What Does a Number Make? The Coffee Quality Score, Explained

The scoring methodology, known as cupping, has been developed by the Specialty Coffee Association, and the grades are given to coffees by certified samplers called Q-graders. These master tasters have gone through arduous and lengthy training to earn their titles.

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The cupping score developed by the Specialty Coffee Association goes from 0 to 100, and only coffees scoring 80 points or above get the “specialty” badge of honor. Commercial-grade coffee scores anywhere from 60 to 80.

Before the cupping: visual inspection of green beans

Before the Q-graders even start the cupping, they inspect a sample of 12 oz (350 g) unroasted green beans to see if they contain any defects. These can be primary (e.g., sour beans) or secondary (e.g., broken beans).

For coffee to be graded as specialty, its sample must contain zero primary defects and less than five secondary defects.

A bit of perspective: in 12 oz, you will get around nine hundred beans. Find six broken ones—and you’re out.

What Does a Number Make? The Coffee Quality Score, Explained

The cupping process

The roasters must roast the sample within 24 hours before cupping and allow it to rest for at least 8 hours.

The beans should be ground right before the cupping, with an ideal ratio of 0.3 oz (8.25 g) of coffee per 5 fl oz (150 ml) of water.

The Q-graders then score 5 cups from the same sample and give them a grade from 0 to 10 according to the following criteria:

Fragrance and Aroma

You might think these two are synonyms. In reality, fragrance refers to the smell of ground coffee when it’s still dry, while aroma stands for the smell that the coffee releases once it gets infused in hot water.

flavor

This is the most distinct taste of the coffee, its signature. It carries its trail from the palate into the nose. The higher the quality score, the more well-developed notes of cherry, peach, or even blackcurrant the coffee will present.

Aftertaste

This is defined as the length of the flavor once the coffee has been swallowed. The longer the pleasant trail, the better the score. If the q-graders sense abrupt changes after the coffee has been knocked back, they will grade the coffee with a lower score.

Acidity

Highly praised coffees are usually not intensely acidic, but the score depends on the coffee variant. Kenyan coffee is expected to be higher in acidity. Sumatran coffee, on the other hand, falls under the lower acidity side of the scale. So if a cup of Sumatran coffee results higher in acidity, it might receive a lower score.

body

Think of this as mouthfeel. Some coffees will have a more noticeable viscosity, while others will be more watery. The 5 cups need to show the same consistency in mouthfeel to get a high body quality score

Balance

As with life in general, balance is everything. Coffee that creates a joyful equilibrium between acidity, aroma, flavor, and aftertaste will score higher. If any of the traits seem overpowering or too feeble, the q-grader will take the score down a notch.

Sweetness

Coffee contains sugars naturally. So it’s expected to sense a level of sweetness during cupping. However, this should not explode into something resembling a soda drink. A balanced level of sweetness can earn the coffee up to 2 points on the quality score.

Clean cup

This value refers to the uniformity of taste, from the first sip to the aftertaste. If the Q-graders notice any funny aromas or flavors, even the slightest hint, they will disqualify the cup from getting a clean cup score.

Uniformity

Uniformity of the sample refers to the consistency of the flavor among the five tasting cups. If any of the cups have a noticeably different flavor, the cupping score will be lower.

Overall

This is where the graders can show their personal consideration. The more the sample reflects the typical features based on its origin, the higher the score.

Defects (yes, again)

As with green bean appraisal, the panelists can detract the points during cupping, too. A defect in the cupping can either be a taint or a fault. Every tainted cup will set the score back by 2 points, while a faulty one will set the score back by 4 points.

What Does a Number Make? The Coffee Quality Score, Explained

The final score

Each of the five sample cups gets a score based on the criteria we mentioned above. The final score is a sum of the total score of each cup, minus the defects. Across years of perfecting the cupping process, this scoring key has become a meaningful way to describe the quality of a coffee sample. According to the SCA, we can divide the score in the following ranges:

total score quality classification
90 - 100 Outstanding Specialty
85 - 89.99 Excellent
80 - 84.99 Very Good
< 80.0 Below Specialty Quality Not Specialty

The most important thing that the cupping process insight says is that going from 80 to 90 is not a linear progression.

What do all these numbers and scores tell us, really?

Coffee that scores closer to 80 points is really good but can contain many more faults than the sample that enters the 90+ hall of fame.

The higher up the scale, the more exponentially difficult it becomes for coffee to achieve such consistency in flavor, acidity, body, and overall balance.

In 2004, experts estimated that specialty coffee represented around 20% of the overall global coffee production. With the rise in demand for high-end coffees over the recent years, we can safely wager that this number has significantly increased. Still, as of today, only a fraction of beans are outstanding enough to make it into the 90+ hall of fame.

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FAQS

What is the “Cup Score”? Who gives these scores to coffee?

It’s a scoring methodology developed by the Specialty Coffee Association. It’s an objective grade because only certified samplers— the Q-graders—are qualified to assign the votes.

Continue reading

Does the cupping score evaluate just the coffee’s flavor?

It’s much more complex. For instance, Q-graders score more than ten aspects: acidity, clarity, body, balance, and so on. We explain the whole process over here:

Read more

I see a lot of use of fragrance, aroma, and flavor. Aren’t they the same thing?

On the coffee curb, they’re not. Fragrance refers to the smell of ground coffee while still dry, while aroma refers to the scent once you pour hot water on it. Want to know what flavor stands for?

I sure do