August/September 2013: Spider Graphs and Cold Brew

The Amazing Spider Graph!

If you’re familiar with our coffee reviews you’ve probably seen a funny-looking diagram to describe each coffee’s score – the spider graph. Sure it adds graphical interest to some of our more text-heavy reviews, but what is the deal?

“What is a cupping score?”     Taste can be pretty subjective; taste “vocabularies” can vary from person to person, depending on what they’ve eaten, smelled or experienced. The cupping score is a way to quantify a coffee’s attributes so that we can have a common language for talking about that coffee. Describing Meyer lemon acidity in a coffee’s review is meaningful, but it’s helpful to know that it ranks a 9 in brightness if you’re really looking for a lively, effervescent coffee.

When scoring coffees, we look at 10 different factors: Dry Fragrance (the smell of the dry coffee grounds), Wet Aroma (the smell of the saturated grounds), Brightness/Acidity (flavor attribute that adds liveliness to coffee), Flavor (overall impression of taste), Body (the way the coffee feels on your tongue), Finish (lingering flavor), Sweetness, Clean Cup (absence or presence of earthy, funky flavors), Complexity (multi-faceted cup) and Uniformity (does the coffee taste the same from cup to cup?). Each factor is scored from 1-10, with a Cupper’s Correction rounding out the overall score.

The shape of the graph gives an overview of the cup quality at a glance. It is also an easy way to visually compare different coffees’ scores.

We use many of the same criteria as SCAA for assigning cupping scores and rate individual attributes from 1-10, like their scale, but there are a few key differences. We evaluate dry fragrance and wet aroma as separate elements, while SCAA rolls them into one attribute. We feel that the fragrance and aroma offer different insights into a coffee and can sometimes vary a lot.

The SCAA also includes defects as a component of their score, subtracting points for taints (noticeable off flavors that don’t ruin the cup) and/or faults (really bad flavors that totally detract from the cup). Since we would reject coffees that have glaring faults it’s not really a relevant factor for our scoring. Any defects that may be present would be reflected in the Clean Cup score.

“How do you determine what the score is for a particular attribute?”   When we’re cupping we go through each coffee and consider the different attributes separately and score for how prevalent each attribute is, from 1-10.

“What’s the deal with the Cupper’s correction?”    The Cupper’s Correction helps to describe the overall impression of the coffee. If you have a Sumatra that doesn’t necessarily score super high on the main factors, but is a great example of that origin, the Cupper’s Correction brings the score up to reflect the overall quality. Scoring a zero for Cupper’s Correction wouldn’t mean a coffee isn’t “good,” it just means that the other cupping numbers adequately express the value of the cup.

“If a coffee has a very high score does that mean everyone will like it?”    Not at all. If you don’t like a particular origin, a high scoring coffee from that origin probably still won’t do it for you. We highly recommend reading the full descriptions before you buy, not just looking at the score. If you really dislike coffees with tannic or drying characteristics, for example, that won’t show up in the cupping score, but it will be in the full description. Looking at the spider graph in addition to the tasting notes will help you choose a coffee with bigger body, more complexity, etc., along with flavors that you enjoy.

Cold Brewin’ Like It’s Hot Out

We hear it’s hot outside the Bay Area right now. It’s been a pretty chilly summer here in Oakland, but we’ve been doing some cold brew experiments here for all you folks who are warm enough for a cold drink. One of our staff was kind enough to bring in her Yama drip tower so we’ve been trying not to spend too much time staring at it as it brews one drip at a time from a reservoir 2 feet above the tabletop. We also set up the DIY Aeropress/plastic bottle dripper (with instructions from Prima Coffee) to compare something expensive to something affordable.

Cut the bottom off a 1L plastic bottle and poke a hole in the cap. Turn the bottle upside down and fill it with ice and water. You want to make a hole small enough to allow about 40 drops a minute. Use an Aeropress funnel as a holder for the upside-down bottle. This will suspend the bottle on top of a plunger-less Aeropress with a filter, ground coffee and another filter (trimmed to fit) on top of the coffee. Use whatever decanter you want. Mason jars and small French press beakers work well. Get ready to sit and stare…it’s gonna take a while. A fast dripping bottle takes an hour to fully empty itself.

The results from the two drip systems were different. The drip tower produced a very even cup, meaning there were no surprises during the initial sip and there wasn’t an unusual aftertaste. The Ethiopia Sidama Deri Kochoha we used in both brewers was roasted light but the tower really brought out roast flavors. We think compensating by using more water or roasting even lighter might improve the cup.   The Aeropress method produced a sweeter cup both in the aroma and in the coffee itself. With a strong, fruited flavor up front and a sweet finish, it wasn’t as consistent as the flavors coming from the Yama tower.

Overall, our thoughts are that cold brewing might lend itself towards coffees that lean in directions of certain flavor profiles. A fruited coffee would probably become fruitier and although we haven’t tried it, a coffee with chocolate notes would probably taste even more like chocolate.  There are endless variables and no rules (aside from using good coffee) when it comes down to cold brew so we encourage you to get adventurous and develop your own methods.

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