In the specialty coffee industry, high quality coffees are cupped and allocated a score by a tasting/grading professional or a Q grader. These scores act as quality control for the sector; they allow producers to determine if their coffee is specialty or commodity grade – and charge accordingly for it.
As cupping scores can influence a coffee’s value, they are a very important metric. Some producers who recognise this have started scoring their own coffees in an effort to improve quality and increase the sale price.
However, without the right training and experience, many end up inadvertently overscoring their coffee. Here’s an explanation of how overscoring happens, the problems it can cause, and how it can be resolved.
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How & Why Is Coffee Scored?
Coffees are usually cupped according to specific guidelines, known as cupping protocols. The most commonly used protocols are those set out by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). SCA best practice recommends that coffee samples are tasted and allocated a score out of 100 based on a number of different parameters, including aroma, flavour, and acidity.
Any defects present are also scored, and this figure is subtracted from the total score to reach a final figure. To be regarded as specialty, a coffee must score above 80. It will then be further categorised as outstanding (90 or above), excellent (85-89), or very good (80-84).
Producers, buyers, roasters, and baristas all rely on cupping scores. They use it to decide which coffees to buy, to dial in a roast profile, and to bring customers new and exciting flavours.
While cupping itself is quite straightforward, being able to accurately score a coffee is a skill that takes time to develop. Most people will have to undertake dozens of cupping sessions before they can detect the more subtle nuances and defects a coffee may possess.
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How Does Accidental Coffee Overscoring Occur?
To cup coffee, you only need beans, filtered and temperature controlled water, a grinder, a scale, and a timer. Furthermore, cupping score sheets are easily available on the internet, meaning that more or less anyone can cup coffee with some guidance, including producers. However, many producers who cup their own coffee have not had formal training on cupping protocols.
Elisa Welchez is General Manager at Cafe Welchez in Honduras. She explains that while the country promotes increased production, it has not educated producers on how to improve their coffee quality or follow proper cupping protocols. As a result, many producers, especially in remote areas, do not develop the skills needed to accurately evaluate and value coffee.
Many producers are also only able to cup coffee from their own region. If they can’t cup coffee from other countries and areas, a producer’s ability to compare and contrast different coffees will be limited. This can also keep producers from accurately evaluating coffees against the expectations that consumers have of certain origins. Furthermore, it can affect their understanding of international trends and what international audiences look for in their coffee.
When developing cupping skills, it is important that producers are able to compare their results with other cuppers. This helps them to hone and implement different cupping techniques. However, even if they can attend group cupping sessions, discussing their results with other cuppers will be difficult if a producer lacks the vocabulary used to evaluate and score coffees.
Altogether, these issues lead to one thing when producers cup their own coffee: an inaccurate score, often one that is higher than it should be. This is known as “overscoring”.
What Happens When Coffee is Overscored?
Overscoring coffee usually leads to quality issues. Ensei Neto is a coffee consultant at The Coffee Traveller, and explains that this often occurs with sampling: “Sometimes, samples are different from the real lot because people prepare them differently and take defective coffees out to create better samples.” This can lead to inaccurate scores, and coffees being sold for more than they are worth.
Overscoring can also blur the lines between specialty and commodity scoring coffees. For example, if producers continuously score their coffees as specialty when they’re actually commodity-grade, it could compromise that producer’s reputation. Most buyers will cup coffees as soon as they receive them, and if scores between the sample and the delivered lot differ, it could affect the amount of trust in that business relationship.
If producers aren’t trusted by buyers, then their long-term financial stability is more likely to be at risk. Buyers are unlikely to commit to repeat purchases if the scores of purchased lots do not match their sample scores. This can even lead to buyers requesting partial or full refunds, creating further financial stress.
How Producers Can Improve Their Cupping
The best way to prevent overscoring is simply by being aware that it occurs – most producers will not intentionally overscore their coffee.
Here are four ways that producers can cup coffee more accurately.
1. Calibrate Their Palates With Other Coffees
The more exposure a producer has to different types of coffees, the better they’ll be able to compare and contrast each one. This means they can expand their knowledge on how to cup, and recognise characteristics that are often associated with certain origins. If accessing coffees from other producing countries isn’t possible, producers can also calibrate their palates by cupping coffees from other producers, or try different varieties, processing methods, and fermentation methods.
Elisa says: “Local producers should bring their coffees to [other farms] to cup and discuss them so that they know more about the product they’re making.” This helps them to access different coffee varieties and cup coffees that have been processed differently. This will also support other members of the same producing community, which can in turn lead to a better reputation for a particular origin.
2. Compare Findings With Other Cuppers
By cupping coffees in a group, producers can learn about different cupping approaches and techniques. Ideally, this would take place at international events, where producers can learn how skilled cuppers provide accurate scores.
Producers should also seek out training and education on cupping, as it can teach them how to identify different coffee profiles, varieties, and defects in a cup. It also means they will be better prepared to discuss and articulate how a coffee tastes.
However, high costs and practical constraints keep many producers from accessing educational opportunities and attending international events. If this is the case, video calling is a great alternative. Buyers cupping coffees can invite producers to attend remote cupping sessions, and share their insight and findings with each other. This will help producers gain in-depth knowledge and insight into how cupping reports are generated, and more effectively implement feedback.
3. Increase Scoring Transparency
Transparency is critical for enhancing communication, and it is an integral part of any good buyer-producer relationship. While producers can and should score their own coffees, they can build further trust by encouraging the buyers to score the coffee themselves.
Marcelo Flanzer, Coffee Director at Ecoagricola, and suggests that producers “send samples with the varietal, the dry method, the crop, and some other information about the coffee, but not the score.” This will allow the buyer to cup the coffee objectively.
After the buyer has cupped the coffee, the producer can also compare their score against the buyer’s score and ask questions about how and why certain conclusions were reached. The producer can then implement any relevant feedback.
4. Adhere To A Single Cupping Protocol
While the SCA’s cupping protocols are the most widely used, others do exist. To make things clearer for prospective buyers, producers should stick to one protocol and clearly communicate which one they are using.
Ensei points out that when different protocols are used for the same samples, a 3 to 6 point difference is often observed in the scores. Whichever protocol a producer decides to follow, they need to make sure the buyer’s quality control team is aware of it to prevent miscommunication.
There are many factors which keep producers from being able to better and more accurately score their coffee. While it is important that producers recognise the dangers of overscoring, buyers should also support them to cup coffee more accurately where possible.
When producers are able to accurately cup their own coffee, they can establish trusted, long-term relationships with buyers. And as these relationships with buyers provide producers with a stable income, the producers will in turn be able to invest in their farms and ultimately produce a higher scoring coffee.
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