New Language For Cupping Coffee

Tea & Coffee Trade JournalApril 1986

This is an article I wrote for Tea & Coffee Trade Journal 25 years ago. There are some quaint things in it but it chiefly discusses the introduction of THE CUPPER’S HANDBOOK by Ted Lingle. It occurs to me now that I was totally engrossed with the language aspect of his book and how it was giving coffee people more and better ways to talk and write about the flavor of coffee. But that was not the main point of the handbook—Lingle wanted to provide a methodology for cupping coffee which involved a lot more than “just” language. Looking back, I think that Lingle’s handbook, now published and sold by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, has had tremendous influence in both advancing the discipline of cupping but also in giving us a common language vis-a-vis coffee.


“New Language For Cupping Coffee”


by Tim Castle

West Coast Correspondent

April 1986


When coffee people get together, as they are this month at the Pacific Coast Coffee Association convention, they’ve actually been known to talk about coffee. Topics will range from inventories to interpretations of market levels but there is one area that the polite will never broach—the flavor of coffee. The newcomer might mistake this for a respect for the proprietary nature of each firm’s blends, or the vagaries of subjective perception.


The fact is that the most experienced cuppers can tell very well what is in their competitor’s product and, further, that if two or three experienced coffee people got together and cupper coffees, they would probably experience the same things. The problem is that there is no common language, no consistent terminology for them to compare notes other than describing the most gross and recognizable defects. Pert of this arises from using different definitions for commonly used terms such as “acidy,” “fruity,” and “winey.” Additionally, the trade lacks a systematic view of categorizing sensations of taste smell and touch.


Ted Lingle, vice president of Lingle Bros. Coffee, Inc. in Bell Gardens, CA, has devoted a considerable amount of time and expertise toward developing a sytem and terminology for evaluating coffee consistently and scientifically. The Coffee Cupper’s Handbook is the result of Lingle’s efforts and has been submitted to the Coffee Development Group in Washington, D.C., for their approval and use. It is currently in the form of a working paper and is not in publication at this time. Nonetheless, it is of great potential value to the trade and anyone who is interested in accurately communicating about coffee will want to watch for it. “I wanted to develop the ability to talk about flavor differences beyond, “it’s not bitter,” Lingle related, “if I could have this book end up anywhere, it would be on the desk of the advertising copywriter, particularly the on that wrote, ‘flavor so unbeatable, it’s reheatable!’ We have to find better ways of describing coffee flavors than that.”


Lingle, using his experience as both an institutional roaster and one of the country’s first specialty roasters, has developed a manual that, according to him is, “a blending of five different academic disciplines: botany — what happens as the shrub produces its fruit (and beans); chemistry — what happens as the beans are harvested and roasted: physical chemistry — what happenes as the coffee is brewed; organoleptics — what happens when the brewed coffee is consumed; semantics — how best to communicate about all of the above.” It is written in simple, non technical terms for use by people in the coffee trade who are called to explain their products to consumers. Excluding the introduction, forward and bibliography, the handbook is divided into five sections: Olfaction, Gustation, Mouthfeel, Taints and Faults, and Cupping Method. The first three sections cover the first three stages in evaluating coffee flavor according to Lingle’s method. He then overlays the exploration of possible defects and finally attempts to code the evaluation method itself. Not everyone will agree with the terms that Lingle has chosen but really isn’t the point. No one else has yet offered as precise a set of definitions and procedures for the consistent and reproducible evaluation of coffee. The words lingle has carefully chosen are not as important as the definitions he assigns to them.


Lingle defines the first stage of coffee evaluation as olfaction and defines it as “the sensory evaluation of the volatile organic matter either occurring naturally or created in the coffee bean by the roasting process.”  Lingle calls the entire aromatic profile a coffee’s bouquet  and divides this further into four discreet areas: fragrance —the gasses from the freshly ground coffee;  nose — the vapors driven off as the coffee is swallowed; and, aftertaste — the vapors remaining after the coffee is swallowed.


The section on olfaction is introduced with a brief overview on the physiological basis for perceiving aromas. Lingle then introduces the concept of olfactory patterns. He compares this phenomenon to a series of notes comprising a melody and points out that no single substance can be isolated and identified as smelling like coffee—it is the combination of aromatics, perceived as a whole that give coffee its distinctive aroma.


As in the sensory evaluation of wine, he classifies aromas according to their origin. Set I aromas are the result of enzymatic reactions in the coffee bean while it is a living organism. This set is made up primarily of esters and aldehydes and is most experienced in a coffee’s fragrance as flowery, fruity or herby. Set II aromas are a result of sugar caramelization  during the roasting process and are experienced in the aroma and nose. These compounds are primarily aldehydes, ketones, sugar carbonyls and pyrazines.


