The secrets behind cupping

secrets_behind_cuppingBoth at origin as well as in the Union Quality Control Lab, devoted flavour addicts dedicate their time and taste buds to the smelling and tasting of coffee.

Buyers travel to origin in their quest for finding a unique coffee. Yet, there is so much more behind cupping than finding that unique cup on the table that makes you crave more.

The art of cupping has gained a lot of attention over the past few years. Where cupping was once done secretly behind closed doors and left to those actually buying the coffee, one can now attend free public cupping events.


The objective of cupping for a long time was to identify faults and taints in the cup. Traders and buyers cupped for defects instead of flavour characteristics. In the search for the cheapest coffee, the bare minimum standard used was rejecting defective cups. Few coffee drinkers were brand loyal. Why should they be? It was just coffee, a black liquid that kept you awake, served hot.

Companies needed to save every dime they could, and that was done by paying the lowest price possible to the grower. Keeping growers uninvolved in the process of cupping, had a clear advantage for buyers. As they determined the quality of coffee, they held the negotiation power. Without growers having the knowledge to evaluate their product, how could they improve their cup, become more empowered and negotiate quality premiums for coffee that was above average?

Fortunately, things have changed. The rise of specialty coffee and the devotion and dedication of baristas across the world has opened up the minds and taste buds of customers. The Direct Trade movement and its focus on quality has meant growers at origin have started to get involved in cupping.

My first cupping experience and class, in 2011, was at Exclusive Coffees in Costa Rica. Together with seven growers I attended a cupping course taught by Wayner Jiménez, who has probably cupped more Costa Rican coffees throughout his career than anyone else I know.

We ended the course practicing latte art. In which I was less successful than in cupping.


My first latte art ever
(I probably should stick to cupping)

After this experience I got the opportunity to travel to many countries, and cup with many producers. What have I learned?

Coffee is not just coffee. Depending on country, altitude, coffee variety and processing method there is a whole range of flavours that can be discovered in a “simple cup of coffee”. Some coffees have dark chocolate taste notes, whereas others have bright citrus-like acidities or complex fruit notes. A Sumatran coffee is something completely different from a high-grown washed Guatemalan. The rare Geisha variety can be described as having sweetness, notes of papaya, peach and a very distinct bergamot finish. Pacamaras have sweet citric notes, and are known for their complex acidity and tremendous balance.

Regular cupping with producers allows us to give them feedback on quality, negotiate price premiums and more importantly understand how much work goes into growing, processing and crafting a great coffee.


Photo of Juan Martinez

Juan Martinez -founder member of Esquipulas. Still enamoured with the scenery after a lifetime

To illustrate:
Esquipulas (La Libertad) in Guatemala has more than 200 members and each individual farmer’s lot is cupped separately. Some farmers separate their harvest in different lots depending on the location, coffee variety or harvesting time. This means hundreds of lots are cupped before blending together to create a consistent, defect-free unique flavour profile. The cupping of individual farmers lots allows cooperatives to combine attributes together into a coherent whole. This way, cooperatives can overcome inconsistency that often occur in smallholder coffees and comply with the volumes required by buyers.

Before the actual cupping can take place, samples need to be collected, sorted, roasted and rested. The table needs to be set up, including grinding and weighing the correct dose of coffee for each separate cup. The coffee’s aroma is assessed (smelling of the dry coffee grind), water is poured and after 4 minutes the cup is “broken” and smelled again. The coffee needs to be tasted throughout all its different temperatures, to examine whether the taste changes (positively or negatively). The whole process, after setting up the table, takes around 45 minutes.



View over Chirinos

In Peru, Chirinos has 620 cooperative members and a similar quality protocol. This translates into daily cupping of 48 samples, 7 days a week, for four months during the peak harvest. The different lots of each individual producer are cupped and each producer delivers at least 5 samples. During the harvest, cupping starts at 4 am!

Our producers at origin and Oli Brown in our cupping lab spend an enormous amount of time crafting and creating unique flavour profiles, by carefully assessing the flavours in each coffee. From farmer to roaster, rigorous quality control is how we can provide the best coffees available.

