August 21, 2020

Responding To Coffee Overscoring Issues In Producing Countries

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about the issue of coffee overscoring in producing countries. The feedback we received motivated us to dig deeper into understanding this issue. 

To further explore what causes overscoring in producing countries – and how we can change it – I spoke with a number of coffee professionals across the supply chain. Read on for more insight into unintentional overscoring, and an understanding of what a “producer-led” scoring system might look like.

Lee este artículo en español Respuesta a “Sobrepuntuación de Cafés en Países Productores”

External Factors Contributing To Coffee Overscoring

A lot of people I spoke to told me about a number of other factors that led to unintentional overscoring. Most of these are linked to transparency and traceability in the supply chain.

Ricardo Arenas is a producer and the head of board of directors at Anacafe. He says that one challenge is the fact that coffee needs to be evaluated more fairly and that the current protocols limit the input of the producer’s experience. Ricardo says that the experience and efforts of the producers add value in a different way that needs to be considered when coffees are scored.

Matti Foncha is a producer and owner of Cameroon Boyo. He agrees with Ricardo. “If you just do just a standard roast and then cup it [without considering the producer’s experience], you are also disrespecting the producer who produced it.”

You may also like Tackling Unintentional Coffee Overscoring in Producing Countries

Sample Roasting

However, overscoring issues really come to light with improper sample roasting. Marty Curtis is a retired senior Q grader instructor and the CEO of the Artisan Coffee Group

Marty’s concerns are rooted in data, which he says is not always properly recorded. The best example of this is with sample roasting temperatures. Marty says that data collection tools are not always easily accessible to producers.

He also emphasises that good documentation improves traceability, and that collecting sample roasting data improves transparency. Marty says that collecting sample roasting data is “the first step in getting a true cupping score, so that roast profiles can be properly reproduced”.

If the roast for a certain coffee can’t be precisely reproduced, the coffee may be unfairly scored.

Water Quality and Temperature

Another external issue that contributes to overscoring and underscoring is water quality and temperature. Water quality varies significantly from city to city, region to region, and country to country. Therefore, a TDS reading must be taken before coffee is cupped to make sure its impact can be effectively acknowledged. 

Marty mentions that if these readings are not taken, then, for example, scores in South America will differ significantly to scores for the same coffee in the US. He says: “Although some producers may not have access to the best quality water, they still need to record it. There are many supply chain players that have the ability to adjust their water qualities.”

Producers also need to consider the many external factors in their cupping environment that affect cupping temperatures during the session. Cupping by time only is unreliable. Several conditions in the cupping environment, including vessel type and material, beginning water temperature, outside temperature, and air movement influence how temperatures change. 

Marty says that this can lead to issues, as it may mean that coffees are not cupped at the same temperatures consistently. This is easily resolved by using a control cup with a temperature reading.

Accessibility

Overall, one of the main issues is accessibility. Agustina Román is the co-founder of Citadino and roaster at Ninina in Buenos Aires. Agustina notes that cupping environments differ between supply chain players worldwide. 

For example, “importers have access to certain equipment, labs, programs, etc that allow them to have strict cupping sessions that producers do not always have access to”. This often creates an “gap” in cupping scores as producers have limited access to controlled environments.

Can Scoring Take Place On Producers’ Terms?

The SCA protocol sets out a basic standard for scoring. It details things like when you should sample roast, resting times, timing during cupping, water to coffee ratios, and so on. By drawing on this information, producers can cup and score their own coffee. 

However, this is not a protocol that is directly created by or for the producer. A “true” producer-led protocol would allow producers to incorporate their own experiences throughout the process. Ricardo says: “A protocol directed by the producer could be very interesting. It would be heavily based on the experiences the producer has developed with his coffee. 

“However, it would get difficult to create a standardised protocol [for this situation] because each producer’s coffee is produced differently with different variables such as elevation, precipitation, solar radiation, variety, processes, etc.”

Matti says that because producers have the hands-on experience of producing a coffee, they will be in a great position to pinpoint and understand what is happening in their coffees.

For example, if a producer is experimenting with fermentation methods and it causes a defect, the producer will be able to recognise that the change in fermentation was the cause. 

Man breaking the crust during a cupping with black spoons

However, in order to maintain accuracy throughout scoring, producers need to focus on data collection at every level. This will help to make the process as objective as possible. This means making detailed notes about farming techniques as well as processing and fermentation methods, as well as the cupping and scoring itself.

Marty recommends that producers test the water, temperature, and environmental humidity on the day, as well as recording changes in water temperature throughout the session. He also stresses the importance of making sample roasting data available for everyone at the scoring session.

Specifically, Marty recommends storing results and notes digitally to improve record-keeping and traceability. He says: “Digitising cupping scores can help eliminate subjectivity in cuppings, for example, if someone is biased towards coffee at hot or cold temperatures.”

However, while this might sound straightforward, the appropriate tools may not always be accessible for producers. While using technology and dedicated recording software makes things easier, the most important thing is that the data is recorded – whether that’s with a pen or a smartphone. 

Once the data is recorded, everything – from grading to cupping results – should be stored in one place for easy access.

Difficulties With Producer-Led Scoring

Two of the main issues with producer-led scoring are accessibility and education.

As mentioned above, accessibility is a serious barrier for many producers. A lot of them lack access to tools such as temperature-controlled roasters and don’t have a controlled space available to cup their coffees with objectivity and precision. This can make it very difficult for producers to experience the true quality of their coffee first-hand, and consequently to score it fairly.

However, alongside accessibility, there is also an issue with education in quality control for producers. Firstly, this means having a detailed understanding of the standardised cupping protocol and how a cupping should function. 

Education in quality control also extends to palate calibration and the understanding of different cup characteristics. Agustina says that these are both incredibly important for producer-led cuppings. 

Agustina is a Q grader, and she notes, for example, that she found it difficult to “[determine] flavour notes when it came to cupping natural coffees”. Many producers may encounter a similar problem. We use a wide range of different flavours, foods, spices, and fruits to describe flavour notes. If producers don’t have access to these flavours in their area, they may struggle to effectively identify the flavours in their coffee. 

To summarise, protocols, documentation, and data collection are all incredibly important for producer-led scoring. They all help to improve consistency and create an objective environment for cupping coffee. Furthermore, where possible, producers should try to educate themselves about tasting, cupping, and scoring coffee.

However, it’s important to recognise that accessibility and education remain significant barriers for many producers. As we established in the previous article, overscoring among producers is almost always unintentional. With an increased focus on traceability and data collection, scoring in producing countries can become more objective.

Enjoyed this? Then read How Coffee Producers Can Benefit From Data

Photo credits: Matti Foncha, Agustina Roman, tamhintze

Some quotes have been translated from Spanish.

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