Evolution of Sweet Maria’s Cupping Descriptions

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


Our New Coffee Scoring System

In December 2008, I shifted our cupping scoring system. I know that for those of us living in a “base 10” society, a system based on 110 points does not seem to make much sense. And some people have expressed concern that customers will see a shift to high scores – a sort of “score inflation.” I guess there is also something of a Spinal Tap issue – the scores now go to 11(0) so they are better than 10(0).

I want to lay out my reasons for changing this system – why I think it is better and will lead to more accuracy in the scores.

At one time a couple years back, I became so frustrated with cupping numbers, I was going to abandon them completely, to migrate to a purely “descriptive” cupping system. In a sense, I still believe that descriptors are more important than numbers, and especially more important than the dreaded “total” score for each coffee. After all, would you buy a banana if someone told you it acheived a 94.7 score in “Banana Review” magazine … but you hate bananas? Okay, silly example, but it has been difficult to get the numbers to accurately communicate the essential and meaningful qualities of the coffee they purport to describe. Our new system gives me hope though.

In brief, the bane of my existence (in coffee cupping at least) is total points. If a coffee is an 87, does that mean you will like it more than an 86 … no. It’s use is limited, but it does communicate something about quality .. right? The individual categories tell you more in detail about the coffee. For years, I resisted adding categories that SCAA and CoE use – for example, Clean Cup/Uniformity (if you make 5 cups, how similar are they) – for several reasons. I found those to be punitive to DP coffees, for example. Now I see them as expressive: if a coffee scores 9 on flavor, 9 on complexity, and 5 in Clean Cup, you know you are dealing with a potentially fantastic DP coffee that has some funky, rustic, earthy, unconventional flavors. My thinking on this has changed somewhat, as I come to find that including a Clean Cup/Uniformity score can round out the picture of a coffee.

The reason I want to change the scoring is that the scoring has become too compact, the range too tight, and the numbers fail to be expressive when they do this. The goal, after all, is to effectively communicate using numbers and graphs as a supplement to the written word. The SCAA system is over 100 points as well (I believe 106 is the top score) because they discovered that the extra points give the judge the ability to score a coffee more aggressively in each category … consider my example of a great DP coffee that has low clean cup, uniformity, maybe acidity, and high complexity, flavor, body etc The resulting score is a very expressive set of numbers, and a corresponding graph that really has distinct form, with extreme spikes in the spider web. If the balance of these numbers comes out to, say, 83 which would mean it is “Specialty” coffee but of plain, ordinary character, then the cup certainly merits a “cupper’s correction” to communicate that no, this is a really fantastic, if somewhat odd and imbalanced, coffee. So, say a 9 point cuppers correction brings it all the way to 92.

I know that for some this sounds like cheating, but let me tell you the reality, after 18 or so Cup of Excellence juries and countless other competitions and group cuppings. What is happening among judges is that they don’t truly use the category scores to lead to a final score. As the cup cools, they form an idea of a total score, and they adjust the individual category scores to justify it. In a way, that is the correct thing to do … after all, if you think a coffee is fantastic and somehow your numbers total 83, have you done a good job expressing your overall quality of that coffee? Likewise, if a coffee happens to rate highly in individual categories, but overall the cup is not attractive, do you do it justice to rate it 88 or 92 ? A few days ago, I cupped all the expensive coffees from this year on one table. I roasted archived samples of the Esmeralda Geshas, Aida’s Grand Reserve, Guatemala CoE#1 El Injerto and some others. The later 2 have balance, complexity, and are highly enjoyable. Esmeralda #2 and #3 have soaring acidity, so different than all the other high price coffees, just astounding. But the body, the balance is not there. They are thin, which also affects the length of the aftertaste and complexity a bit. Dinging them on those 3 scores could lead to an 86-88 on many forms. That would be sooooo wrong.

