When you’re cupping coffee at home, you don’t need to buy a lot of specialist tools, but there are reasons why specific coffee cupping tools exist.
For instance, many professional coffee cuppers like to use a specifically designed, silver plated spoon for cupping because the spoon’s shape facilitates the lightning fast ‘slurping’ action (described below), and the silver plating absolutely minimizes any potential flavor altering in the coffee samples (steel and other materials may impart other tastes, however subtle).
Probably the only serious tool you’ll need to buy is an accurate gram scale, but fortunately these items can be found online for less than $30 these days in digital forms. Even a balance scale (often below $10) will suit.
If you are considering buying more specialized tools for cupping, the SCAA does sell them to both members and non members.
What you will need
We’re basing the following on the assumption you will be evaluating four coffees.
Eight cups or glasses of equal volume: ideally, you want cups that are between 5 and 7 ounces in fill volume. “Rocks” style glasses (for booze) work quite well!
Water kettle: or an electric water heater. The minimum capacity of the kettle should be 64 ounces.
Coffee grinder: The obvious preference here is a burr grinder because consistency in the grind between samples is very important.
Two pint glasses: these are used for rinse water, for washing your cupping spoons while you cup.
Four “Cupping” spoons: again, there are specially designed spoons for this, but a tablespoon style measures can also work well, or European-style “deep bowl” tablespoons. The more concave the bowl is, the better.
Gram scale: for measuring precise volumes of coffee. In a pinch, a measuring scoop will also do.
Cupping forms: for cupping in the home, these aren't entirely necessary, but forms will help you evaluate the coffee in a more complete and concise way. It also gives you a note-taking device you can go back to when you discuss the coffee with your fellow cuppers.
Four empty coffee mugs: Cupping coffee involves a lot of sloshing, slurping and yes, even spitting. Pro cuppers have spittoons - you have a coffee mug with a handle!
A clear and focused mind: This one is very important!
There are also some optional items you may want to include:
Sample trays: these are used to hold the roasted whole bean coffee for each sample, and second trays could be used to hold the green, unroasted coffee. You could purchase those super-cheap disposable square containers that Glad or ZipLock sell, and use them as sample trays.
Extra spoons: When skimming off the grounds (don't worry, you'll find out what this means below), having a few extra spoons to do it is nice
What about the coffee?
Your next decision is what coffee should you be evaluating. First, starting with three or four coffees is best, though you can certainly cup more than this (you'll need more of the tools listed above to do so in one session).
As for what coffee to choose, consider this. Sometimes, professional cuppers want to evaluate four or more different coffees from the same region to see how they compare and contrast - they want to find the best samples from a specific region, so they will compare four, eight, twelve or more coffees in one major session. Other times, cuppers may want to evaluate different coffees from different regions that may have similar taste profiles (or reputations for taste profile). They do this so they can have a set of "back up" beans to go to in the future if their current choices somehow pale down the road (remember, coffee is a crop, and as such can change season to season, year to year, even bag to bag).
At home, the choice is yours - you could pick three or four completely different coffees if you want, or pick a bunch from the same growing region or country. Online vendors of green coffee, like SweetMarias, Coffee Bean Corral, Coffee Wholesalers and many others will often have two, three, four or more coffees from the same regions.
You may also want to choose coffees based on their reputation (or previous cupping notes you’ve read: www.coffeereview.com is a good place to see tasting notes), and cup them yourself to see if you taste and evaluate the coffee the same way the pros did.
Once you’ve chosen your coffees, try to make sure the coffee is roasted at the same level and same roast color. If you home roast, this is easy - just roast all the sample green to the same level, and roast it at the same time (let the coffee rest for a day or two before cupping). If you buy roasted coffee, seek out a microroaster in your area, tell them you want to cup coffee at home, and ask that they sell you beans roasted on the same day.
Now that you have your coffee and you’ve gotten the controllable variables down pat, what do you do? Read on!