A basic introduction to Cupping – Coffee tasting technique

(Written by: Tuyến Trần)


15:45 13/09/2022

CFRR- Coffee cupping (tasting) becomes a sensory science that makes an important view of evaluation for coffee quality 

SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) has developed and launched a comprehensive toolkit to help professionals or professionals obtain specific scores with ten factors for coffee analysis, which are:  aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body (mouthfeel), balance, sweetness, uniformity, cleanliness (a sense of clarity), and lastly overall.

Development steps in tasting 

In the year 1800, merchants used the coffee tasting method as a way to determine quality and uniformity to decide what type of coffee they wanted to buy.

Tasting application cannot ignore the three significant names in this development Clarence E. Bickford, a green coffee merchant who introduced the quality test. Hills Bros was the first miller to adopt this tasting method, while BD Balart was one of the first to conclude that tastings should not be based on assumptions and apply the same complete process of tasting coffee as nowadays.

In 1984, the Specialty Coffee Association of America (now SCA) published the first edition of The Coffee Cupper’s Handbook from Ted R. Lingle.

In 1999, during the Cup of Excellence competition, the tasting method was used to evaluate coffee in the competition.  

Cup of Excellence Competition 1999. Photo: allianceforcoffeeexcellence.org

After that, SCAA (now SCA International Specialty Coffee Association) developed a form of tasting and became the tasting industry standard to date that rates 10 attributes on a 10 points scale for each attribute, and defects give the final score to judge whether the quality coffee or commercial one.

General principles in Cupping

Coffee cupping is a tasting process that obtains assessments of the quality of the sample made by experts in Q Graders or those who have just started for the tasting practice.

  • Cupping participants must not have a strange body odor (negative or positive)
  • Before participating in cupping, they are confined to the limit of eating foods with highly seasoned spices: sour or spicy. And it is necessary to clean the palate.
  • The cupping room is clean and has no strange odors to make it comfortable.
  • Participants adhere to the principle of silence during the evaluation process to avoid affecting the final result and have to remark at the end of the cupping session.
  • All have to focus on knowing the indicators of coffee, water, time, and the cupping process.

Sample preparation

  • Preparation of roasted sample: The sample to be tested must be roasted for 24 hours and took a break of 8 hours at least. After about 30 minutes to 4 hours, the roasted coffee sample would be ground and measured in an Agtron colorimeter at room temperature in the fix on rounding error in +- 1.0 units:  
    • Agtron “Gourmet”: 63.0
    • Agtron “Commercial”: 48.0
    • Color track: 62.0
    • Probate Colorette 3b: 96.0
  • The sample to be tasted must be roasted over 8 to 12 minutes and then cooled quickly. As the sample reaches 20°C, it will be stored in an airtight container or one waterproof sealed bag to limit air exposure until being evaluated.
  • The ideal ratio of optimal balance in tasting is 8.25 grams of coffee to 150ml of water
  • The sample will be grounded before the evaluation starting with only 15 minutes allowed or tightly closed for up to 30 minutes. The coarse grind size is about 1mm. Five cups are required for each tasting sample which is covered immediately after grinding.
  • The water used for tasting is clean, and odorless, with an ideal total dissolved solids content of 125 -175 ppm. The temperature of water used to pour into the first layer of coffee is 92°C- 94°C, the coffee layer in the cup must be sodden and undisturbed for 3-5 minutes when pouring water.

Tools and equipment preparation

  • Cups must have a capacity of 207ml to 266ml, mouth diameter from 76-89mm, and all glasses used in tasting must have lids of and the same size.
  • Scale
  • Cupping spoon (2 scoops/person)
  • Evaluation forms, pens.
  • Stopwatch
  • The glass of clean water for spoons washing.
  • Clean dry towels.
  • Coffee grinder.
  • Standard water and kettle.

Environmental conditions for tasting

  • Room temperature about 25-27°C
  • Clean, no strange smell.
  • Sufficient light
  • Quiet, no noise space
  • Relaxed mental

Cupping technique

  • The purpose of Cupping is clearly to assess the consistency, quality, and specific flavor of a coffee bean product for commercial use, not for the enjoyment of coffee, so it needs to follow a demanding standard. Ask for high accuracy based on factors of deep expertise.
  • Cupping requires the performer to be trained in professional techniques according to specific standards from the SCA (International Specialty Coffee Association) and be certified by the Q-Graders to be able to evaluate scientifically related to the senses, senses of smell,  taste, sight,…

Cupping process

Step 1

Grind coffee then put it into a cupping cup

Dry aroma evaluation: In the first 15 minutes after sample grounding, dry aroma must be evaluated by smelling the scent of the ground coffee in the cup.

Step 2 

(the first 4 minutes): pour water in the ratio of 8.25gr of coffee – 150ml of water, press the clock at the same time pour water into the cup. Pour water quickly and forcefully at the edge of the cup, then in the middle as almost full.

Break aroma evaluating within the first 4 minutes after pouring water.