Lingle pays a great deal fo attention to roasting and its effects on the final cupping quality of a particular coffee. According to Lingle, these Set II aromas, categorized as nutty, caramelly, and chocolaty, will vary a great deal according to roast style. Set III aromas are a result of the pyrolysis (heat breakdown) of organic compounds found in the raw bean. This set is composed of heterocyclic compounds, nitriles and hydrocarbons and are categorized as turpeny, spicy and carbony.


As he does later with gustation, Lingle breaks each of his categories down into two basic sub-types allowing the cupper to proceed from a general impression to a specific description that another taster would also be likely to arrive at.


These subtypes are further divided where necessary. For instance, flowery is divided into floral and fragrant. Under floral, the terms sweetly floral and sweetly herbal are found. Under sweetly floral, the examples jasmine, arnica and lavender appear.


Lingle notes that he spent a great deal of time choosing terms and placed a great deal of weight on their original meanings rather than what many of them have come to mean in the trade. Throughout the handbook he exhaustively defines his terms, however and when viewed as a whole his system is actually less confusing than the present terminology. (Many books, for instance, define “fruity” as a result of beans being too long in the fruit rather than Lingle’s definition referring to fruity characteristics of a coffees fragrance.)


Coffee gustation, the next stage of a coffee’s evaluation, involves the four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salt and bitter which are the result of soluble material (soluble solids) present in the brewed coffee. The section primarily concerns itself with the first three components but Lingle points out that bitter is not necessarily a negative characteristic when it is present in small amounts.


Excluding bitter, then, the three remaining taste components interact to create six primarily taste sensations: acidy — acids increase the sweetness of sugars; mellow — salts increase the sweetness of sugars; winey — sugars reduce the sour taste of acids; bland — sugars reduce the saltiness of salt; sharp — acids increase the saltiness of salt; soury — salts reduce the sourness of acids. Temperature also plays a role: relative sweetness and saltiness decrease as temperature increases while relative sourness is unchanged. Further, the six basic sensations yield 12  further categories: tangy, tart, hard, acrid astringent, rough, neutral, soft, delicate, mild, nippy and piquant. Lingle also provides a chart placing various coffees from unwashed, low-grown robustas to high-grown washed arabicas, on points on a matrix formed by the sensations he has identified. This gives readers a window from their own experience to interpret Lingle’s terminology.


The last stage of coffee evaluation is Mouthfeel which Lingle defines as “the tactile sense derived from physical sensations in the mouth during and after ingestion.” Mouthfeel originates from undisolved liquids and solids giving coffee a creamy texture or full body. These substances also trap aromatics in the brewed coffee allowing them to be released only as they are ingested. Lingle is careful to point out that a coffee can be strong but not have full body as the latter is a function of fat content and not brewing strength. In describing Mouthfeel Lingle offers the follwing terms: buttery — indicating a high fat content which would result in a creamy cup; watery — the opposite of buttery; heavy and thick — indication a high proportion of undisolved solids; light and thin — indicating possible defects a coffee can develop from growing to final brewing. Lingle generously views all coffee as potentially good and overlays the acquisition of defects on top of his initial evaluation method. He differentiates taints which can even be perceived as positive by some cuppers to a flavor fault, which “are almost always displeasing.”


There are five phases where the chemical changes that lead to taints and faults can occur; harvesting and drying — leading to earthy, rioy, musty, rubbery, hidy, or fermented; storage and aging —leading to green, tipped, baked, and scorched; post-roasting and staling — leading to fresh, flat, vapid, acerbic, briny, tarry, and brackish. Lingle also underscores the possibility of outside contamination throughout the entire history of the bean’s travels from farm to cup.


The section devoted to Cupping Method is perhaps the best description of how to cup that a novice might hope for. The expert will find the standards by which he and his broker or customer might consistently judge the same coffee at different times and locations. Lingle basically stipulates the standard 7.25 grams of coffee be finely ground so that 70-75 percent of all pasrticles pass through a size 20 sieve. He asks that five fluid ounces (150ml) of water be used for brewing, the near boiling water (195-205 °F) poured directly over the grounds.


In discussing his manual, Lingle exudes his enthusiasm for the coffee industry. He takes credit for those who helped him render it into its present form. “Phyllis Baldenhoffer of Coffee Tea & Spice in San Francisco did a superb job in amking a critical review of the rough draft which brought the whole project into a much clearer focus and Sandy Sabo of the Coffee Development Group did a fantastic job of editing the final draft.”


Clearly, in developing The Coffee Cupper’s Handbook, it is Lingle’s intention to aid his industry by taking the time, trouble and thought to inject some organization and systematic clarity to a task which can sometimes be, even for the most experienced cupper, impressionistic.

One Response to New Language For Cupping Coffee

  1. Gayla says:

    While I do not own this book, from your review ,I will make it required reading to better understand and evaluate my roasting of coffee.

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