Coffee Cupping & Coffee Quality Score, Explained – Spirit Animal Coffee

The coffee tasting and scoring methodology, known as coffee cupping, has been developed by the Specialty Coffee Association, and the grades are given to coffees by certified samplers called Q-graders. I has been adopted by major prominent coffee institutions like the Alliance for Coffee Excellence / Cup of Excellence auctions. To master the scaa cupping protocol, Q-graders must go through arduous and lengthy training to earn their titles.

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

Coffee cupping step 1: 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, coffee mold) 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 coffee beans. Find six broken ones—and you’re out.

Caffee trail

The cupping process

Coffee cupping step 2: The Coffee Tasting Process

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

The coffee beans should be ground right before the cupping, with an ideal coffee to water 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 coffee quality score from 0 to 10 according to the following criteria:

Coffee 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.

Coffee 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.

Flavor 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.

Coffee Acidity

Highly praised coffees are usually not intensely acidic, but the cupping 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 cupping score.

Coffee 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


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


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 coffee quality score.

Cupping process criteria

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.

Flavor 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.


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 coffee score.

Defects (yes, again)

As with green bean appraisal, the panelists can detract the points during coffee 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.

Coffee Cupping Step 3: The final score

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

The final score

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

Wrapping Up on Coffee Cupping: What do all these numbers and scores tell us, really?

The most important thing that the coffee cupping process tells us is that going from 80 to 90 coffee quality score is not a linear progression.

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

Cupping score conclusions

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 coffee beans are outstanding enough to make it into the 90+ points hall of fame.

Want to know more about the science behind your coffee’s flavor?

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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