coffee bean selction

Coffee Scoring: How Do They Do It?

Specialty coffee is undoubtedly at the height of its popularity today. Essentially, these are coffees with high scores. Towards which many coffee connoisseurs (like ourselves) have started gravitating. Its increase in demand indicates that the potentially complex flavors of a bean are being appreciated by coffee lovers everywhere. But to ascertain the quality & complexity of a cup of coffee, we need to go to the source; the origin. 

Coffee is influenced by an incessant number of factors during harvesting (climate, producer’s experience & passion, elevation, soil, varietal, terroir, etc.). It’s also important for the producer to be well-informed and skilled in the ways of processing. Harvesting at peak maturation/ripeness, drying, milling, and storage come to play in the game of specialty coffee quality control.

High-scoring coffees are often accompanied by an equally elevated price tag and can prove to be quite intimidating to work with. Sourcing, analyzing, and profiling these beans is no easy task, but with the added requirement for maintaining consistency, the responsibility becomes herculean. Meeting these criteria gives a producer the means to contend for an award-winning bean or at least score enough points to be labeled as ‘specialty coffee’. But who decides and how do they decide?

cup of specialty coffee

Several entities evaluate and grade coffee, but the major ones are the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) & Cup of Excellence (CoE). Both of these organizations house thousands of professionals from producers to baristas under their wing. Each of them are experienced and qualified to grade a cup of coffee.

Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) – Coffee Scoring Protocol

The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) [Estd. 1982] & the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) [Estd. 1998] were unified in 2017 to form the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). They have an unrelenting protocol that’s suited to accurately score a coffee bean.

Scoring is based on two parameters; the green bean & its resulting cup of coffee. Green Coffee Grading Protocols follow the SCA Green Arabica Coffee Classification System (GACCS) and the SCA Defect Handbook. If a bean’s imperfection is not found in the handbook, it will not be considered a defect. For a sample size of 350 grams, a specialty-grade bean should have zero Category 1 and no more than five Category 2 defects. The total number and type of defects encountered by the primary grader and the verification grader are noted, after which the beans are labeled as either specialty grade or below specialty grade.

coffee bean defects

The resulting cup of coffee follows cupping protocols. The roasting process, measurements, preparation, and pouring standards are pre-determined to level the playing field. Once the samples are brewed and cupped, the graders proceed to assess the sensory experience of the coffee. In theory, points are awarded on a 0 to 10 point system. Although in practice, scoring happens between 6 and 9.75 with one-quarter increments making it a 16-point scale (6, 6.25, 6.5, 6.75, 7, and so on). 

The parameters upon which the coffee is evaluated:

  1. Fragrance/Aroma
  2. Flavor
  3. Aftertaste
  4. Acidity
  5. Body
  6. Balance
  7. Uniformity
  8. Clean Cup
  9. Sweetness
  10. Overall

Each of these parameters carries different magnitudes that contribute to the final score. Specific attributes are positive scores of quality reflecting the cuppers’ judgment; Defects are the detected unpleasant flavors warranting a negative score; ‘Overall’ represents the individual cuppers’ appraisal.
SCA coffee parameters

To accurately apply a numerical value to a defect, it needs to be classified as a “taint” or a “fault”. The former is indicative of a slight off-flavor or aroma and is quantified with an intensity value of 2. Whereas “faults” are overwhelming off-flavors that warrant an intensity rating of 4. To arrive at the total value of defects, the intensity is multiplied by the number of cups in which said defect was found. If 2 cups contain “fault” level defects, a value of 2 x 4 = 8 would represent the defect value.

The total of all individual scores is called ‘Total Score’, and defects are then subtracted to arrive at the ‘Final Score’. Based on this value, the quality of the coffee is classified as such:

  • 90 – 100          Outstanding – Specialty
  • 85 – 99.99       Excellent – Specialty
  • 80 – 84.99       Very Good – Specialty
  • less than 80   Below Specialty Quality – Not Specialty

The perfect score: 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 – 0 = 100

Cup Of Excellence (CoE) – Coffee Scoring Protocol

The conditions and regulations for cupping in Cup of Excellence (CoE) are quite similar to the SCA. However, the evaluation protocol is quite different. 8 attributes are taken into account:

  1. Clean Cup
  2. Sweetness
  3. Acidity
  4. Body
  5. Flavor
  6. Aftertaste
  7. Balance 
  8. Overall
Cup of excellence coffee parameters

Each of these characteristics is scored on a scale of 8. From 0 to 6, points are awarded in increments of 1, whereas from 6 to 8, it happens in increments of 0.5. Some attributes like acidity and body are decidedly scored on quality and the additional parameter of intensity; low, medium, and high. Defects too are evaluated using the intensity protocol. To accurately apply a numerical value to a defect, the intensity (1, 2, or 3) is multiplied by the number of cups that house a defect (in a sample size of 4) and further multiplied by 4. The result is subtracted from the final score. If 2 cups contain medium intensity defects, the effective defect value would be 2 x 2 x 4 = 16 points.

To arrive at the final CoE score, point values of the 8 attributes are added after which a coefficient of 36 is further added and the defect value is subtracted. This way the perfect total score would be 100. Coffees with more than 85 points are typically the National Contest winners and those with more than 87 points win the International Contest.

The perfect score: 8 + 8 + 8 + 8 + 8 + 8 + 8 + 8 + 36 – 0 = 100

specialty coffee tasting

To you, either of these scores represents a thorough vetting process by a trusted entity. High-scoring specialty coffees are all but guaranteed to taste amazing and far superior to your normal grocery store coffee haul. Beans of this quality are often short in supply and should you find some, cop them immediately. Speaking of which, check out our green coffee marketplace.

The specialty coffee segment is growing every year, encouraging people to start roasting their beans. Home coffee roasting tangents away from the mainstream offerings of convenience but comes with the promise of a new lifestyle and a cup of coffee in a league of its own. There is no perfect way to start roasting, it’s a choice. And we’re in the business of making this choice much easier to make. With the Bunafr Smart Home Coffee Roaster, we’ve enabled many to begin their journey of discovering the best cup of coffee in existence.

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