The Language of Cupping
“The process of learning how to cup coffee is like a circle,” says Judith Mandel, Blue Bottle’s Quality Control Specialist. “There’s a learning curve for everyone, but ultimately, coffee is not static, and neither are we. As a coffee drinker, you must be open to the fact that you have a living, moving product, and that you’ll never stop learning about it.”
In our first post in the two-part The Language of Cupping series, we learned how creating an official standard for the taste of coffee makes it possible for industry members to more accurately communicate about flavor and quality. When they first started out, Blue Bottle’s own coffee experts, like Green Coffee Buyer Charlie Habegger and Green Coffee Coordinator Carly Getz, quickly learned that developing their own personal lexicons was key, not only to using the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon—which identifies the 110 flavor, aroma, and texture attributes present in coffee—but to refining their own sense of what makes a coffee taste good.
Everyone Can Do It
Luckily, you don’t have to be a Blue Bottler yourself to create your own coffee lexicon: Regardless of experience level, everyone is capable of articulating their own preferences with practice, and of using that ability to communicate with other coffee lovers. As Charlie says, “Think of a cupping as painting a landscape together. Everyone sees the original with slightly unique senses and experiences, and has a slightly unique way of recreating that experience for others.”
Our experts are eager to dispel the myth that only people in the coffee industry can better attune themselves to the taste of coffee—these experiences are for everyone.
“What’s exciting about coffee is that the entry point to active, mindful tasting is much lower than most people think,” says Judith. “If you’ve ever tasted or smelled anything before, you already have a toolkit to start working with.”
Of course, developing this skill does take practice. The complexity of communicating subjective sensory experiences with other people is why the Lexicon, as well as the SCAA’s Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel, is so important.
“It was so exciting when it was published because it was the first real step in unifying language for us as back-end coffee workers,” says Judith. “We’re constantly trying to make the subjective objective, and this gives us standardized points of reference. At work, we’re pulling so much from sensory memory, and we need a way to bridge that gap. We need to make sure that if I’m saying this coffee tastes like peach, and you’re saying it tastes like plum, we can still recognize that we’re both talking about a stone fruit flavor—and create a point of calibration.”
Broaden Your Horizons
As Carly has noted before, experience doesn’t just inform your vocabulary—it drives it.
“Taste every coffee you can get your hands on, and always try your coffee black before adding anything to it,” she says. “The only way to begin gathering information on how coffees are different from each other is by adding to your memory bank of coffees you've tried.”
“People should drink all coffee, even coffee that isn’t Blue Bottle,” says Judith. “Enhancing palate development means learning about ones likes and dislikes, and what you're sensitive to. Context is really important, and it transcends brands."
As well as having her tastes expanded by her study of coffee, Carly has found that mindfully experimenting with other flavors has helped her build her coffee cupping vocabulary.
“A farmer's market for me is now an opportunity to try new fruits, veggies, nuts, and spices that I might not be very familiar with. I'm also much more fascinated with winemaking now, as there is a surprising amount of overlap between our industries.”
“I've always cooked, so smelling everything comes naturally to me,” says Judith. “In the Bay Area, we have an abundance of farmers markets and natural locations with flowers, fragrances, and spices, and I take advantage of that.”
For many people new to coffee cupping, other food products like wine, chocolate, cheese, and beer are all helpful points of reference for lexicon-building. But even if tasting mindfully is new to you, Judith points out that you’re not starting from ground zero. “You’ve tasted things before in your life, and you know what flavors and sensations you and enjoy, and which you don’t,” she says. “That is your foundation for coffee cupping.”
To help keep track of your reactions and reflections while you’re drinking coffee, Carly and Judith both recommending jotting them down in a notebook or on your phone.
“Ask yourself: Is there anything that stands out about this coffee in particular? If so, what?” says Carly. “It's also important to note the region the coffee came from and its processing method. Over time, you can begin to pick up on profile trends within these categories.”
Practice Makes Perfect
“For me, cupping is really just thinking about what you're smelling and tasting—it's as simple, and complicated, as that," says Judith. "While we make these evaluations professionally, the initial exercise for those at home is the same routine, just with less rigor. Smell, taste, think, and then write down, even with minimal vocabulary at first, your gut reactions to a coffee's smell, intensity of flavor, body, acidity, and aftertaste. All of these register as different forms of likeness and can inform folks about their own preferences."
While tasting coffees at home is a great way to practice mindful tasting, all of our experts agree that doing so with others is crucial to developing your lexicon.
“Many roasters, including Blue Bottle, offer public cuppings, and they’re the fastest way to pick up on differences between coffees,” says Carly. “It's also extremely helpful to share your notes with others and to hear theirs. Talking through your notes out loud is one way to begin to solidify your language. If you don't understand what someone means when they describe their experience, don't be afraid to ask them to explain. A well-developed cupping language is pointless if it's not understood by the people hearing it.”
When it comes to mindful tasting, learning how to focus is just as important as putting in the time.
“There’s a tendency to miscategorize because of muscle memory,” says Judith. “Our sensory memory is strong, but that sense of recall can sometimes be inaccurate. A lot of what I do is build up my ability to focus. There are so many distractions all around us. In order to actually capture what a coffee tastes like—not what we think it’s going to taste like—you have to be tasting in the moment.”
This is another reason why cupping with others is important. To challenge the tendency toward losing flavor in translation, Judith recommends coffee tasters don’t cup in a vacuum. “Drink coffee with others and talk about it,” she says. “Getting specific about what you’re tasting requires reflection and practice, but also communication. Talking to others can help you clarify your reactions, and learn from their experiences.”
Use Tools—But Think Outside the Box, Too
While Carly and Judith rely on tools both concrete and abstract, to do their jobs, they aren’t limited by them.
“Use tools like the flavor wheel, but don't feel bound to them,” says Carly. “Try to find descriptors that make sense to you outside of the flavors listed there. For example, how does the body of the coffee feel—delicate, thin, gritty, chalky, heavy? How intense is the brightness or acidity of the coffee—expressive, balanced, low? How is the aftertaste—does it linger? If so, in what way?”
“When we associate a word with a flavor once, we are more likely to go back to that word when we come across that flavor, or a similar one,” says Judith. “We get into habits that are hard to break. That’s why you have to try to leave your expectations at the door, and remain open-minded about what we’re tasting and how we’re describing it.”
Keep an Open Mind
“As long as you’re willing to be open-minded, anyone can learn from cupping coffee,” says Judith. “Every time you taste coffee, you’re either confirming what you think about yourself or being open to being proven wrong. Either way, you’re giving yourself the chance to learn something.”
Read Part I of our Language of Cupping Series.
Find an upcoming cupping class at your local Blue Bottle.