One of the most important skills of a good cupper is the ability to focus clearly and sharply on the task at hand. Taste can be a very fleeting sensation, and in the span of microseconds many flavors will wash across the palate at the same time. The challenge is to become skilled at noticing, identifying, and describing those flavor sensations in a way that is meaningful to you.
There can be a wide range of vocabulary that is used to describe the tastes found in coffee. Descriptors range from the familiar (chocolatey, sweet, fruity) to the conceptual (clean, vibrant, sturdy) to the wildly esoteric (summery, racy, gentlemanly). I’ve heard coffees compared to Kevin Costner, Honda Accords, and cold winter nights.
What matters is that the description is purposeful and attempts to communicate the essential nature of the coffee using language that people can relate to. Taste can be a very personal experience, and memories of tastes that you’ve experienced in the past form the background against which new tastes are evaluated and understood. Over time, a diligent cupper will develop a collection of useful descriptors that can be used to contrast and compare coffees in a meaningful way.
It is useful to use a few key characteristics of coffee as landmarks when making comparisons.
The following are some of the most commonly used:
Acidity: This can be described as the pleasing brightness or sharpness in the coffee. It is through the acidity that many of the most intriguing fruit and floral flavors are delivered, and is usually the most scrutinized characteristic of the coffee. Acidity can be intense or mild, round or edgy, elegant or wild, and everything in between. Usually the acidity is best evaluated once the coffee has cooled slightly to a warm/lukewarm temperature. Tasting a coffee from Sumatra next to one from Kenya is a good way to begin to understand acidity.
Body: This is sometimes referred to as “mouthfeel”. The body is the sense of weight or heaviness that the coffee exerts in the mouth, and can be very difficult for beginning cuppers to identify. It is useful to think about the viscosity or thickness of the coffee, and concentrate on degree to which the coffee has a physical presence. Cupping a Sulawesi versus a Mexican coffee can illustrate the range of body quite clearly.
Sweetness: One of the most important elements in coffee, sweetness often separates the great from the good. Even the most intensely acidic coffees are lush and refreshing when there is enough sweetness to provide balance and ease the finish. Think of lemonade…starting with just water and lemon juice, one can add sugar until the level of sweetness achieves harmony with the tart citric flavor. It is the same with coffee, the sweetness is critical to allowing the other tastes to flourish and be appreciated.
Finish: While first impressions are powerful, it is often the last impression that has the most impact. With coffee the finish (or aftertaste) is of great importance to the overall quality of the tasting experience, as it will linger long after the coffee has been swallowed. Like a great story, a great cup of coffee needs a purposeful resolution. The ideal finish to me is one that is clean (free of distraction), sweet, and refreshing with enough endurance to carry the flavor for 10-15 seconds after swallowing. A champion finish will affirm with great clarity the principal flavor of the coffee, holding it aloft with grace and confidence like a singer carries the final note of a song and then trailing off into a serene silence.
A few thoughts on the process
Cupping can be immensely pleasurable even for the most novice tasters. There is no better way to understand and explore the unique tastes of coffee than to examine them side by side, looking for differences between coffees and using them to shed light on the essential character of the cup.
Over time, a cupper becomes adept at zeroing in on those tastes and sensations that are most central to the coffee, looking at the ‘skeleton’ of the coffee as well as the cosmetic surface. All of this deconstruction is important when comparing coffees from the same origin in search of the real treasures.
However, when tasting anything there is a very basic reduction that can be done, one that cuts straight to the heart of the matter. Ask yourself—Is it good, or is it truly great?