Step 3 

(the second 4 minutes): – aroma evaluation (Fragrance/Aroma) 

The following procedure is to stir the coffee layer 3 rounds (sink the spoon to remove the pulp up then down). Still smelling to assess the break aroma. Aromas are evaluated on an average basis of Dry aroma and Break aroma. Fill in the score in the Aroma box.

Use two spoons to remove the coffee foam Photo: CFRR

Clean: Use 2 tablespoons to remove the coffee foam and put it in another cup (do not put it in the spoon washing glass).

Soak the spoon as soon as cleaned, absorb in the dry towel then repeat by replacing that glass with a warm water one and preparing a dry towel.

Step 4 

(the third 4 minutes): Flavor & Aftertaste evaluating

At this time, the temperature is about 65°C -71°C. Flavor and Aftertaste will be evaluated at maximum intensity at this temperature.

From the 8th to 10th minutes, Take the right amount of coffee into the spoon (without filling the spoon), and suck it hard to form a hissing sound for the coffee covering the tongue and palate. Evaluate the score and fill in the Flavor and Aftertaste table.

Step 5 

(the fourth 4 minutes):– Acidity, Body, and Balance evaluating

At this time, the temperature is about 55°C which is the best time to evaluate Acidity, Body, and Balance.

Keep sucking coffee as before, evaluate the score and fill in the Acidity, Body, and Balance tables. In particular, Balance is evaluated based on the overall combination of Flavor, Aftertaste, Acidity, and Body.

Step 6 

(the fifth 4 minutes): Evaluating of Sweetness, Uniformity, Cleanliness, and Overall.

At this time, the temperature is about 45°C, suitable for assessing the sweetness, consistency, and cleanliness of the coffee cup.

For each of these attributes will be evaluated individually for each cup, one will get 2 points for that attribute and a maximum of up to 10 points (for 5 x 2 points)

Overall scores are assessed totally based on attributes and are determined by the person in charge of the tasting (Cupper’s Points).

This process will end as the temperature drops to 21°C.

Step 7 

(the sixth 4 minutes): Scoring

The attribute scores will be recorded in the form of the score column. And the final score is summed up from the attributes located in the upper right corner.

Scoring in cupping

Sample table for coffee cupping. (Source: SCA)

Each attribute is divided on the 10 points scale, each point will represent a level according to the Quality Scale as follows:

7.00 – Very Good8.00 – Excellent9.00 – Outstanding
Quality score scale for each attribute in cupping
  • In the fragrance/aroma, aftertaste, acidity, body, and balance attributes, there are two rating scales…
    • The vertical scale represents the sensory intensity and will be marked for scoring base
    • The horizontal scale is evaluated based on the cupper’s perception and experience of the quality of the components in the sample.
  • These attributions: Uniformity, Clean Cup, and Sweetness will be scored in each cup separately with 2 points for each one so that the maximum for each attribute is 10 points.
  • Defects: is the minus point on the sample table:
    • Taint: will be calculated as the number of cups with errors multiplied by a factor of 2
    • Fault: will be calculated as the number of cups with errors multiplied by a factor of 4

The error points will be added together to the total minus points on the sample sheet.

  • Final Score: The sample’s final score result equals to be subtracted from the attributes’ total score to the error’s total score.
Total Score Quality Classification
80-84.99Very GoodSpecialty
<80.0Below Specialty QualityNot Specialty
Total score for grading coffee quality

Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel

Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel in Cupping

In 1995 SCA published the first coffee flavor wheel divided into 2 rounds: the Taints & Fault round and the Aromas & Tastes separate round.

By 2016 in collaboration with SCA and WCR (World Coffee Research) researchers, the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel was completely updated with flavor and inspired a specialized sensory vocabulary with definitions of aromas and flavors linked together when senses work in sync, not separately.

Scientific research has concluded that the human nose can identify more than one trillion odors but distinguish just 10,000 different odors based on 400 types of receptor odors.

The human eye can distinguish 10 million different colors from 4 types of receptors, and about 5,000-10,000 taste buds on the tongue can taste sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and umami (spicy is not a taste, but it is a painful and burning signal transmitted from the nerves to the brain).

Using Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel in professional Cupping helps the operator to observe the coffee in each process from Fragrance (dry aroma)/Aroma (break aroma) to the sense of smell, clearly described with enclosed terms.

Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel indicates Flavor is a combination of taste and smell combined based on synthetic analysis of tasters’ savor

Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel in Cupping. Photo: commonwealthioe 

Read the wheel of taste

Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel is designed with 3 rounds from the center outward.

The first round describes general flavors such as sweet, floral, fruit, sour, green/ vegetative, roasted, and spices, …

Second round: group of flavors developed from the first round

Third round: a specific description of development from the first and second rounds.

