The Evolution of Sweet Maria's Cupping Descriptions

Our Updated 100 Point Cupping System

The reason to change our cup-rating system was to standardize it with the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) evaluation method. But after serving on several cupping panels and discussing the SCAA system at length with other judges, I found certain problems that could not be addressed by giving each of 5 sensory ratings a 1-10 score. This system below uses the common terms (or ones that will make immediate sense to SCAA judges) but weights the scores differently. I have used the "Cupper's Correction" rating, also called "Overall Points" which allow the cupper to express the desirability of a cup that rates unfairly low by the other scores. I have also split Fragrance and Aroma into two 1-5 ratings. We tried to use this system with a 1-15 rating for Flavor, since it outranks the other individual categories in importance, but found it difficult to implement.

March 5, 2004: After a lot of pondering on the issue, I have added a new rating that appears in a row between "Roast:" and "Compare to:" (not pictured in the table below).

The rating has 2 parts: Intensity/Prime Attribute: and is followed by something like this: Mild to Medium / Clean cup.

The first rating is the Intensity, the second is the chief descriptor of that intensity. Here is what it means:

The first rating is either Mild, Medium or Bold, or a combination. Important: This is not a rating of how flavorful the cup is! All of these categories can be very complex and flavorful.

Mild: A coffee rated Mild has flavors that allow you to hold it in your mouth longer, and to, in a sense, "reach out" to the cup to discover the flavors. You can "go to the flavors" rather than the flavors attacking your palate. These are "crowd-pleaser" coffees, pleasant in the best sense of the word, and can be full of nuances and complexities. These are refined coffees, with a "classic cup" profile usually: clean, not earthy,

Medium: This is a bit of a catch-all for coffees that can't be considered delicate, and aren't going to reach out and assault your senses. A lot of good coffees are going to fall into this category since a cup with good balance and good origin character. So medium is good! After all, a lop-sided cup profile with a huge acidity or huge earthiness that overtakes all else would fall into the bold category, or perhaps is not a coffee we would stock since these coffees are not always a good tasting experience.

Bold: Okay, I am afraid of this rating and you should be too. It is counterintuitive. Many coffee drinkers will think, "I like Bold coffee" ... it sounds like a good thing. But we are using bold to describe edgy coffee profiles that are dominated by their primary attribute. These cups reach out and yank your tongue off. And if you don't entirely love that type of primary attribute, for example, screaming bright acidity or wet-soil earthiness, you might really dislike a coffee that has it in a super-sized amount. Few coffees will receive this rating outright, while more will receive a Medium to Bold rating that indicates aggressive cup profiles but some degree of balance too.

A Caveat: The aggressiveness of the cup character is going to depend on the roast. You can turn any coffee into a fairly pungent, carbony and aggressive cup by charring it with a very dark roast (although some coffees actually soften and become duller with this treatment). Our Intensity ratings correspond to the Roast Recommendation we give for the coffee, not for French Roasts.

September 2005 - Flavor Quality Analysis

As a supplement to the written reviews and other scores, Tom has added this Flavor Quality Analysis "spider graph" diagram. He is trying to graph the flavors - both quality and quantity - for all the new coffees he reviews - and so the image of the graph will accompany the review. The diagram should be read as the dial of a clock representing the experience of tasting the coffee from first scent of dry coffee, through wet aroma and first sip through to aftertaste. So at 12 o'clock the dry fragrance, at 2 o'clock the wet aroma, at 5 o'clock the flavor, at 9 o'clock you start to get aftertaste and so on. The distance from the center on a specific spoke represents the amount of the quality described at that spoke. So for example a subtle quality will be represented on a spoke at 10 or 15. A quality that is more overwhelmingly present will rate 20 and above. Hopefully these graphs will be helpful to people both as an overall picture of the coffee and calling out specific attributes. The graph for the Jamaican coffee above shows that the coffee is mild all respects. The graph for the Kenya Thirku shows a very different picture, with intense aroma, intense flavors, milder body, and less aftertaste. I hope you find the new system helpful! - Maria

Note that the Flavor Quality Analysis is a Javascript Popup - you click on the little spider graph image and it opens a new, small browser window. If you have set your web browser to Block PopUp Windows, you might need to set your browser to Allow PopUps for our site (trust me, we have no other popups, or annoying popup ads of any kind. -Tom

A mild coffee like this Island-profile type will typically have fewer "points" on the blue Flavor Quality graph, and they are lower in intensity and/or very subtle in quality so the overall blue ring will be smaller/tighter to the center.

Overall, the new spider graph is just another tool to help communicate the cup character of a coffee, as are the written review, and the scoring.

A very bold coffee that has a lot of complexity, and many flavor descriptors will have more "points" on the Flavor Quality graph, and will span farther out from the center, meaning these qualities have greater intensity. The "roundness" or lack thereof does not communicate any lack of quality, but might mean that one dimension of the coffee is missing, i.e. body.

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