NOC’s Guide to Coffee Tasting

22 MAY 2019

“Do you taste that? I’m getting notes of caramel with subtle undertones of orange citrus” – you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a statement about a vintage of merlot or sauvignon blanc. In fact, here our resident Head Roaster, Sam Chan, is in discussion with his staff at a recent cupping session. For most of us, coffee tastes like, well coffee. However, the experience of drinking coffee starts to become more meaningful when you’re able to identify the slight differences in flavour profiles. We joined Sam and his team at a recent coffee tasting session to learn how each coffee is studied for its flavour profile, and also to discuss why coffee is a deeply personal experience.

What is a coffee tasting and why is it important?

Coffee tasting, also known as “cupping”, is a practice that was created for coffee professionals to grade coffee beans. The technique is now widely carried out by coffee lovers who want to gain a better understanding of coffee.

Cupping is important because it allows us to objectively compare, contrast and evaluate characteristics of different coffees by omitting other factors in the brewing process that may affect the taste of the coffee. As a roaster, I cup every time I roast as a quality control measure. Cupping is also essential when I’m deciding the roasting profile of single origins and blend recipes/ratio.

Talk us through how NOC conducts a coffee cupping session

We start by preparing 12g of finely ground coffee in a cupping cup. This allows us to smell and identify the aroma of the dry coffee grounds.

We then add in exactly 200g of hot water. It is important to ensure the water temperature is between 94 to 97 degree celsius, and that we pour the water on the same spot to make sure coffee grounds in the cup become emersed. Now that the coffee ground is wet, we again smell the aroma of the coffee.

At this same point, we start the timer. We allow the coffee to brew for 4 minutes before we break the coffee ground ‘crust’ that forms on top of the cupping cups, stir the coffee gently and skim any coffee grounds that float in the cups.

We wait 7 more minutes before we start tasting the coffee with our cupping spoons. When we taste the coffee, we slurp, almost inhaling the coffee into our mouths. This draws the coffee and creates a ‘coffee vapour’ inside our mouths, allowing the coffee to stimulate both our sense of smell and sense of taste. We taste the coffee multiple times as the temperature of the coffee cools down. The process continues for around 30 minutes.

As a roaster, I cup to compare different roasting profiles for a specific coffee. At the same time, I’ll also perform a coffee grading. The coffees are graded according to their different characteristics: aroma, acidity, body, flavour, balance and aftertaste.

"To me, coffee is a very personal experience."

What does cupping mean to how our readers experience coffee?

To me, coffee is a very personal experience. Every coffee drinker has her/his own preference and, it’s my opinion that it shouldn’t be up to professionals to define ‘good coffee’. Just because a variety of beans is given a high cupping score by professionals, it doesn’t mean every coffee drinker will like its aroma or taste. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to what good coffee means: if you enjoy the coffee you are drinking, then it’s good coffee! This is also the reason why I made the fruity and nutty house blends – to accommodate customers with different preferences in coffee flavour.

For our coffee readers at home, what are the key things to look out for when tasting coffee?

When we taste coffee, we generally look out for the following characteristics:

Aroma: we smell the aroma of the coffee when it’s dry, and when wet.

Acidity: acidity in a coffee can be high, medium or low. Coffee with a good acidity should taste like the sourness in fruits, not a pungent, vinegar-like sourness.

Sweetness: an appropriate level of sweetness is essential in creating balance with the acidity in a coffee.

Body: you can observe the texture of a coffee by its appearance. The body of a coffee can be thin like water, or thick like milk or even butter.

Flavour: you may be able to taste interesting tasting notes with its levels of sweetness and sourness. For example, coffees with higher acidity may feature tasting notes of lemons.

Balance: we assess the balance of aroma, acidity, body and flavour in a coffee. Is there a characteristic in the coffee that is very strong? If there is no unpleasant taste/aroma in the coffee and you want to keep on drinking, then you can assume the coffee is ‘balanced’

Aftertaste: we don’t want any bitterness or vinegar-like sourness in the aftertaste of the coffee.