"We're like a bunch of surfers on a sunny summer day here. Having fun, riding the waves, leisurely expanding our coffee palates. "

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[Photographs: Allison Hemler, unless otherwise noted]

Last week, I discussed my painful aversion toward the old school, wine-tasting mentality of coffee cupping. What a truck-load of expectations: industry lingo, papers and pens, OCD-like attention to technique, and the dreaded slurp and spit. I believe these requirements are a thing of the past—and so I am attempting to pave the way towards a new kind of coffee cupping, no paper required.

What's needed? Bare bones tools: some ground coffee, some hot water, and good conversation. Think of it as a cocktail party with a purpose, no fancy attire required.

Coffees are cupped—that is, tasted with careful attention, side-by-side—for the sole purpose of palate expansion and bean origin exploration. We're not buyers searching for imperfections in beans and cup consistency. We won't create a morning brew in our cupping methods, but we will eventually be able to tell a Latin American from an African coffee, and ultimately figure out how our taste buds respond.

Coffee consultant Erin Hulbert and I sat down on a Sunday evening to cup and indulge in girl talk, free from the shackles of the male-dominated coffee world. Neither of us had ever cupped coffee at home but have done the deed with a variety of groups too many times to count.

It took us five tries to get past spitting out coffee from disgust at the inaccurate amount of coffee we used and an imperfect grind. But that fifth try was a charm. We cupped an Indian Mysore and a Guatemalan from Great Barrington Coffee Company, a specialty coffee roaster in the Berkshires who has been in the biz since 1993.

Here's what ultimately led to our success, and with a few tries, hopefully a few Serious Eats readers will get a little experimental and start throwing their own coffee cupping parties. How to do it, after the jump.

The required equipment:

  • Two soup spoons. Circular is better than oval.
  • A minimum of 3 six ounce cups/bowls, wide brimmed is best. See photos below for a general idea. One for the coffee, one with hot water for rinsing spoons, one for coffee crust/sludge dumping before the sipping ensues.
  • Water just off the boil. Make sure you boil enough for however many coffees you want to taste.
  • Coffee, of course. Cupping one coffee is a perfectly accepted practice, but the experience is enhanced by trying at least two to see how different coffees can get.
  • A timer.

The process:

1. Boil a hefty amount of water. It never hurts to have extra. Plus, you can make a press pot to reward yourself after the tasting.

2. While the water is boiling, prepare your gear: spoons, cups, and coffee beans. Sometimes the professionals like to have the whole beans on a plate nearby to identify which coffee you're tasting. Feel free to pro it up with this technique.

3. Measure out a bit less than 2 tbsp of beans per six ounces of water for each coffee you want to cup. Get a whiff of those beans.

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4. Grind the coffee. You want to use a medium to coarse grind. A burr grinder is preferred, as the coffee will be evenly extracted from the uniform-sized particles. If you use a push-button Krups, be prepared to taste some grinds in your liquid. Dump the coffee in the bottom of the designated cup. Sniff those grinds. Make a mental note of that amazing scent. I like the coffees that remind me of hazelnuts and chocolate.

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5. Once water is off the boil, pour some first into an empty cup without any grinds in it. This will be your spoon-rinsing liquid. Then, move onto your cups with the coffee grinds. Pour the water over the coffee in a circular motion, until you reach the brim of the cup.

6. Start your timer for four minutes. About halfway through (if you aren't glued to the timer, it's okay to be slightly late in this step), break the crust of the coffee very gently in a front to back motion. Smell. Mmmmm. There should remain a caramel-colored foam on top.

7. Wait for the timer to go off at 4 minutes, and use two spoons to remove the foamy head. See below. It's a technique I utterly fail at, but Erin has perfected.

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8. Sniff the coffee liquid once more. It's time for action: tasting! Dip your spoon in the water, being careful to avoid any stray grounds. The four times before Erin and I reached cupping nirvana, we suffered from stray grounds syndrome. You may be luckier.

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[Photograph: Erin Hulbert]

9. Sip! Turns out that slurping noise actually has a purpose. It will spray the coffee liquid all over the inside of your mouth, so you're able to taste every idiosyncrasy possible in the beans. Perfecting the slurping isn't a fine art, and I fully support pretending you are eating chicken soup.

10. Feel free to react however you want. Laugh, cry, or shout out that you want a chocolate chip cookie. (But don't eat the cookie. It'll alter your taste buds.) On our fifth cupping attempt, we shouted out whatever we could think of, even based on experiences. Such as, "that coffee tastes like Thanksgiving" or "that tasted like San Francisco at noon on a Sunday." There's no rules here. The best part about not forcing yourself to record things like brightness, aroma, and aftertaste, is that you can say whatever you want—let your taste buds do the talking. It's supposed to be fun.

11. If you're cupping multiple coffees, make sure you pour the water into each cup, following steps simultaneously. You'll get even more out of cupping if you have a variety to compare and react to.

Key factors in a DIY home-based cupping:
  • Bean Quality: If you're trying to spotlight a kickass coffee, don't go too far beyond two weeks after its roast date. Preferably the beans will be from a small artisan roaster, though Starbucks has some pretty interesting coffees, and grocery-store barrels overflowing with super dark roasted beans may entice you.
  • Grind: Medium-coarse is best, somewhere between a filter drip and a French press.
  • Amount of Ground Coffee: The coffee bible says two tablespoons per six ounces of water. I've found this can be a bit too much (or I just have bad luck), so about a tbsp and a half should do the trick.
  • Temperature of Water: Like I noted above, just off the boil. Let the kettle sit for about 20-30 seconds after hitting boiling temp so you don't scorch anything. Once you start pouring, air exposure will immediately start cooling down your concoctions. Coffees will change as temperatures dip, so it's important to recognize at what point you're sipping and sharing your observations.

Remember that all of these factors can be adjusted based on what you want to get out of the cupping. If you're looking to explore how grind affects flavors, by all means get coarser or push the Turkish button. (Actually, I don't recommend straying too far from a medium-coarse grind, since you may ingest grinds and most stomachs won't like that too much.) If you want to fool your accomplice and compare a three-month-old oily and rotten coffee to a just-roasted batch, feel free to use those crappy old beans to see how your taste buds react. Don't hold me responsible if the oily coffee deteriorates your grinder.

Professional supplies are sold for the strict purpose of cupping, but feel free to use your $1 Ikea spoons and crème brulee ramekins if you don't have anything else. Remember, we're like a bunch of surfers on a sunny summer day here. Having fun, riding the waves, leisurely expanding our coffee palates. One last note: Erin and I can be hired for birthdays and weddings.

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