Evolution of Sweet Maria’s Cupping Descriptions – Old


  • Current: Our New 110 Point Cupping System (December 2008-?)
  • Our Updated 100 Point Cupping System (2003-2008)
  • The Original 100 Point Cupping System (through 2003)

The Original 100 Point Cupping System

Coffee language, grading and evaluation is very confusing. I use a combination of standard and nonstandard terms that make it even more confusing. Oddly, evaluating coffee is both technical, and personal too. There are a standard set of terms, a roast degree reference scale, and other systems that allow an exporter in Indonesia and a broker in California to understand each other. But everything is based on sensory evaluation, which can never be entirely standardized. All this takes a lot of work…

We are now using a 100-point cupping system to score coffees, and it is a bit different than the SCAA system. Six evaluative points are given equal weight to result in a range from 50-100 (under 50 would not be Specialty Coffee and we wouldn’t sell it!) The 6 criteria that are scored are essentially the same as the old 33 point scale, but their names have been modified to be more intuitively descriptive, and their order changed to reflect the cupping experience it occurs in actuality, from start to finish:


    • 1. Summary name of coffee, as we list it on our Green Coffee Offering List.
    • 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.
    • 6. Processing: Coffee is either wet-processed (also called washed or wet-milled) or dry-processed (also called wildnatural 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 shouldn’t be a primary consideration in buying a green coffee. Even the more unstable high acid coffees see little change stored properly for 1 year …and most are fine for 18 months or so. Obsess about the freshness of your roasted coffee, not the age of your green coffee. Sometimes, a crop can indicate a better “vintage,” such as my secret 2 lb stash of La Tacita Guatemalan from 1996-97.
    • 8. Appearance: 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.
    • (10-16) 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 FragranceRefers to the aroma of the dry ground coffee before hot water is added. Possible score is 50 to 100.
      • 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 50 to 100.
      • 12. Brightness/Liveliness (Acidity): Acidity is the taste of sharp high notes in the coffee caused by a set of Chlorogenic Acids, 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!). Possible score is 50 to 100.
      • 13. Body/Movement: 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). Possible score is 50 to 100.
      • 14. Flavor/Depth: 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. Possible score is 50 to 100
      • 15. Finish/Conclusion: The lingering tastes or emerging tastes that come after the mouth is cleared. Possible score is 50 to 100.
      • 16. Score: Okay …here’s how the above numbers are scored: all 6 are added and averaged: simple! But 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.

Question: 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!

  • 17. 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!”
  • 18. 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 12 Kilo roaster and saying “Look ….that’s what I mean.”
  • 19. 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!
  • 20. Buy it: We added this because customers really wanted the buttons right by the reviews …
  • A-D: Issues of Origin: Many in the coffee trade, myself included, take the growing conditions that give birth to our wonderful coffee seriously. Traditional methods of coffee cultivation were organic, and shade-grown (amazingly headlined in 1930s Chase & Sandborn coffee ads!) and these methods result in a higher quality coffee that matures slowly on a plant that isn’t overstressed. Indulgence in the luxury of good coffee should come with some gratitude for the farmers whose labor make it possible But unfortunately we have had trouble adding all these little logos to our reviews lately. So if it says Organic, or Co-op or Fair Trade in the name, you will know. Almost all Organic is Shade Grown …in fact Organic really covers the rest of the certifications pretty well!
    • A. Co-op Grown: This means that small-scale farmers (the majority of coffee is grown on small unincorporated farms) have banded together to form a growing, milling or selling co-op (or all three).
    • B. Eco-Certified: This means a coffee farm has been inspected and passed some form or organic certification, and the coffee is grown without chemical pesticides, herbicides or fungicides.
    • C. Fair Trade: This means that the coffee was purchased outside of the commodities market at a prearranged price that was better than what the farmer could have hoped for through normal distribution channels. Note that, since Organic and Shade-grown coffees demand a premium, they are in essence fairly-traded.
    • D. Shade-Grown: This means the coffee trees are grown under a forest canopy, or interplanted with protective shade trees. This provides a more bio-diverse and bird-friendly ecology.

=Co-op -grown = Eco-Certified =Fair Trade = Shade-Grown

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