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
2. Country of Origin:
Where the coffee is grown. Arabica coffee grows in only in particular environments
with adequate rainfall, temperate climates, good soil (often volcanic), sufficient
altitude, and roughly between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.
3. Grade: Nearly
every county of origin has its own grading scale. It can be incredibly confusing.
Sometimes the coffee earns a higher grade than it deserves, sometimes the
grade is actually lowered to avoid tariffs! Central and South Americans tend
to follow the SHB and SHG model (Strictly Hard Bean and Strictly High Grown
indicates altitudes above 1000m). So hard beans grow at higher altitude and
that's good, right? Well, in Brazil's grading, Strictly Soft is a top grade.
Many countries use a simple numeric scale. But a Grade 4 Ethiopian is the
top Dry-Processed grade you'll see (Gr.2 in washed Ethiopians), and a Grade
1 Sumatra DP allows 8% defects (in fact Sumatra Grading is based on cup quality)!
In essence, all should conform to the Green Coffee Classification System,
but they don't. (Look at our Coffee Library Page
for an article on the subject, and you can buy the SCAA
Green Coffee Classification Poster from us too).
4. Region: Specific
name of growing region where coffee is cultivated. Regions often possess specific
character, so it's more accurate than discussing Countries of Origin: a Peru
Chanchamayo tends to be more acidy and powerful than the softer Peru Norte's
or Northerns, or Cuzco.
5. Mark: We use
this term to include any other significant proper name that tells of the coffee's
origin. This might be an Estate name, but it can also be an Exporter, a Beneficio
(mill), or other recognized Trade name, as long as it actually signifies the
quality of the coffee ...and doesn't just make it sound fancier than it is.
Coffee is either wet-processed (also called washed
or wet-milled) ordry-processed(also called wild,
natural or natural dry, and we abbreviate it DP
sometimes). The type of processing is chosen to produce different cup qualities,
or sometimes is just a matter of tradition, logistics or economics. In a nutshell,
washed coffees are brought to a mill soon after picking, the coffee cherry
is depulped, allowed to ferment, washed to remove all pulp, laid on patios
or run through an electric dryer, removed from their final skin called parchment,
and sorted. Dry -processing involves laying out the cherries on patios or
roofs, and later removing the skin, pulp and parchment in one fell swoop.
Dry processed coffees are more yellowish-green because there's more silverskin
(chaff) attached to the bean. They look rangy, but often have more body and
character in the cup.
7. Crop: This
is the crop year the coffee was harvested and processed in, and provided that
the coffee has been properly stored and is the MOST current available crop,
shouldn't be a primary consideration in buying a green coffee from us. It
is sometimes expressed as a single year or a split year ('01/'02 for example).
The industry standard is that the crop year as inked on the burlap bag means
the year it was grown-picked-milled-shipped and then arrived at market. But
this is a very long process which means that a very fresh green coffee selling
in December of 2002 will be '01/'02 since '02/'03 crop would not arrive until
March-April '03. So the dates are a bit confusing but Sweet Maria's is really
obsessed with green coffee freshness, and I think that many in the trade are
NOT paying attention to this issue. Traders will talk of green coffee being
fresh for 2 years; bosh! Certain coffees stale before the next crop is available,
meaning that there will be a 3 month window where it should NOT be available.
That is why we chose to run out of certain origins at certain times. High
acid coffees see little change stored properly for 6 months but show baggy
flavors clearly once they appear. A few coffees hide baggy flavors because
it suits their cup: certain dry-processed Indonesians. Obsess about the freshness
of your roasted coffee, and I promise I will obsess about the freshness of
the green coffee we offer! -Tom
This is an informal scoring of the Number of Defects per 300 gram sample
(2d/300g = 2 defects) and is scored by the Specialty Coffee Association
of Americas Green Coffee Classification System in most cases. It should communicate
the quality of the preparation and sorting of the coffee, but doesn't directly
indicate the "cup quality," which is the most important rating of
coffee. A zero defect score doesn't mean that your 5 lbs. will have no defective
beans either! The second number is Screen Size, expressed as 14/16
scr, or 18 scr. Once again, bigger isn't better, and small beans
of varied screen size can make for a great cup too (i.e.: Yemeni coffee).
