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What is coffee cupping?

What might sound like some kind of medical intervention, coffee cupping is actually a form of sampling coffee to discover more about its flavour and aroma. A common practice in the coffee industry, cupping is used by producers and buyers around the globe to ensure a batch of coffee meets quality standards.

I thought this sounded like a pretty interesting concept, so I popped down to the elbgold ‘Coffee Lab’ in downtown Hamburg where cuppings take place every Friday. There I met Doro, with elbgold for more than five years now, and she gave me and three others an introduction to the subtle art of cupping.

The ‘Coffee Lab’ itself is a discreet blend of greys and blacks punctuated by the occasional splash of colour such as the pink reusable cups. Lined up along its counter was a row of different-sized bowls, some filled with coffee beans, others with water. Doro explained that several bowls with the same type of coffee are prepared just in case a ‘bad’ bean manages to smuggle its way through and contaminate the batch. This means that any strange taste can be more readily attributed to the errant bean rather than the coffee itself.

First, we smelt the unground beans in the cups to get an idea of their aroma. Next, each set of beans was ground and again sniffed before hot water was poured into each cup, filling it to the brim. The ground coffee rose to the surface, creating a crust. Our noses again came into play as we tried to distinguish the various aromas. Having set her stopwatch for four minutes, Doro then showed us how to break the crust with a spoon and hover our noses over the cups to pick up the emerging aromas. Between cups, the spoons were rinsed in the bowls of plain water to prevent any cross-contamination. Doro then scooped off the crusts from the coffee. After about twelve minutes, the temperature of the water was cool enough so that we could slurp the coffee without the risk of burning our tongues.

Slurping coffee is a fine art and not easy to do when watched by strangers, but we eagerly set to and tried to copy everything Doro showed us. The aim of slurping is to aerate the coffee, drawing it to the roof of the mouth and back down onto the tongue, covering as wide an area as possible and activating both our sense of taste and sense of smell. At this point, you should be able to pick up the various notes of the coffee, possibly discovering hints of chocolate or vanilla. Sadly, I have to admit, I failed miserably. All I could taste was the varying strengths and acidity of the coffee. Doro explained it is a skill that can be trained though; it just takes time and a lot of patience.

The last stage came when the coffee had completely cooled down. Our slurping technique seemed to have slightly improved as we were finally able to pick out other aromas and notes from the coffee. Doro showed us the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel. Initially published in 1995, this flavour wheel is now the industry standard and was updated in collaboration with World Coffee Research in 2016. Starting at its centre, the taster works outwards and drills down into the more specific flavours and aromas. With that, we were done. Our horizons had broadened; we were all the richer for the experience. I, for one, will never taste coffee in the same way again.

Many thanks to Doro and elbgold in Hamburg for their time and effort. If you would like to have a go at cupping yourself, elbgold offers open cuppings at Schauenburgerstrasse 50, 20095 Hamburg every Friday from 4 pm until 5 pm. Try it and discover a whole new dimension of coffee.

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