So, what are the actual changes that bring us to a 110 point scale? Previously, we rated coffees according to six categories (Dry Fragrance, Wet Aroma, Body/Movement, Brightness/Acidity, Flavor/Depth, and Finish/Aftertaste) along with a 5 point cuppers correction. In addition to those categories, we’re now adding in scores for Sweetness, Clean Cup, Uniformity, and Complexity. The other major change is that we’re now grading each attribute from 1-10, instead of grading some 1-5 under the old system.

We will be graphing all of the scores so they can be compared (even overlayed). So the shapes of the spider graphs will give you a good visual clue about the cup character, and will be standardized (which was critical feedback about the current spider graphs). Below I have a comparison of spider graph of two coffees in the 100 and 110 point systems so you can see what difference it makes. I plan to revisit as many coffees that are archived as possible – so they can be compared to the new system.

Another point about adding the new category is that this is information that already existed in the review – and/or in more experienced home roasters’ store of knowledge. That is, Costa Rican coffees are generally very clean cups, Sumatran coffees are generally rustic. It gives a score and quantifies a key part of the experience of a coffee so it can develop fuller picture/graph.

  • 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 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
  • 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 and other high-yield, disease resistant hybrids can produce a diminished cup, but growing conditions and processing play a much greater role than the varietal.
  • (10-21) 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 (1-10): Refers to the aroma of the dry ground coffee before hot water is added.
    • 11. Wet Aroma (1-10): Fragrance is the smell of dry freshly-ground coffee. Aroma is the smell of wet coffee grinds, after the 150 ml water is added.
    • 12. Brightness/Acidity (1-10): 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 cuppers, and relates directly to the quality of the cup since acidity is the product of high altitude plantings.
    • 13. Flavor/Depth (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
      inish/ Aftertaste score.
    • 14. Body/Movement (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.
    • 15. Finish/Aftertaste (1-10): 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.
    • 16. Sweetness (1-10): Sweetness is almost always a desirable quality in coffee, even if it is described in euphemistic ways such as “rustic sweetness” or “bittersweetness.” You may notice that refined sweetness (think European pastries, fine candy, white sugar, pure sweetness) scores high, as well as complex sweetness from fruit sugars (fructose). Malty sweetness (maltose) is less traditional, but quite desirable, and honey can range from the very pure and clean to complex, rustic almost yeasty. Basically, if sweetness is a key to the cup, it will be rated well.
    • 17. Clean Cup (1-10): Note that “clean cup” does not literally mean dirt on the coffee. It’s just about flavor. And raw, funky coffees that are “unclean” in the flavor can also be quite desirable, such a wet-hulled Indonesia coffees from Sumatra, or dry-processed Ethiopia and Yemeni types.
    • 18. Complexity (1-10): Complexity compliments flavor and aftertaste scores, to communicate a multitude or layering of many flavors. It means that there’s a lot to discover in the cup. Then again, simple coffees can be a relief after over-exposure to many powerful, intense, complex coffees.
    • 19. Uniformity (1-10): Uniformity refers to cup-to-cup differences. Dry-process coffees can be less uniform than wet-process coffees by nature. We would never avoid a lot that has fantastic flavors if occasionally it waivers. This is scored during the cupping protocol, where multiple cups are made of each lot being reviewed.
    • 20. Cupper’s Correction (0-10): This is adopted from the SCAA system and Cup of Excellence scoring (they sometimes call it “Overall Points”). It allows a cupper to ensure that the total score correctly communicates the overall impression of the cup. You might criticize this approach and consider it “fudging”the total. In a way, you would be correct … but it would be much worse to change the category scores to acheive the desired total (to give a coffee a 9 for acidity when you know it is a 7), or conversely to have a coffee that absolutely deserves a 90 end up at 84. The specific Cupper’s Correction number matters naught, be it a 5 or an 8 … the idea is that the total score gives a correct impression of the coffee quality.
    • 21. 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,
    • Problems with 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. –Tom 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!
  • 22. 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!”
  • 23. Intensity/Prime Attribute: The rating has 2 parts 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.
  • 24. Roast: 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
  • 25. 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!



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