Understanding Our Coffee Reviews

A primer to the charts and numbers of our coffee cupping profiles

This short primer helps explain how coffee scores are calculated and what flavor graphs can tell you about coffee flavor profiles. In short, the graphs are visual tools to help describe general cup qualities and coffee flavors without having to actually taste the coffee. On their own, they don’t necessarily give you the full picture and are intended to be used in conjunction with our full cupping notes in order to get the clearest idea of what to expect in the cup.

What does “cupping” reference in the term “cupping graph”?

Cupping is an evaluation tool used by coffee professionals to assess coffee. During a cupping session, the taster generally evaluates a coffee in three different states: the dry grounds (fragrance), wet grounds (aroma) and taste using a “cupping” spoon (basically, a large soup spoon). When tasting via the cupping method, the coffee is slurped from the spoon in order to spread the coffee across your tongue’s flavor receptors which helps to parse out different flavor notes.
Judging coffee in this way allows you to move through a large volume of coffee samples quickly and invites you to take a deeper look at quality both good and bad than if you were to solely taste it brewed. We also use the cupping method when writing coffee reviews and coming up with scores.

Cupping roasted coffee samples at Bella Vista coffee mill in Antigua Guatemala
Cupping roasted coffee samples at Bella Vista coffee mill in Antigua Guatemala

What is the cupping graph?

The cupping graph is a spider graph comprised of 10 categories given a numeric value that add up to the final score.

What are the categories?

The 10 flavor attributes we judge are Fragrance, Wet Aroma, Brightness, Flavor, Body, Finish, Sweetness, Clean Cup, Complexity, Uniformity

Cupping Graph and Flavor Graph in a green coffee review
Cupping Graph and Flavor Graph in a green coffee review
  • Fragrance – Refers to the fragrance of the dry ground coffee before hot water is added
  • Wet Aroma – Refers to the smell of wet coffee grinds that form a crust at the top of the glass after adding hot water
  • Brightness – 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.
  • Flavor – This is the overall impression in the mouth, including the above ratings as well as tastes that come from the roast.
  • Body – 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 are extracted from coffee in brewing and ends up in the cup.
  • Finish – The lingering tastes or emerging tastes that come after the mouth is cleared. Often called “aftertaste”.
  • Sweetness – simply put, this defines the level of perceived sweetness in contrast to the bittering coffee qualities.
  • Clean Cup – This 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.
  • Complexity – 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.
  • Uniformity – 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.

How are these attributes judged?

We judge using the standard cupping method outlined above, and generally roast each coffee to at least 2 different roast levels in order to see how it tastes under different roast profiles.

What do the numbers represent?

Each category is rated by level of intensity on a scale of 1-10 (10 is the highest level of intensity). Other than the Fragrance, Aroma and Flavor, the categories avoid expressing personal preference. What I mean by that is that even though a coffee may score 9 out of 10 in body or acidity, for example, that doesn’t speak to it’s “goodness”, as that will depend on the personal preference of the coffee drinker.

So the cupping graph doesn’t tell me how a coffee tastes?

No. The Cupping Graph may give you an idea of how sweet, bright and complex a coffee is. But it won’t step farther out on the flavor branch and provide descriptors. That’s what the Flavor Graph and cupping notes are for.

The Cupper's Correction value in our green coffee graph shown boosting the overall coffee score
The Cupper’s Correction value in our green coffee graph shown boosting the overall coffee score

What is the “Cupper’s Correction” and how is that factored into score?

Good question. We’ve already stated there are 10 categories with a maximum of 10 points each, which equals a total possible score of 100. The Cupper’s Correction gives us the option to boost the overall score up to 10 points more (totaling 110 possible points) in order to help express how good we think a coffee is regardless of how the flavor attributes add up.

Why would you change the actual sum of the cupping scores using the Cupper’s Correction?

Quite simply, not all coffees we love will score high based on the sum of the attribute scores in the cupping graph. Take a dry process Ethiopia for example, where the Brightness and Clean Cup categories are likely to score very low. Padding the Cupper’s Correction helps to bring the final score to a level that matches our enthusiasm.

