On a casual inquiry of those that roast, especially the micro-roasters, every one will say that they cup coffee on a regular basis. Dig a little deeper and one is surprised that many of these roasters mean that they drink coffee on a regular basis. They do not have a formal cupping policy or procedure. Why in the world not?
To start to answer this question I did some personal reflection. I started a roasting company in 1997 on a shoestring. Since I wore almost all the hats and was responsible for getting the money in and payroll out, I made choices about how to spend my 15 hour days. Cupping was a task I was unfamiliar with and I did not understand its value so I pushed it to the bottom of the four-page to-do list. Does this sound familiar? We all tend to avoid the uncomfortable and concentrate on that immediate task in front of us.
Despite a lack of time and knowledge, it is time to get the cupping program in place. To start, let’s explore why to have one. Then we can move on to how.
Why does a roaster cup?
We cup for two reasons: The first is to find out what is wrong with a coffee. The second is to find out what is beautiful about a coffee. They are done the same way but at different times.
When making a buying decision on green coffee a roaster should cup each lot before making a buying decision. If there is something wrong with the lot you want to discover it before you buy it. I know that when you are a small roaster you rely on your broker to do a lot of this work for you. And they should. But you should use the old Ronald Reagan theory of, “Trust but verify” and cup the product yourself. If the green you are buying for a blend component has to have a particular flavor profile you need to verify that it shows in the cup. If you are trying to offer a single varietal that sings and dances in the cup by itself, you need to verify that it shows up in the cup. Later, when we discuss record keeping we will touch on seasonal variances of taste characteristics.
When making finished product decisions on single varietals and blends you are exploring your own skills and processes. I learned as my business grew that I had to do what I feared most and hand over control of certain processes to others. Things like roasting and blending. In order to keep control of these essential processes, cupping is the essential tool. In a short and precise exercise you can see if your staff is realizing the cup results you want. You will also be able to critique new blends that are now being invented by your team and discuss them in tangible terms to get to a new product.
How do I set up my cupping plan?
You can cup finished products in the same way you do green evaluation. The tools are simple but the technique takes practice. Below is a list of tools. What you need now is a process. I suggest the following steps:
1) Buy the tools and get set up.
2) Take a cupping class or get someone to come show you SCAA cupping protocols
3) Set a time each week, (moving towards daily) to cup. No exceptions. For about 3 hours.
4) Always cup with others from your team so you begin to calibrate.
5) Keep a log of everything you cup. History is very important.
6) As you advance, get your Q-Grader certification from Coffee Quality Institute so you will be calibrated with others in the coffee supply chain.
So why are you resistant to starting a plan?
If you do not have a cupping plan I am going to share something with you, which you know to be true deep down in your soul… You are a big chicken! You are not sure if you are as good as the marketing you put out as having, “The best coffee in the world”. If you put a system in place you will have to prove to yourself, and your staff, that you know what you are talking about. More than that, your customers may find out!
Well guess what? You are that good! Now you can just set up a system to show others. I had an AHA! moment when I took my first cupping class at a convention. All of a sudden there was a language that others spoke that said what I tasted! I could speak up and calibrate what I tasted with others. They knew what I was saying! A cupping program does this for all members of your company. The tool frees you to make advances in blends, roasting techniques and marketing. You can even educate your customers to create a stronger bond.
So, bottom line: Get over your fear of being ‘found out’, take a class, buy the tools, set up the process and cup with your staff. You will get better at cupping and more importantly you will improve both your buying practices and finished product.