9. Varietal: Varietal
does NOT refer to region ...its about the botanical variety (or cultivar)
of the coffee tree. It's not easy information to gather, and has some bearing
on the cup but not a lot. Ideally, coffee is grown using old arabica varietals
such as Bourbon and Typica, or Kent in India. Controversial varietals such
as Riuri 11 in Kenya other high-yield, disease resistant hybrids can produce
a diminished cup, but growing conditions and processing play such a greater
role than the varietal.
(10-18) Cupping Form
Ratings: I use the international standard cupping measurements (7.25 grams
coffee to 150 ml water @ 195 d) and my own modified cupping forms to rate
all coffee samples I receive ...before I consider purchasing them.
I then evaluate them again after they arrive to refamiliarize myself. Coffee
folks who don't cup are going to be buying on name and price alone, and they
will probably end up with the lesser coffees from a particular crop. Beyond
knowing"this n'that" name for every region, there's a more discriminating
judge of coffee quality: your senses! I present this information with much
trepidation: it's not right to reduce the taste of coffee to a set of numbers
in terms of retailing it. You'd be wrong to compare a lower overall score
of a neat Honduran Marcala to a high score of a Kenya AA Estate coffee; they
are two different cups completely, both with their own distinct pleasures.
Then again, it would be appropriate to compare Ethiopian Ghimbi vs. Harar,
or washed Limmu vs. washed Yirgacheffe. But please remember, overall score
cannot be blindly trusted!
Please don't mock my
category names ...I know that Body Movement is ...um... odd-sounding, and
Brightness Liveliness is a little embarrassing, but these are the descriptive
ratings as they occur over time in your mouth as you taste, and describing
an acidy coffee as "Lively" is fairly accurate!
10. Dry Fragrance:
Refers to the aroma of the dry ground coffee before hot water is added.
Possible score is 1-5.
11. Wet Aroma:
Fragrance is the smell of dry freshly-ground coffee. Aroma is the smell of
wet coffee grinds, after the 150 ml water is added. Possible score is 1-5.
Acidity is the taste of sharp high notes in the coffee caused by a set
of Chlorogenic Acids, Citiric Acid, Quinic Acid, Acetic Acid, and others,
sensed mostly in the front of the mouth and tongue. (It is a good quality;
NOT related to bitterness in coffee, and NOT directly responsible for upset
stomach!). Acidity is prized by many cupper's, and relates directly to the
quality of the cup since acidity is the product of high altitude plantings.
Possible score is 1-10.
This is the overall impression in the mouth, including the above ratings
as well as tastes that come from the roast. There are 4 "Primary Tastes"
groupings (Sour, Sweet ,Salty, Bitter) and many "Secondary Tastes,"
as you can see on the Tasters Flavor Wheel. As the
primary category in taste evaluation (what coffee would you want to drink
that smelled good and tasted awful?) it is of great importance. But in a
sense the flavor impression is divided between this score AND the Finish/
Aftertaste score. Possible score is 1-10.
Often called Mouthfeel, body is sense of weight and thickness of the brew,
caused by the percentage of soluble solids in the cup including all organic
compounds that is extracted from coffee in brewing and ends up in the cup.
(You can see how brewing method and amount of ground coffee used influences
this greatly). We rate Body on a lower scale because light bodied coffees
are certainly not bad, and in some origins the lighter body best suits to
overall cup character. Possible score is 1-5.
The lingering tastes or emerging tastes that come after the mouth is
cleared. This includes the time when the coffee leaves your mouth to ? minutes
afterwards ... a reason that you will find a lot of cuppers revising aftertaste
scores when they are still experiencing a positive flavor a minute or two
later. Possible score is 1-10.
16. Cupper's Correction:
This is newly adopted from the SCAA system (they sometimes call it "Overall
Points"). It allows the cupper to add points to a score where the numbers
do not adequately express how attractive a cup truly is, or in the case
when a light-bodied coffee or a low-acid coffee is unfairly penalized for
simply having the correct cup for it's respective origin. Scoring a ZERO
for Cupper's Correction is NOT a penalty; it means that the other cupping
numbers DID adequately express the value of the cup.