We may also use Cupper’s Correction to express how a coffee scores within the context of that specific origin. For Brazil coffees, for example, we might enlist the Cupper’s Correction to show that within the context of other Brazil coffees, this particular lot scores 87 points (or 85.8 as the example graph above shows).

In general, a coffee with a high Cupper’s Correction score isn’t likely to be at the same quality level as a coffee with the same score but with low to no Cupper’s Correction value factored in. But that doesn’t mean one is better than the other, which again, comes down to personal preference.

How does the flavor graph differ from the cupping graph?

The flavor graph deals with how a coffee actually tastes when roasted to the roast levels in our review. Other than Body, the flavor graph categories are types of flavors, rather than attributes.

Side by side comparison of three coffee flavor graphs from Sumatra, Ethiopia and Colombia.
Side by side comparison of three coffee flavor graphs from Sumatra, Ethiopia and Colombia.

There are all sorts of flavors found in coffees (and in your reviews), why choose only these 10?

In our experience, these are a few of the most common flavor types used to describe coffee. Rather than be too specific, we settled on these 10 that act more like categories of flavors. Under each category there are a multitude of more specific flavors, and what you pick up on will heavily depend on flavors you’re familiar with (i.e. “berry” types – blueberry, cranberry, lingonberry, gooseberry, etc).

The scale seems different than the cupping graph. What is it?

We rate the flavor types on an intensity scale of 0 to 5 points. Do you taste “berry” in the cup? If yes, what is the intensity level? Zero indicates that flavor type isn’t tasted at all, whereas 5 is the maximum level of intensity.

You used to only have the cupping graph. What changed?

Seeing that the cupping graph only partially defines taste, we added the flavor graph as a way to flesh out what can be expected in the cup. Together, they are quite effective in offering a quick impression of green coffees at a glance. I would discourage to only use these tools when making buying decisions, as only the full cupping notes lay out the most precise description of our coffees.

comparison of three different coffee cupping and flavor graphs
Comparing cupping spider graphs of Costa Rica and wet-hulled Java, you can see that the Costa Rica is well balanced and the Java is not.

Why use spider and radar graphs?

Visually, these types of circular, radar graphs should help you to identify difference from one coffee to the next based on its shape. In the case of the cupping graph score, the spider graph visually represents intensity and balance. If all of a coffee’s attributes score closely, the shape will be a circle, rather than show any points jutting out from the center.

In the image above, you can actually see that the flavor characteristics of the Costa Rica coffee are balanced, as they are all about the same level of intensity, and the shape is about as close to a circle as a spider graph can get. The Java graph shows less balance, with low scores in categories like Brightness and Clean Cup giving the graph shape sharp, jutting points that are far from circular.

Is a coffee un-balanced if the flavor graph bars are different sizes?

Not exactly. With the flavor graph, the intensity of each flavor type is represented in the length of the bar. Not all attributes have to be represented (or equally represented) for the coffee to be balanced. The levels of Sugars and Cocoa categories will give you some idea of how balanced the coffee’s core cup characteristics are, but are still not as precise in conveying balance as the cupping graph.

Will coffees with similar cupping and flavor graphs scores taste the same?

Not likely. Using the Java flavor graph in the above image as an example, the coffee appears to be rustic, big bodied and heavily weighted in cocoa. But what kind of cocoa/chocolate is present in the cup and at what roast levels? Does it have rustic flavors like rice syrup, or mossy/herbal notes? There are a lot of unanswered questions about how the cup flavors present that can only be answered by reading the full Cupping Notes.

Why can’t we sort your Green Coffee List by cupping score?

This question comes up a lot. If you’ve read everything leading up to this point, hopefully you’ve answered this question already! In short, coffee scores say little to nothing about how a coffee actually tastes.

If you buy an Ethiopia solely because it scores 93 points but hate acidic coffee, you’re going to be very disappointed. Same goes for if you buy an 88 point Sumatra because you only buy 88+ coffee, but don’t enjoy rustic sweetness, you will also be left wishing you’d read the review!