Better coffee, better day

A first impression can be a force to be reckoned with – remaining even in the face of contradictory facts or evidence. If your impression of the day begins with a horrendous alarm, an empty stomach, and an awful coffee – your day is likely to be a horrendous, empty, awful day. Even if your day’s filled with rainbows and glitter, you’ll see it through tinted glasses of doom and gloom.

Can a good start, a good coffee, make a good day?

Researchers at Cornell University, New York, found that “initial judgements” based on exposure to a photograph were hard to shift and coloured all future face to face interactions. The Society for Personality and Social Psychology concluded, after observing several studies, that “first impressions continue to assert themselves long after you know relevant information.” It’s interesting that such fleeting moments can alter an entire experience of a person – and our first impressions of the day are no different.

This fact, however, can be used to our advantage. Mark Twain thought that “eating a live frog first thing in the morning” means that nothing worse can happen to you throughout the day – but if that’s not quite to your palate, don’t worry. We can suggest a more positive alternative.

Brewing coffee in the morning is about so much more than the resulting cup – it’s a ritual, a routine that can provide a rewarding experience that remains throughout the day. Dopamine – a highly addictive hormone, known to be associated with reward and pleasure – is released by the brain in accordance with the completion of tasks. Further study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, has shown that repeated routines lead to dopamine “responses [that] are transferred to the task” – meaning a regular ritual can become an all-encompassing and rewarding experience.

And it gets better! A study published in the journal Current Biology found that increased levels of dopamine leads to reduced “negative expectations regarding the future”. It might not physically change how your day will play out – but will provide you with an optimistic outlook.

In Ethiopia, largely acknowledged as the birthplace of coffee, it’s an honour to be invited to the much revered coffee ceremony. The careful and purposeful laying out of equipment, followed by the attentive preparation and roasting, the repeated straining, and finally the serving – is all said to produce a result that transforms the spirit and bestows a blessing. Whilst a grand ceremony might be a bit beyond most of us, bleary-eyed in the early hours – there is something to be said for creating your own “transformational” coffee.

Jeremy, our co-founder at Union Hand Roasted, sees coffee rather “like photographic negatives – some pictures you see are very tonal, bold and emotive and there are other images that are very soft, subtle and gentle.” Any photographer will tell you of the excitement and anticipation in the process of developing film – waiting to see the end results.

Hand brewing coffee in the morning – from opening a bag of exotic produce brought in from far off countries, breathing in the smell of artisan roasted beans, to the sound of grinding that sends anticipatory tingles down the spine – creates a moment of thrill, adventure, and achievement. It’s the beginning of a routine that will enrich your morning and, by extent, your entire day.

If you’re interested, brewing equipment, guides, and exceptional coffees can all be found on our website:





Know Your Brain: Reward System (Neuroscientifically Challenged)

Dopamine Transmission in the Human Striatum during Monetary Reward Tasks (The Journal of Neuroscience)

How Dopamine Enhances an Optimism Bias in Humans (Current Biology, )

Even Fact Will Not Change Impressions (Society for Personality and Social Psychology)

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony (

Interview with Jeremy Torz (The London Coffee Festival)

Image courtesy of Pascale Schuit

At origin: Yayu Coffee Forest in Ethiopia

Pascale, who is responsible for managing our farmer relationships was back out in coffee territory; she spends most of her year travelling and visiting producers on behalf of Union. She returned from Ethiopia, a very special coffee heartland, where she visited the Yayu Wild Forest.

One of the last remaining mountain forest fragments of Arabica Coffee (coffee arabica) in the world, the Yayu Coffee Forest Biosphere in Ethiopia is vital for the preservation and conservation of coffee.  To preserve and maintain its primary and secondary wild forest, and prevent any further damage to the forest or loss of coffee species,  the local communities need to have other livelihood options as well as seeing a viable future for themselves in producing speciality coffee.

