Strong and pleasant rates high. Weak or unpleasant rates low
In as much as aroma is the principal agent in the taste of coffee, “aroma evaluation” is always the first step in the cupping or taste assessment of a coffee. Without aroma the taste of coffee is limited to the four mundane sensations of sweet, sour, salty and bitter.
The chemistry of aroma is developed by several mechanisms during roasting. Inherent chemistry and degree of roast both play a role in aroma development. The more elusive aspect of the roasting process is the proper rate of heat application to the beans during roasting. Stepped or staged roasting will reveal different results. Once the optimum heat application is found by trial and error, a computer-controlled profile program on the roasting machine can assure repeatability and consistency.
Bouquet is the total aromatic profile of a coffee and is comprised of the following four categories.
Dry aroma – usually referred to as fragrance of “freshly ground” coffee. It is composed of gasses locked inside the bean and released at room temperature.
Cup aroma – is derived from the gasses and vapors leaving the surface of the brew.
Nose – is derived from vapors released from the brew as it is taken into the mouth.
Aftertaste – is partly the result of residue vapors remaining on the palate after swallowing and vapors being exhaled through the nose.
Some Noted Characteristics:
Enzymatic Volatiles are principally noticed in the dry aroma.
Flowery: such as floral and fragrant
Fruity: such as citrus and berry
Herby: such as alliaceous and leguminous
Nutty: often almond, peanut or walnut
Malty: as toasted grain like barley or wheat
Caramelly: sugary aromas can be,
Candy like as toffee or praline
Syrupy as molasses or honey
Dark unsweetened as in Baker’s or Dutch chocolate
Light and sweet vanilla-like as Swiss or custard
Charring Volatiles (mostly noted in dark roasts)
Terpeny or Resinous as piney and balsamic
Spicy from mild nutmeg to pungent clove or bitter almond
Carbony can be smoky and ashy to burnt and rubbery
Many cuppers actually check the fragrance of the dry grounds before wetting the coffee to assess the brew aroma. An average cup will contain the grinds of about fifty coffee beans and the presence of one seriously defective bean can be discerned in a cup. In a certified cupping, ten cups of the same coffee are prepared. The number of different tasting cups will tell you something about the consistency and grade of the coffee. With specialty coffee I usually limit the tasting to five cups per sample.
Because one bad bean in fifty is discernable in the dry aroma, you have the opportunity to set a bad cup back from the edge of the table and taste it at the end of the cupping session so as to not foul your taste buds until the end for obvious reasons.
There is the habit of some cuppers to evaluate samples only on the next day after roasting. It is argued that the taste changes after twelve to twenty-four hours of rest and the beans have had time to out-gas the majority of CO2 and molecular stability has been achieved. Some cuppers find a perceived difference in cup quality between fresh roasted and reposed coffees, the reposed coffee flavor being the preferred.
In one way, this makes sense because the rested taste is more representative of the condition the consumer is going to experience in the brew. I personally prefer to cup the next day after roasting mainly because my nose gets overwhelmed by smoke from roasting the samples. If one’s olfactory sense is saturated it will dull the aroma sensitivity in cupping.
Unfortunately we do not always have the luxury of cupping the next day when cupping for replacement coffee. In as much as it takes a few days to get the green samples from the broker and a day or two to do the cupping, the lot is sometimes sold out before you can make a determination. Often decisions must be make quickly.
I might add to that point that when cupping multiple samples of the same origin, your “rating order of preference” of fresh roasted samples compared to the order of preference the next day will probably not change. This does not mean that your overall rating of any single coffee could not change.
Another case can be made when cupping production roasts for quality control. If a change is warranted it is prudent to do it immediately before you have a few batches of defective roasted coffee on your hands.
With that said, it is still good practice to re-cup the top samples again the next day to assure yourself you made the right decision.
A cupping table should be organized properly to suggest a progression or matching for comparison of samples for convenience. Origins, degree of roast or any other relevant criteria is in order. This also includes control samples.
If there are a great many samples, it is recommended to split the cupping effort for a comfortable maximum number. Depending on the purpose of the cupping, this could be six to twelve samples. The average cupping table will accommodate only six or eight samples anyway. One problem with more than twelve is that the last cups will be cooler than the first, which could also skew the ratings. If there is any doubt about the favorite coffees it is appropriate to re-cup the top coffees from each table for a second opinion.
Another point is that you may find the overall numerical rating is not the end all. It is not uncommon to find your preferred coffee rating lower than some another coffee on the table. High acidity is certainly a plus when selecting a coffee for urn brewing yet it may be a negative characteristic when selecting a coffee for an espresso blender.
Heavy body is generally a plus yet many origins are not known for a heavy body and will suffer a lower overall rating if one rates from one to ten, light to heavy.
Categories such as complexity, sweetness, strength and balance are often more relevant to an evaluation.
The following Webster definitions may differ from those used by coffee professionals.
Acerbic = bitter or sharp in taste
Acrid = sharp, bitter, stinging, or irritable to the taste or smell
Aroma = pleasant spicy fragrance
Aromatic = having an aroma smelling sweet and spicy, fragrant, pungent
Bouquet = scent, aroma, fragrance of wine or brandy
Fragrance = sweet smelling pleasant odor
Odor = perceptible to the sense of smell
Piquant = agreeable pungency, tartness, zest
Pungent = a sharp sensation of taste or smell, acrid, penetrating, stinging
Redolence = rich pleasant combination of smells. The redolence of a bakery or grocery store
Scent = a smell characteristic of a particular thing. Faint but pervasive odor
Spicy = pungent taste or fragrant aroma
Many descriptors of aroma are also found in taste. This is not surprising as taste is inseparable from aroma. See tasting wheel from SCAA