour vs. Bitter confusion:
    • The “bitter” taste could actually be sourness; consider whether it makes you want to pucker your lips like eating a lemon
    • The taste could actually be astringency; consider whether it dries out your mouth like alcohol or tea



  • Strong coffee will feel thick or muddy
    • May leave a film on your tongue
  • Weak coffee feels more like water
    • Nothing lingers on your tongue
  • Some people compare the body of coffee to the thickness/thinness of different milks (skim vs. 2% vs whole)
  • Heavy or light are sometimes used to describe the same thing
  • To experiment with body, try the same roast in a french press and with a brew method with a paper filter


  • Generally the type of filter you use contributes most to oiliness
    • Paper filters will capture the oils
  • The more oil, the thicker or more “buttery” the coffee feels on your tongue


  • Describes the drying feeling you feel on your tongue
  • Red wine and tea give you this sensation
  • Often confused for bitterness
  • Too much astringency usually caused by over-extraction