Walk into Houndstooth Coffee on North Lamar in Austin on any given afternoon and the scene looks pretty average. A friendly barista takes orders at the counter, the familiar sound of the coffee grinder whirs in the background and clusters of people study and chat over cups of steaming java.
If it’s a Monday or Thursday at 1:30 p.m., things might look a little different. The atmosphere changes when a group of 6-7 people gather around the rectangular white table in the center of the room, alternately smelling or sipping through a series of cups of coffee. Patrons sneak glances at the group as their heads bob up and down like chickens pecking at feed, sniffing and slurping coffee and engaging in caffeinated discussion.
The ritual, known as coffee cupping, is a regulated practice of evaluating the aromas and flavor aspects of coffee.
Cuppings are used by farmers, importers, buyers and roasters to establish guidelines for quality and set prices for coffee. They are conducted with strict guidelines. At Houndstooth, they host two cuppings a week for the staff (who are required to attend three per month) and other interested parties. General manager Paul Henry says cuppings are incorporated into the house training process to help baristas develop the ability to taste nuances in coffee and cultivate an arsenal of descriptive terms for flavor and aroma.
Each cupping starts with an evaluation of the dry fragrance of the coffee. On this particular Monday, barista Peter Myer led the group through the process. He began by urging participants to pick up a cup of dry grinds, give it a shake to agitate the perfume, and take a deep inhale.
After fragrance is discussed, hot water is added to the coffee and left to rest for a few minutes to fully steep. As the cups brew, a crusty layer of grounds forms on the surface. Myer says that’s from carbon dioxide being pushed out of the water, capturing a lot of the inherent aromatics right underneath the surface.
Once the liquid has cooled sufficiently, each participant takes a spoon to break the crust. With one’s nose directly over the cup, the spoon dips in with a quick push, pull, push motion to crack through and release the aromas. Myer suggests thinking about what elements of smell the coffee lost or gained once brewed during this portion.
Next, we move on to tasting, the “bread and butter of the cupping,” as Myer calls it. This is the part where the cacophony of slurping comes into play. Spoons are dipped into the liquid, brought slowly to the mouth, and sucked in with a startling fervor to fully aerate the palate and push the coffee to the back of the tongue, where the nasal passages start.
The first aspect of taste we focus on is acidity, or perceived dryness. Myer explains that coffee needs a substantial amount of acidity to pop, and relates the results to carbonation in soda. “Coffee tastes kind of dead without acidity. You don’t want it to be too sour or astringent. An even level of acidity is ideal.”
During the next sipping and slurping session, flavors are identified. Myer says when he has trouble picking out specific references, he thinks in terms of color or memory. Where Myer’s coffee reminds him of his grandfather, others exclaim ingredients like green beans and tomato leaves. He also cautions that as the coffee cools, the flavors will change and evolve, so it’s important to pay attention to the timing of tasting as well.
After flavor, body comes into play. Body is created by the fatty acids inherent in the beans themselves. Myer says it’s best to think about body as mouthfeel, or the ways the liquid coats your mouth. “For example, whole milk fills your mouth, sits on your tongue very heavily and doesn’t dissipate quickly. Skim milk is much lighter, dissipates faster, it’s a little more watery.”
Fittingly, one of the last criteria for judging a coffee is the aftertaste, or which flavors linger on the tongue after swallowing. Does it last a long time or fade quickly? Is there an unpleasant astringency or a lingering softness?
The final taste category takes all of the previous criteria and blends them together to determine the balance of a coffee. Myer says that a balanced cup isn’t necessarily better than others. “You can have an unbalanced one that’s super interesting, or a balanced one that doesn’t work, and the other way around.”
Myer says at the end of the day, while the practice of cupping is used to set industry standards, knowing how to evaluate a coffee can be beneficial on a personal level too — to help you determine what kinds of coffee you enjoy over others. “It all boils down to what you like to drink, your personal opinion.”