What’s the deal with cupping scores?
Cupping coffee is the process by which coffee is evaluated and scored based on (usually) 10 qualitative categories that rank coffee on a scale of 1-10, resulting in an overall score of 1-100. Part of our responsibility as green coffee suppliers is to pass useful grading (notes and scores) along to you.
(Here are the official SCA cupping protocols.)
Calibration. Coffee is almost always cupped at every stop along its journey from farm to cup. This often starts at origin and continues as the green coffee beans move along the chain from seller to buyer. But even as seasoned coffee professionals evaluate the same coffee beans, scores always vary. This is why calibration is so important.
Calibration is the intentional practice of different evaluators (cuppers) getting their personal olfactory and palate biases on the same page so they can score coffees more consistently. For example, all the coffees we cup and score are compared against our import partners who do the same.
If only one of us at Mill47 was responsible for scoring all the coffee we purchased, our scores would be biased toward that singular palate and, therefore, less objective. The more professionals evaluate the same coffee and average their scores, the more objective, accurate and useful they are. Think Yelp reviews — the more reviews, the more trustworthy.
We often cup alongside other professionals and certified “Q Graders” (essentially the coffee world’s version of a trained sommelier) who we use to keep our personal scoring tendencies more inline with consensus scoring.
Inflated Scores. We should note that it would be advantageous for anyone selling coffee (including us!) to inflate cupping scores. We see lots of examples of this through many sales channels and even by some popular evaluators. We are opposed to this primarily because we strongly believe in education, integrity and consistency in the trade. Most of the importers we work with are industry veterans and provide trustworthy scores. That said, we almost never buy a coffee we haven’t cupped ourselves because there is always more to a coffee than a number.
But What’s in a Number? Despite being on a 100-point scale, coffees do not have a normal distribution of scores like you would see on an algebra test in your high school math class. Anything below an 80 is essentially off-limits in the specialty coffee world and anything (legitimately) 90 or above will be very exceptional.
All this to say that maybe the difference between an 86 and an 87 isn’t a gigantic leap, but the gap between an 86 and an 88 is definitely noticeable. The difference between an 86 and a 92? That’s essentially the difference between a Honda and a Ferrari. You will absolutely know the difference when you get behind the wheel. Without question.
In Conclusion. Cup. Cup. Cup. Getting into the habit of cupping coffee when it gets to you is invaluable (especially if you buy wholesale and run a more established coffee roasting operation). Don’t just take our word for it, or anyone else’s for that matter. Slurp and spit and see for yourself.
If you need a refresher, here’s our Deep Dive article on Evaluating Coffee, and check out our Resources for PDF’s of cupping forms and more.