In process of cupping, you feel the taste of the fruit in round 1 so you need to determine in the second round whether that fruit is from a berry or citrus …, once you have determined as a berry, you need to determine exactly whether it is strawberry, blueberry or almond … in the third round

Taste wheel.Photo: SCA

A fully basic description for each attribute

  • Fragrance/Aroma: includes evaluation of fragrance (ground coffee scent when dried) and aroma (the scent of coffee when soaked with hot water) in the steps of smelling fragrance, smelling the scent emitted when pouring hot water, and smelling the scent when stirring. Specific fragrances are recorded as quality on a horizontal scale, intensity is recorded on a vertical scale with the 5-point scale. The final score of an attribute must reflect the degree of the Fragrance/Aroma aspect of the sample.
  • Flavor: The attribute that represents the main characteristic of coffee is the combination of aroma and taste felt from mouth to nose, the amount of coffee that is strongly sucked and spread throughout the palate judging by the intensity, quality, and complexity of the flavor gives the final score of the sample.
  • Aftertaste: evaluated based on the positive aroma and taste that spreads in the mouth after the coffee is swallowed through the throat. If the taste is short and the sensation is unpleasant, a low score will be given
  • Acidity: is rated positively when the light sourness represents the characteristics of the fresh fruit of the coffee, and negatively evaluated when there is excessive acidity, high acidity that causes discomfort and does not match the characteristics of the sample. Intensity is evaluated on a vertical scale from low to high, based on origin characteristics, and roasting level such as Kenya coffee with high acidity, or Sumatra coffee with low acidity, the final score may be the same, even though their intensity will be different.
  • Body: evaluated from the sensation between the tongue and palate represents the presence of a feeling of thinness or fullness of substances and sugars. Coffee in Mexico will have a low body for a pleasant feeling, coffee in Sumatra with a high body will also get the same high final score even if the intensity is different.
  • Balance: represents the balance of Flavor, Aftertaste, Acidity, and Body attributes. The sample has enough of these attributes to a similar degree, no attribute overwhelms the others, and no attribute is missing, and the final score will be high.
  • Sweetness: If the sample has indistinct sweetness with the presence of carbohydrates and a pleasant taste, the recorded score for each cup is 2 points, and the maximum will be 10 points.
  • Clean cup: is rated as the taste’s cleanliness of each cup, expressed from the beginning of tasting to the last taste after swallowing. Without the appearance of non-coffee odors or added flavors, the Clean Score is recorded for each clean cup of 2 points.
  • Uniformity: represents uniformity of the taste of the sample in the cups, cups with different flavors will be given a low score. Each cup will be awarded 2 points for uniformity, if all 5 cups have the same taste, the maximum will be 10 points.
  • Overall: The sample must clearly express its property of quality, taste, and specific origin. If the sample has full of pleasant but non-specific attributes will get a lower score. The final score is decided by the individual evaluations of each tasting participant.
  • Defects: là những khiếm khuyết về hương hoặc vị tạo ra cảm nhận tiêu cực hoặc làm giảm chất lượng của mẫu. Khiếm khuyết này se chia thành 2 dạng:
    • A Taint is an off-flavor: a small defect. Strange scents appear but not many are recorded specifically such as sour fermentation, rubber, and phenolic This error has a coefficient of 2.
    • A fault is an off-flavor: a palate defect. The taste has an overwhelming sense of negativity. This error has a coefficient of 4.
  • The defect score is marked specifically for each fail cup and multiplied by its coefficient and counted as a minus in the sample table.

Palate characteristics on the tongue

Taste is the sense organ found on the tongue and allows one to perceive bitter, sweet, salty, and sour flavors in coffee.

The surfaces of the tongue, soft palate, upper esophagus, cheeks, and epiglottis contain numerous taste buds also called taste receptor cells. The structure of taste buds is onion-shaped and consists of 80-100 taste cells.  The taste buds contain a lot of tiny hairs called microvilli that are very sensitive, and these send information to the brain about taste when it comes in contact with something. On the tongue taste buds are located in epithelial structures called papillae.

There are three types: fungal papillae distributed on the anterior surface of the tongue, ring-shaped papillae distributed around the back surface,

and leafy papillae located on either side of the tongue. Many taste buds are also distributed on the soft palate.

An adult has about 2 to 8 thousand buds, which are regenerated every 14 days or maybe longer.

This number will decrease for older adults or those who smoke regularly. The taste buds contain receptors for all four basic tastes in all regions of the oral cavity, and differences in taste sensitivity on other parts of the tongue, which leads to different taste perceptions.

Greater sensitivity to bitterness is located at the back of the tongue (the root of the tongue), the sensitivity of sourness on the two sides of the tongue’s posterior part (the near the root of the tongue), and sweetness is located in the front of the tongue (tip of the tongue), salty taste is located on the sides of the front tongue (near the tip of the tongue).

Taste receptors on the surface of the tongue. Photo: Haagen Smith, 1952.

The olfactory receptors also play a very important role in the assessment of taste along with the palate. This combination is described in the flavor attribute. It goes like this: when tasting a sip of coffee in your mouth, the chemical compounds will be released immediately and then go up the nose, activating the olfactory receptors that combine with the taste buds to create the real flavor.


  • The Coffee Cupper’s Handbook SCAA 
  • Specialty Coffee Association
  • Scientific American
  • A.J. Haagen-Smit. Smell and taste. Sci. Am., 186 (3) (1952), pp. 28-32

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