Coffee By the Numbers
Walk into any wine store and there will be bottles of wine tagged with numbers from 80 to 100. The numbers reflect wine reviews either from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate or from Wine Spectator. Go into a coffee store and there will be coffees with some flavor descriptors but rarely are their review scores. However, higher end roasters are beginning to see the value in letting their customers see cupping scores.
Cupping scores don’t mean anything unless know you who did the scoring and what system they used. There are lots of review systems in use in the coffee world. Some review systems are as simple as “like/don’t like” or “A,B,C,D,F” Others are more complex and require a calculator to total the score. Some are even automated so that the computer creates the final score. The three most popular scoring systems are Coffee Review, Cup of Excellence and Specialty Coffee Association.
You can’t rate coffee unless you taste it. A couple of review programs brew coffee in a drip coffee pot or a French Press and then taste it. The idea is to taste coffee just like a consumer, but the brew method changes the taste of any coffee bean. Coffee from your Mr. Coffee may not taste the same as the same beans brewed in my Mr. Coffee.
Reproducability is critical to coffee scoring. If an importer is told that the beans score at 88 she wants to be able to do her own cupping and come out to a score close to 88. Brewing in different coffee machines does not create reproducability.
Almost all coffee professional use the same coffee cupping protocol. It’s simple and easy. Put 8.25 grams of ground coffee in 5.1 ounces of 200 F water, wait four minutes, remove the floating grounds and start tasting. Use a spoon to slurp the coffee all over your mouth. Keep tasting and rating until the coffee is down to room temperature. If everyone does it the same way, it is as close to reproducability as you can get.
The three top review systems use similar categories. The simplest is Coffee Review which uses a five element review Aroma, Flavor, Aftertaste, Acidity and Body. The SCA uses the same categories but adds six more categories Balance, Sweetness, Clean Cup, Uniformity, Overall and Defects. The Cup of Excellence uses the same categories as the SCA except it doesn’t rate uniformity and it substitutes Mouthfeel for Body.
The theoretical top score in all of the reviews is 100 points. However, none of the reviews have ever given over 97 points to a coffee. Other than the above similarities the scoring in the three reviews is completely different. It isn’t the point system that makes the difference. It appears to be the subjective bias of the judges, COE and SCA judges are more conservative with their scoring. One explanation may be:
“I know that for some this sounds like cheating, but let me tell you the reality, after 18 or so Cup of Excellence juries and countless other competitions and group cuppings. What is happening among judges is that they don’t truly use the category scores to lead to a final score. As the cup cools, they form an idea of a total score, and they adjust the individual category scores to justify it.” The Evolution of Sweet Maria’s Cupping Descriptions, Tom Owen
Coffee Review scores tend to be the highest for any given coffee. Coffee Review score distribution for the past year looks like this
Cup of Excellence scores are about 6 points below the Coffee Review score for the same coffee. SCA scores are similar to Cup of Excellence scores. So a coffee rated 95 by Coffee Review may rate 88 or 89 from a SCA or Cup of Excellence review. A very good score for Cup of Excellence would be an 88 an outstanding score is 90+. As an example this year’s Cup of Excellence rating for the top 15 Costa Rica coffees was:
What does that mean for you the consumer? First, not much because the greatest coffee in the world is still the one you like. We have had customers tell us they prefer Folgers. For their palate Folgers is the best coffee. Fortunately for us a lot of customers like our coffee. Second, the review systems are only a guide to better coffee. A high review may indicate a coffee that you will find more pleasing. Third, you have to know which review numbers you are looking at. Not buying a 90 point coffee because the number is too low would be a mistake if the review was from SCA or COE. So the next time you go into a coffee store look for the cupping numbers and ask which system the cuppers used. Bon appetite!