17. Add 50:
As with the SCAA system, a fairly artificial 50 points is added so the scale
is a 100 point system. This 50 points has no other meaning, although
some argue that non-Specialty grade coffees could score with negative
numbers in this range.
18. Score: Okay
...here's how the above numbers are scored: 100-95
= Astounding, 90-94 = Outstanding, 85-89 = Very Good, 80-84 = Good, 75-79
= Fair, 70-74 = Poor, <70 = defective
rating by the numbers: The
tragedy is that you cannot really compare a final score to rate the
overall quality of a coffee! Why? Some coffees are light-bodied.
They will score 80 in body, but that does not detract from their overall
cup quality! However, with an 80 score it will never be one of the high
scoring coffees on our list. Not fair! But I expect readers to understand
the caveat of the overall score. Read the NOTES section on each coffee
because I think it tells you more about the excitement about a cup than
a bunch of numbers, no matter how much time ( and it is A LOT) I have
invested in them. -TomQuestion:
Why are all our reviews in the 80's with a few 90's??? Answer: Well, we have good coffee! We do a lot of cupping to weed
out coffees that would score in the 70's overall. Anything lower would
not be Specialty Coffee! We are very stingy with scores in the 90's, so
the range of most very high quality coffees happens to be the 80's!
19. Notes: This
is where I get to make up for the shortcomings of the grading numbers. I
would pay more attention to this box than any other.If it
sounds like I praise everything, that's true: these are the coffees I picked
from many samples that I wouldn't even take the time to write about. For these
coffees, my cupping forms are peppered with insightful comments like "EH",
"BLAH," "YUCK", and the most common one, "UGH!"
20. Roast Recommendations:
For a guy that's tired of the "Full City" mantra, you'll see a
lot of recommendations for "Full City." It's easy to say "roast
this coffee to it's absolute peak of flavor, where all good qualities are
present and all bad compounds have been volatilized. It's harder to do. That's
why anyone can roast, but it takes time and a desire to pay attention to
find what you think is the best roast for a coffee. So, like all things written
here, this box contains my opinion, the only one I can give without
standing you next to me at my Diedrich IR-12 or Probat roaster and saying
"Look ....that's what I mean." Dark roasters; many of these coffees
roast very well to a darker stage than I recommend, but if a green coffee
doesn't have a great cup in the City to Full City+ range, it is most likely
not a good green coffee. If it's a good green coffee, you will get more "origin
character" out of it in the darker roast. So cupping coffee at the medium
roast range is in your best interest too, Mr & Mrs. Dark Roaster.
More on the City
to Full City+ range: I have been dividing up the roasts around City
and Full City into finer distinctions using the + sign. So City (or sometimes
I write "true City roast" means the coffee has fully cleared
1st crack, and the roast is stopped (about 425-430 f). City+ means the
coffee has cleared first crack, and time is allowed for an even bean surface
appearance to develop, about 435f usually. Full City, or "true Full
City" is where the coffee is roasted to the verge of 2nd crack without
entering it, which is about 440-445f. Full City+ is where the coffee
is roasted to the verge of 2nd crack and enters it slightly, but the
coffee is dumped/roast is ended at that point, so the batch has no momentum
to truly enter 2nd crack, roughly 445-448f. Beyond that and we are talking
Vienna roast in my book.
New on 3/5/04
Intensity/ Prime Attribute: 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.
21. Compare To:
Here you will find another attempt to force you NOT to compare the "Overall"
scores, and compare coffee to others in their "Family of Taste."
Recognizing a quality that you like in a coffee should help you define which
coffee "Family" you prefer, or which you might want to avoid ...unless
you're like me and prefer everything!
22. Buy it: We
added this because customers really wanted the buttons right by the reviews
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).
has 2 parts: Intensity/Prime Attribute: and is followed by something like this: Mild
to Medium / Clean cup.
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,
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.
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.
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
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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