Drink Magazine

Cupping Tea 101

By Dchew78 @peonyts

Cupping tea is commonly practiced by people in the tea trade, especially those in charge of sourcing. The reason for cupping is simple- comparability.

As anyone who has conducted any experiment will tell you, in order to investigate the effect of a particular variable, you should keep all other elements constant, at least as much as possible.

All Else Being Equal

In the case of procurement, the purpose is to investigate the effect of the tea leaves on the full sensory experience produced- i.e. taste, aroma, aftertaste, mouth feel and how it all meshes together.

Hence to make it a truly fair comparison, all other factors are to be kept constant.

Take the example of these two black teas I cupped:

Cupping Tea 101
Quantity:

5g

Infusion Time:

3, 4 & 5 minutes

Water Temperature:

95°C

Easier said than done

Cupping Tea 101
I used 2 teas simply for illustrative purposes and also because it creates photographs that provide a better visual comparison.

Usually when one is doing a cupping exercise, 3-5 types of teas would be the norm for ‘casual cupping’ and can easily be as many as 50 for professionals.

You can fix the quantity constant by using a digital weighing scale capable of measuring in graduations of 1g or even less.

However infusion time is a little trickier.

Professionals in China use gaiwans for cupping, no issue since they adroitly cup hundreds in a morning.

For the rest, angling the lid to keep the infusion time constant, pouring out quickly- it’s not easy to minimize the variance in infusion time.

Then there is also the water temperature. It seems fairly constant- pour from the kettle. Part of the benefits of using a gaiwan is that you can partially cool the water temperature with the walls of the vessel when you pour in a circular motion.

However this again opens the door for variation.

Tools of the trade- Tester Kit

Cupping Tea 101
Here is where this little apparatus comes in handy.

It is a tester kit- complete with a tester mug, bowl and spoon, all made from porcelain.

Firstly, at an inexpensive price, you can get pretty decent brewing vessels that are standardized. In fact this set cost less than 1/4 of my regularly used gaiwan. When you buy 5 or more of these, the cost can add up.

The next point is uniformity. A standard size is 150 ml and you can chose between 1 hole to pour out and multiple holes. Straight design, no angles or nooks and crannies that might cause any deviation.

Pretty much keeps the brewing vessel constant.

Thirdly, unlike a gaiwan, the level of skill required is virtually zero. Pick up, hold the lid, incline, place it on the bowl securely and let it drip completely.

No fuss, no angling. Heck, you don’t even have to worry much about scalding your hands.

The epitome of simplicity.

With porcelain of suitable thickness, tester mugs can quite effective extract the true flavor of tea. Unlike Yixing pots, it doesn’t enhance it and unlike glass pots or French Presses, it doesn’t detract from the taste as well.

Getting down to it

In terms of what to look out for in terms of quality, I have covered them in greater detail here and here.

Cupping Tea 101
When cupping, here are some suggestions:

1)   If you’re doing for the first time, don’t be overly ambitious, try 3-5 at a go

2)   As our taste buds can be influenced by marketing hype and our own expectations, try it blind

3)   Cup similar teas- almost a ‘duh’ statement but there’s no point in comparing a Xihu Longjing against a Dahongpao and a Pu-er

4)   Keep a spittoon handy (more on this later)

5)   Use a porcelain spoon, you can smell it as well- it gives you a fragrance similar to smelling an empty cup

6)   You can use 5g for 3 minutes or other parameters but importantly is to keep it constant

7)   Expect the tea to taste worse than you normally drink- you are comparing it relative to other teas (hence point 3)

8)   Try to clear your palates in between cups. Take a short break- 5 seconds or so- and have a plain piece of bread

9)   Take notes and use a standard journal

10)   If you’re cupping with friends, don’t say anything about the teas as it might sway other’s opinions

Cupping Tea 101
11)   Slurp. Slurp hard. Let the liquid spray your tongue and feel a wider spectrum of taste.

For fun- and the sado-masochist- you can use what is known as “horrible brewing technique”- i.e. large quantity, high temperature and long steeping time. This is meant to bring out the worst in the tea.

For purchasers, this is often practiced. Be warned though, it truly brings out the worst in the tea, the first time I tried it was with green style Tieguanyin and I had no receptacle to spit it out. It left a sensation of raw vegetables in my throat for a while.

Many professionals spit out the tea anyway but that’s understandable if you’re cupping by the hundreds. For casual cupping, it’s good to swallow and savor the aftertastes and throat feel.

Though you may not do this professionally, it is fun to use cup with some friends, especially blind tasting. You may find some hyped teas to be nothing to crow about or discover some hidden gems.

See more articles on Tea Appreciation here


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