Coffee cupping is a standard process performed by several players across the coffee supply chain, from producers and traders to roasters.
Historically adopted by traders to examine the consistency of coffee, cupping has now become the main, if not the only, assessment tool to measure the quality of green coffee.
Typically, coffee cupping is a professional practice that is done by trained individuals known as Q-graders. However, thanks to its simple process, cupping is highly accessible and can even be performed by consumers at home.
Additionally, a more knowledgeable consumer group has emerged because of at-home coffee consumption brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. These consumers have developed a keen interest in specialty coffee and the stories from farm to cup.
With this group returning to coffee shops with a greater thirst for knowledge and education, many cafes and roasteries may benefit from offering consumer cupping sessions.
To learn more about consumer cupping sessions, I spoke with Female Barista Society founder, Nicole Battefeld-Mongomery, and three-time South Africa Barista Champion, Ishan Natalie.
What is coffee cupping & why is it important?
Cupping is a century-long practice believed to have originated in the late 1800s when merchants would cup coffee to check consistency during the buying process.
Later, in 1999, cupping was adopted as a tool to judge coffee samples entered into the Cup of Excellence competition.
Not long after, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) developed a cupping protocol as a standard guideline for the wider coffee community.
Coffee cupping follows a simple process and requires only a few basic items such as cupping vessels, cupping spoons, and hot water, to name a few.
To begin, cupping samples are prepared by pouring hot water directly onto coffee grounds and allowed to steep for three to five minutes.
A layer of foam, known as a crust, should form on the top of the cupping bowl. This is then stirred three times and the coffee aroma is assessed through sniffing.
Any remaining foam is skimmed off, and the coffee is “slurped” to allow the aeration of the liquid, which maximises sensory evaluation.
Cupping is an industry-wide tool used to evaluate the quality of green coffee, allowing buyers and roasters to identify its potential as well as identify any underlying defects.
This can help with purchasing decisions and determining the ideal roast profile for the coffee.
“There are several reasons to cup coffee,” explains Nicole, who is also the 2018 German barista champion. “Such as educating staff and partners, quality control, palate development, and determining what specific flavour notes should be listed on labels.
“Cupping is also used at the coffee shop level,” adds Ishan, who is also the beverage category lead at Starbucks South Africa. “It can be used as part of coffee ‘tasting’ activities with customers, helping them experience the current lineups available to purchase or to help them make an informed purchasing decision for coffee they can brew at home.”
Should roasters & cafes offer consumer cupping sessions?
A good consumer experience is at the heart of every successful business.
Therefore, providing exceptional customer service remains a priority for many roasters and cafes.
Consumer cupping sessions, alongside other offerings such as roastery tours, are an effective way to offer new and elevated experiences to consumers.
Nicole explains cupping is one of the easiest ways to showcase the different flavour profiles of coffees to consumers, as it offers an instant understanding and learning experience.
“Cupping sessions can help customers understand flavour compounds faster,” she says. “Additionally, they will be able to tie the experience of learning to the venue and the people who provide the service.
“This is an effective way to secure customers, build trust, and improve the overall understanding of coffee taste and quality in your community,” Nicole adds.
By offering consumer cupping sessions, roasters and cafe owners will be able to educate the community about the farm-to-cup process.
More so, they will be able to raise awareness for important issues surrounding the specialty coffee industry, such as climate change, the livelihood of coffee producers, and the global energy crisis.
Educating consumers can help a brand position itself as a market leader and stand out from competitors.
Ishan explains cupping also provides an opportunity for consumers to taste the various coffees offered by the roastery. This allows them to identify the coffee they enjoy best, which ultimately, boosts sales.
As consumers may be charged a fee to participate in cupping sessions, this can represent an alternative revenue stream for cafe owners and roasters.
In addition, cupping sessions offer an added touch point for businesses to interact with their consumers.
Through this interaction, businesses can build better relationships with their consumers, as well as gain consumer insights into coffee offerings. For instance, the type of roast profile or coffee origins preferred by customers.
What are the ideal cups for consumer cupping sessions?
The type of vessel used during a cupping session plays an important role.
Notably, recent studies reveal that factors such as vessel shape, colour, and texture may influence flavour perception.
In particular, cup texture is found to have a strong influence on mouthfeel and body perception of coffee. Coffee consumed from a rough cup was perceived to have a dry aftertaste and harsh mouthfeel and was described to be more acidic, bitter, and astringent.
Similarly, the colour of a coffee cup can significantly affect the drinker’s experience of everything from flavour and acidity to body and sweetness.
An experiment conducted by Flavour Journal found participants rated flavour intensity and sweetness of the same coffee differently when it was consumed from mugs of different colours.
Furthermore, researchers at the Coffee Sensorium also learned round vessels tended to induce a greater perception of sweetness, while angular-shaped cups were associated with acidity.
Due to the influence cups can have on the perceived flavour of coffee, white ceramic cups are often the preferred vessels during cupping sessions.
Nicole explains ceramic is an effective thermal insulator which maintains the temperature of coffee for a longer evaluation time. Additionally, ceramic will not alter the taste of coffee.
“Why white?” Nicole asks, “It helps us detect the roast colour and any possible defects in the colour of the coffee, as well as spot floating elements in the coffee,” she explains.
That said, ceramic cups are fragile and may not always be feasible for public events. More so, the fear of Covid-19 infection lingering among some consumers may prompt hygiene concerns.
One alternative to ceramic cupping vessels is recyclable takeaway coffee cups, particularly those with a polylactic acid (PLA) lining.
PLA is a fully compostable bioplastic made from plant-based starches. It is resistant to high temperatures and has no odour or aftertaste.
Therefore, PLA is highly effective at preventing flavour distortion – one of the most important requirements of a cupping vessel.
MTPak Coffee can provide roasters and cafe owners with a range of sustainable takeaway coffee cups made from recyclable materials such as PET and kraft paper, with an environmentally friendly PLA lining.
Our cups are available in three sizes: 8oz, 12oz, and 16oz. In addition to being strong, waterproof, lightweight, and 100% compostable, our cups can be custom-designed using innovative digital printing technology to feature your brand logo or a QR code that leads consumers to your website.
We also offer a range of low minimum order quantity (MOQ) options. This means you can order as few as 500 fully customised units in just five working days.