Why specialty coffee professionals should be using cupping forms more often

You rarely will find me having a really strong opinion about something, cause I am pretty open to change my mind if I discover more information about the topic.

Nevertheless this one for me is pretty solid.

sca cupping form and le nez du cafe

But first – a story.

I’ve been dedicating some of my time in the last couple of month to choosing specialty coffee and designing the the offerings of the company, the way they would be easy to understand from the customer point of view. After all, my goal is to make it easy for the customer to understand what to expect and not to expect from a certain coffee, and what exactly he is looking for.

And I found out something that for me seemed almost scandalous.

In 2020, with the specialty coffee scene booming, all the magazines, coffee specialists, when we are discussing the smallest details of how many holes the paper filter has – so, apparently it is pretty hard to find verified cupping scores when you want to purchase specialty coffee.

I mean, really.

Something technical, something of a great help for the buyer, something that I absolutely need if I am being dedicated and methodical in constructing my menu.

Because what cupping scores really mean? The quality of the cup, in the best case scenario. In the worst case scenario, a confirmation that the coffee being sold is actually specialty.

Imagine, that I want to optimize my work, and instead of spending my time choosing, roasting and cupping all the samples, I want just the ones that are higher than 85. For my personal reasons.

There are some companies that do it this way, and those ar my favorite, serously, I am so grateful for that.

But funny enough, it seems pretty hard to find this kind of approach. Like, really hard to find and talk the numbers. In most of the cases they don’t even exist, sometimes they are hidden and you have to really look for them… It is a real pain in the ass. Lots of time lost, and I found, to my sincere surprise, that we are not actually speaking the same language, despite of all of the attempts of the Coffee Quality Institute.
And then I receive an email with this title. “Why is a descriptive cupping form necessary?”

There comes an article about how cupping is boring and hard to learn fast when you have to use the numbers, and about a new cupper that is asking the master why this coffee is 7.25 and this one is 7, and the answer is not obvious to her, and in the end the cupping scores are 85, 84,25, 83,75 – the numbers are so close, and the coffees are so different, etc And that it would be much easier using a descriptive cupping form instead of using the numbers.

And I got really, really furious.

I mean, seriously?

I will explain where for me the difficulty lies here. Let’s imagine that I want to buy a coffee. And I know more or less the taste profile: I want something nutty and chocolaty profile with some red fruit notes there. Fresh crop, obviously.

And I find like 15 coffees from the same region saying that in the descriptors.

So what now? Choosing the ones with the names that I like the most? That sounds better?

The thing is that a nutty, chocolaty red fruit profile scored at 80, 83, 85 and 88 are very, very, very different coffees. The descriptors there might be used the same, but the cup will be totally different. And descriptors are not gonna be of a great help here.

And if I already have an idea of what kind of complexity coffee I want – at that point I would be reaching for the numbers.

And if no – ok I’ll asking for those 15 samples, to roast and decide myself, if I really need and want this profile from that particular seller. Which is loads of extra work and lots of time lost.

So you can understand my state when I found that article in my mailbox. We need a descriptive scale! Oh my lord….

Yes, cupping is a skill, using a SCA cupping form is a skill – and that’s why coffee professional is coffee professional – it takes some time to learn the basics (and I consider cupping to be the basics of sensory evaluation). It is not supposed to be easy for an untrained person to enter the cupping room, and hit all the scores right from the first time. More than that, it is completely insane it even imagine something like this being possible.

You cannot demand a novice to feel comfortable with the SCA form, and a simple fact that he or she is not doesn’t mean that we have to change it, and by we I mean coffee professionals that really rely on these scores when doing our job, not simply a recreational cupping when you are just saying “This coffee is tasty, and this coffee is even tastier”

A good point there is that in specialty we are really operating between 80 and 95, or even 93 in most of the cases – and it is hard to put the whole world of specialty coffee in so little space. We end up with little space for the maneuver, it is true.

So I would put it differently, if you allow me to.

We are ready for a better SCA cupping form.

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