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Behind the scenes at a DRW cupping session

What happens at a DR Wakefield cupping session?

Quality is important when it comes to coffee, and unless a specific defect is apparent it's not always easy to tell from the green beans whether they are good or bad. DR Wakefield prides itself on the quality of the coffee it provides and this means the beans need to go through a process to ensure they're the finest on offer. This is where a cupping session comes into play – and Thierry Akroman, quality controller at DR Wakefield, is happy to share exactly what happens at a cupping session.

"A cupping session is a formal tasting session of the liquor of the coffee," he explains. "It's essentially a quality taste test.

"Just looking at the physical green coffee is definitely not enough. Even a gorgeous looking coffee can taste bad, or may not live up to the taste quality you paid for. Without tasting what the customer will eventually taste, you cannot know the true character and quality of the coffee."

These sessions are vitally important in ensuring that the end customer receives the best coffee possible.

Tasting coffee isn't as simple as just drinking it. There's a lot more that goes into evaluating each coffee, as Thierry tells us: "Each coffee that comes to the table is roasted to a light, consistent roast to best showcase its flavour complexities as well as any possible defects. Coffee is then ground and dosed directly into a cupping cup and water just off the boil is poured over the top to fill the cup.

"After steeping for about four minutes, the coffee's 'crust' (the coffee granules that float to the top of the cup) is then broken and the first wet aroma is evaluated. How does it smell? Sweet? Sour? Do you detect a defect even before it's tasted? Once the coffee crust is broken and the aroma noted, the granules that remain are skimmed off the top to ensure that no grounds remain. Only once we've gone through this ritual do we move on to the next step; tasting.

"We taste the coffee  using a very specific method, albeit a very individualised technique. Each cupper has a cupping spoon and dips the spoon into the top of the liquor to get just enough to 'slurp' and 'spit' the coffee (the spitting part is done in a spittoon or a cup that the cupper holds alongside his or her spoon).

"The 'slurping' is to spray the coffee all over the inside of the mouth, ideally hitting all of the taste buds and olfactory senses. This technique is then repeated over and over again, from the time the coffee is barely cool enough to taste until it is quite cool. This ensures that the complexities are noted when very hot, and then again as the coffee cools, as the flavours in a hot cup are often completely different when cooled down."

There's an art to tasting coffee, but once the technique is mastered there are certain things a cupper needs to look for:

Body: How does the coffee feel in your mouth? Is it heavy and does it coat the tongue? Is it light or thin like water? Does it linger and reveal a sweet creamy texture?

Acidity: Does it have a juicy, tangy or tart effect like citrus fruit? Or does it have an unpleasant bite? Acidity contributes to coffee's liveliness, sweetness and fresh-fruit character.

Flavour: Flavour is the perceived combination of aroma and taste – the character and distinctiveness of the coffee. The aroma is experienced through the back of the palate as the coffee is slurped vigorously into the mouth so as to involve the entire palate. A very specific flavour attribute may be highly prized in certain origins. Flavour receives a preference rating, combined with a coffee's intensity, quality and complexity.

Flavour is also highly subjective. We all have taste sensations that are triggered from memory, geography, personal sensitivity and more. However, each coffee on the table is expected to live up to a certain flavour quality. Knowing how a Colombian, Sumatran, or Brazilian coffee is generally supposed to taste is key to true evaluation. It also dictates what price is paid for the coffee.

Complexity: Is the coffee you're tasting exceptional for its type? Does it not just taste the way it should, but also show positive characteristics above and beyond expectation?

Defects: There are many reasons why a coffee might not taste the way it should, as Eileen explains: "Coffee is a highly volatile agricultural product. It is also a human product, meaning that it is planted, cared for, picked, processed, shipped and stored by hundreds of different people along its journey. No one is perfect, and no coffee is any different.

"Any moment of that journey can go wrong, and those mistakes or mishandlings can affect the coffee's flavour. I'm often surprised that coffee gets to all of our consumers in good shape! We cup several cups of each coffee to make sure the major defects that can affect the flavour don't show in any cups."

It's this rigorous process that ensures all DR Wakefield coffee is of the highest quality, something which certainly comes through in taste and aroma.

Next time you drink a cup of coffee, take some time to mull over all the different flavours and aromas. This is when you begin to start tasting the complexity of coffee as opposed to just drinking it. Go beyond the binary reaction of whether or not you like the coffee and describe why not. This will enable you to better explore the whole range of tasty coffees that are out there waiting to be tried!

Find out more about DR Wakefield's coffees here.