In Food + Drink

Coffee Cupping: Your Guide To Picking The Best Beans

Well before your coffee wakes you up each morning, coffee experts apply rigorous tests to ensure quality. Coffee cupping is the fine art of making sure defective beans never make it into our cafes and homes.

The next time you get stressed over a five minute wait for coffee, consider the hours spent and countless beans ground to guarantee the perfect morning brew. Beans are examined at length long before before your barista started considering the grind, water temperature and machine settings to treat them right.

Coffee cupping is the expert process of assessing beans to ensure coffee quality. Much like wine judging, coffee cupping is a blind test and allows the senses to roam free and the quality of beans to take precedence over any branding or preconceptions.  And if you can’t figure out why you can’t get your coffee right at home, cupping might be the right place to start.

Coffee obsessive Charlotte Malaval assess and buys the beans green – that is, un-roasted – for speciality coffee roaster Toby’s Estate. The former international barista champion is considered an expert taster.

“If you want to be better at brewing coffee and being a barista, you also need to be better at tasting coffee and assessing coffee quality,” says Malaval.

coffee cupping

Coffee expert Charlotte Malaval

Malaval is a professional Q Grader; an expert recognised by the international Coffee Quality Institute. Coffee transcends both countries and cultures and the Q Coffee System provides a pathway for coffee to break through boundaries.

“It creates a world-wide calibration and a common language,” says Malaval. “It’s important to build a common language with every person from the industry, from producers, to buyers, roasters and baristas.”

Coffee cupping is about evaluating the many factors which contribute to the perfect coffee. While aromas and flavours are obviously paramount so too is acidity, sweetness, mouthfeel and texture. Q Graders are also expected to understand the different flavours imparted by different growing regions and processes.

Graders give scores out of a possible 100 points, with only those beans which score above 80 able to be considered specialty coffee.

During an average day Q Graders can assess over 60 different cups to ensure quality and consistency in a range. While that may sound like heart-stopping levels of caffeine, cupping is centred on aromas and taste and though each cup is carefully smelt and slurped, most coffee finds its way into the sink.

coffee cuppingDespite some drinkers treating coffee as just an essential fuel to get through the day, for Q Graders like Malaval, tasting coffee showcases the nuanced nature of the drink. Different growing regions, varietals, microclimates and terroir all play a part in influencing the final product.

“Every place is really unique because you cannot reproduce those same combinations anywhere,” says Malaval.

“It’s up to us to unlock the potential and the quality of these beans by applying a really good and really careful processing method.”

How beans are processed significantly impacts the final coffee and different methods – from natural drying to honey processing – all provide unique attributes to the same product.

Coffee cupping is foremost a quality control mechanism, making it a non-essential test for the home. However, for those coffee connoisseurs seeking a way to better understand their coffee, cupping has many lessons.

“I would say process is the easiest thing to identify in the cup,” says Malaval, before adding how important it to expand their palate into different coffee regions.

Green coffee beans roasting.

“Buy African coffee, South and Central American, and Asian coffee; then try to understand the differences.

“Once you’ve started with processing and regions then you can also taste different varietals.”

Malaval says coffee beans offer such diversity, it’s essential to understand what you love about every cup and where those flavours come from.

“The thing is you need to build your own database and you really need to drink as much coffee as you can and concentrate on different characteristics.”

Diversity of coffee only continues to grow; particularly as more and more growing regions are being noticed for the quality of what they can produce. Uganda, Malawi, Mexico are countries which are significant coffee growers, yet only recently have they been noticed for the quality of their beans.

“People really value coffees from Columbia and Brazil and they are really recognised and well-known as specialist coffee growers,” says Malaval. “We really wanted to showcase coffee that people aren’t so used to drinking.”

These regions are now ready to be accepted as serious specialty producers, and Malaval says anyone serious about coffee should embrace buying coffee from them.

Unripened coffee cherries.

“Myanmar always had the potential to produce great coffees, but they used to mix all the qualities and sell everything to the commodity market or export it to China.

“[The industry] didn’t have any connection to international markets and not much knowledge about the impact of processing on cup quality.”

In recent years, the Coffee Quality Institute has worked closely with producers in Myanmar to ensure the best growing practices and processing methods are used.

“They didn’t change anything in the field, the trees are the same and the conditions are the same, it’s just now they really know how to process beautiful natural coffee,” says Malaval.

For experts like Malaval, specialty coffee from lesser-known regions showcases the potential these countries have to produce world-class coffee.

“It’s really inspiring, they are amazing producers and they deserve to be recognised as that.”

Published 21 December, 2017