At Union, we are collaborating with Dr Aaron Davis, Head of Coffee Research at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to work with the Yayu community to protect the forest and create a sustainable income for themselves. Pascale visited Yayu to evaluate how we would develop the project.

ETH-JAN14-09 Pascale from Union Roasted visiting partner growers in Ethiopia ETH-JAN14-42

“As a coffee geek, it’s hard to convey just how it feels to stand here, in primary forest in the birthplace of coffee. We observe hundreds of different heirloom varieties growing naturally in the wild. It’s pristine territory, mostly unaffected by human activities, and perfect for coffee. This natural landscape is a hotspot for biodiversity and is a significant conservation zone.


We were guided through Yayu Wild Forest by Takele, from the Ethiopian Coffee Forest Forum. He stressed the importance of preserving this primary forest and the genetic diversity of the coffee varieties found here. We completely understand the status of this region. He also showed us naturally occurring companion plants such as cardamom.


Here you can see the contrast between the primary forest and managed coffee. Above is an example of “managed” coffee. Here farmers clean the area around the coffee trees, however they do not fertilize or apply any other chemicals.


Then you see the untouched primary forest with unmanaged wild coffee. This area is protected so no human activity apart from research is allowed.

This primary forest is the most biologically diverse type of land, and coffee naturally regenerates here. With some of the preliminary harvesting and processing training we’ve provided, we’ve shown that Yayu farmers have great potential to produce high quality coffee, and with ongoing extra support we’re confident they’ll continue to produce excellent coffee here.”

We’re very excited that we have three exemplary microlots from Yayu in the roastery right now, tweet us when you’ve tried them because we’d love to know what you think:

Yayu Wild Forest Achibo Cooperative – toffee, stewed rhubarb and floral notes

Yayu Wild Forest Geri Cooperative – vanilla, caramel and papaya notes

Yayu Wild Forest Wutate Cooperative – floral, caramel and peach notes

Look out for more very special arrivals from the birthplace of coffee very soon!


Getting the best out of Coffee Cherry Fruit (Cascara)

cascara-infusion-recipeJudging from the way our Coffee Cherry Fruit (Cascara) is disappearing out of the warehouse, you’re all embracing it as much as we have – hurrah! This is excellent news, as we’re determined to spread the word about how brilliant this stuff is and we’re thrilled at the response it’s getting. Now let’s start to have some fun with it.

We’ve been experimenting with this “Coffee Cherry Fruit” at the Roastery, and Oli has created some delicious and refreshing infusion recipes for you to try at home. After a lot of arduous testing and in-house debate, Oli’s selected the following combinations as a jumping off point for you. Try them and tweak them (brewing time, water temperatures and ingredients) to your taste.

One variable to note is the infusion time. We’re suggesting you try between 7-10 mins. The longer you allow each drink to infuse, the sweeter the resulting tea will be. We were interested to note what a vast difference those last three minutes made, so experiment to find what works best for you.

Try making it in a cafetiere, Chemex or a jug – anything that’s heatproof.

All the recipes below use 300g of freshly boiled water as a starting point.

Berried Treasure

Lots of spice in this one.Oli

  • 18g Coffee Cherry Fruit (Cascara)
  • 3g freeze dried raspberries
  • 2g lemongrass, finely chopped
  • 2g fresh root ginger, finely sliced
  • 300g freshly boiled water

Thai Noon

A coffee cherry tea made with delicate Jasmine flowers and green tea tips – very special indeed.

  • 18g Coffee Cherry Fruit (Cascara)
  • 3g Jasmine Pearls
  • 2g lemongrass, finely chopped
  • 300g freshly boiled water


And finally we’ve got a great Hot Toddy recipe to shake off the winter chills.

  • 18g Coffee Cherry Fruit (Cascara)
  • 2g cinnamon stick, crushed
  • 10 year old Jura Whisky, to your taste.
  • 300g freshly boiled water


It’s a deliciously light alternative to coffee that actually feels rather decadent, for drinking throughout the day. And that last one seems very apt for wintery nights right now. Let us know what Cascara concoctions you create at home, post your own favourite versions in the comments below for us to try too!