Coffee Cupping with the Pros

Coffee Cupping with the Pros

Coffee cupping is a refined art that requires passion, skill, and expertise. Through the cupping process, professional coffee graders employ their finely tuned senses to unlock the secrets hidden within every coffee bean. By understanding the professional coffee cupping process, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the flavors and characteristics of specialty coffee and the craftsmanship of a truly exceptional cup.

Keep reading to learn more about the professional cupping process at Kauai Coffee and how you can expand your palate by hosting a cupping session at home.

What is a Q Grader?

Much like a sommelier evaluates wine, a Q grader is a professional licensed by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) to cup, classify and evaluate coffee quality based on strict standards. Becoming a Q Grader takes time and effort. Aspiring Q Graders undergo extensive sensory skills development training. This includes honing their ability to detect and differentiate between various aromas and flavors.

kauai coffee Q graders train new staff at the lab

Kauai Coffee Q Graders Mike and Jorge train new staff in the lab

To do this, Q Graders participate in calibration exercises to ensure uniformity and standardization in their evaluations. These exercises involve blind cupping sessions with known reference samples, helping them align their sensory perceptions with established standards. They also learn to identify specific attributes in coffees from different regions and become proficient in recognizing defects and their impact on overall quality.

In 2019, the Kauai Coffee roasting plant lab became one of only three certified Specialty Coffee Association Premier Training Campuses in Hawaii. Our lab is certified to host various professional development courses in cupping, sensory analysis, grading, and training for the Q grader test. We're fortunate to have two licensed Q graders on staff and the tools and facility to train the next generation of coffee professionals.

What is Coffee Cupping?

Coffee cupping is a sensory evaluation method that involves carefully assessing and tasting coffee samples to ascertain their quality, flavors, aromas, and overall characteristics. It is an essential process in coffee quality testing, enabling experts to identify unique flavors, detect defects, and establish the distinctive qualities of various coffee beans.

Select, Roast, Grind

Q Graders start the cupping process by selecting coffee beans based on their variety or specific attributes. Then, the beans are roasted to a specific level and precisely ground to ensure uniform extraction when brewed.

cupping set up in the lab

Tools and Table Set Up

Cupping tools are relatively simple but intentionally designed to focus the graders' attention and limit distractions. Cupping spoons feature deep wells and elongated handles that allow tasters to slurp coffee and distribute it evenly across their palates. Q Graders' cupping bowls are also standardized, allowing for consistency across evaluations.

The setup and organization of the workspace are equally as important as the tools used. The table is meticulously arranged, with each coffee sample assigned to a designated cupping bowl. The tasters take note of essential details, such as the date, origin, and any additional relevant information about the beans being cupped. Then, Q Graders begin by deeply inhaling the aroma from each bowl, noting any unique or distinctive scents that may hint at the coffee's potential flavor profile.


Once the initial aroma evaluation is complete, Q graders will brew the selected beans by adding water directly into the vessels holding the ground coffee. This brewing method is called immersion brewing and is the best method for professional grading because it allows for more of the coffee's natural oils to be tasted.

Near-boiling water at around 200° F is the ideal temperature for brewing coffee during cupping, and the water should not be distilled or softened in any way. The preferred ratio of coffee to water used in professional cupping is approximately 8 grams of ground coffee to 150 ml of water. Graders then steep the coffee for 3 – 5 minutes before tasting.

coffee cupping with red light to mask the color of the beans

The Kauai Coffee Lab is an SCA-certified Premier Training Campus with training tools like this red light. Cupping under the red light minimizes distractions and masks the color of the coffee beans so that trainees must rely on their senses of taste and smell rather than sight when cupping lighter and darker roast profiles. 

Aroma Assessment

Once the coffee has steeped and the grounds have formed a crust on the surface of the cupping bowl, it's time for assessment. First, graders use spoons to break the crust of grounds, take in the aroma of the brewed coffee, and make notes. Then, the coffee is gently stirred so the grounds settle on the bottom of the cup, and the aroma is re-evaluated. Any changes in the aroma from the initial breaking of the crust to stirring are noted, and then any grounds remaining on the surface of the coffee are skimmed and discarded before tasting.


Graders skillfully slurp the coffee from cupping spoons, ensuring it coats their entire palate. This technique allows maximum flavor perception and helps identify subtle nuances and variations among samples. Most graders discard the coffee after tasting instead of ingesting it to moderate caffeine intake and prevent overwhelming the senses.

skimming grounds from the sample cups

Throughout the tasting process, Q Graders assess various flavor attributes such as acidity, sweetness, bitterness, body, and complexity using the coffee taster's flavor wheel. They make detailed observations, distinguishing distinct flavor notes and identifying any defects or off-flavors that may be present.

One of the most essential steps in the cupping process is to evaluate the aftertaste and finish. Q Graders pay close attention to each coffee sample's lingering aftertaste and mouthfeel. This evaluation helps determine the coffee's overall quality and whether it possesses a desirable and memorable flavor experience.

Cupping at Home

You'll need basic equipment to try cupping techniques at home. Here are some things you'll need:

  • Simple mugs or cups
  • Freshly roasted coffee
  • Near-boiling water – about 200° F is the ideal temperature. If you don't have a thermometer, use a stovetop or electric kettle, allow your water to boil, and let it sit for about 30 seconds before pouring.
  • Spoons – Cupping spoons are wide and shallow, and a large soup spoon usually does the trick.

Follow the professional cupping outline above to set up your at-home cupping and have fun evaluating your favorite beans! You'll start to uncover complex flavors and aromas you may not have noticed before.

Wrapping up

Coffee cupping is a fascinating process professional graders use to evaluate coffee and describe the tantalizing aromas and flavors we experience in every cup. Test your palate and taste paradise with the unique 100% Hawaiian coffee we grow and roast at our Kauai Estate. Shop online now.

TAGGED WITH: coffee, coffee cupping, hawaiian coffee, kauai coffee, specialty coffee