What Is Specialty Coffee?

Part III: Tasting your way to quality

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Recently, we discussed how to define specialty coffee. Now, we’re taking a deeper look into cupping—the method of tasting that professionals use to evaluate the sensory qualities of brewed coffee. It’s the second of two ways to determine whether or not a coffee is specialty.  

Cupping: The Coffee Industry’s Way to Taste

Industry standards are to taste five cupping bowls of the same coffee.

Industry standards are to taste five cupping bowls of the same coffee.

Once Carly Ahlenius, Blue Bottle’s Green Coffee Specialist and Lab Manager, evaluates a green coffee sample according to industry standards, it’s time to roast and taste the coffee in a process known as cupping.

Cupping, which is standard across the coffee industry, is the process by which a single coffee brewed in five different cups as an immersion (think French press rather than pour over), and judged according to ten fixed categories.

It’s a ritual that can seem odd at first. Hot water that is two-hundred degrees Fahrenheit (give or take two degrees) is poured over coffee grounds placed in five adjacent cups. Minutes later, the crust of grounds that rose to each cup’s surface is broken, releasing the coffee’s aromas, and then removed with spoons. At each stage, people like Carly and her team bend over, studiously sniffing the aroma. Once the coffee has cooled to an appropriate temperature, they begin slurping the coffee from specially designed spoons.

An integral part of determining whether or not a coffee qualifies as specialty, cupping is the method we use to evaluate all of our coffees, from our single origins to our blends (and blend components). Our entire coffee team cups regularly, gleaning indispensable information from the process. Based on the intention of the cupping, we may learn that one green coffee is holding up better than another and switch around our single origin menu; our roasters may alter a coffee’s roast profile in order to match our menu’s needs; or, in Carly’s case, she may discover a new coffee from an unsolicited sample sent by a farmer new to us.   

Roasting for Accuracy, not Deliciousness

Carly determines the roast level for a sample roast.

Carly determines the roast level for a sample roast.

To prepare a sample of green coffee for cupping, Carly first has to sample roast it. While the coffees we serve in cafes may be roasted with an eye toward developing body, sweetness, or acidity, sample roasts are intended to present a coffee for what it is, independent of significant roast influences.  

“My goal when presenting a coffee to my team is that the roast level does not distract from any unique attributes, allowing us to score it accurately and fairly,” explains Carly.

One way to think of sample roasting is by likening it to a cook tasting her ingredients. After selecting the heaviest citrus fruit or the plumpest tomatoes at the market, a cook might taste her ingredients before she starts cooking to confirm their deliciousness. Before she cooks her tomatoes, or just serves them with a little salt or vinegar, she’ll first taste an unadorned slice in order to assess the fruit’s intrinsic qualities.

There’s no way around the fact that coffee has to be roasted in order to be tasted. But a sample roast’s light profile gives us a clearer picture of the coffee itself, and helps to ensure that all coffees are judged on equal footing.

Categorizing to Eliminate Bias

The “crust” of grounds on a cupping bowl

The “crust” of grounds on a cupping bowl

For an everyday coffee drinker, deciding whether or not a coffee tastes good is as simple as “yes” or “no.” For professionals, however, personal preference must be set aside.

It’s Carly and her team’s job to determine the objective qualities of our coffee. To do this, they rely upon ten qualitative categories: fragrance and aroma, aftertaste, acidity, body, balance, uniformity, cleanliness, sweetness, and overall quality. To qualify as a specialty coffee, a sample must earn a score of eighty or above out of a possible one-hundred points.

While some might question how something like the taste of coffee can be standardized, organizations like the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), and World Coffee Research (WCR) are behind a collaborative effort to define, as precisely as possible, what it takes to be considered “specialty.” Together, these organizations have created a rubric for the physical and sensory evaluation of coffee. Regardless of how much evaluators enjoy the taste of coffee, it requires practice to learn how to parse the specific attributes of a drink that to many may only taste like “just coffee.”

“Sensory standards are necessary because sensory defects can negatively affect our guest’s overall experience,” says Carly. “While there’s not always a clear correlation between the physical defects in green coffee and the way that coffee tastes, any defects perceived in cupping correlate directly to the evaluator’s perception of quality and consistency of that coffee.”

“Sensory standards also give us an idea of how well the coffee was handled during the harvest and processing stages. There are a few very distinct negative flavors that can be tasted while cupping, often times caused by just one or a few defective beans. We cup five bowls of individually ground coffee in order to isolate any off flavors. The hope is that by having five samples, one of the bowls will reflect the effect of the defective bean, if it is present at all in the sample roast. When this happens, depending on the severity of the sensory defect, it's likely the coffee's quality score will be significantly punished to the point where it is no longer considered specialty, which is a score of 80 and above.”

Cupping Takes Practice

Carly assessing the fragrance of the coffee

Carly assessing the fragrance of the coffee

Carly is among six resident Q Graders at Blue Bottle. In the world of coffee, this designation is similar to that of a wine sommelier. While the SCA defines the standards of specialty coffee, it’s CQI that trains the Q Graders who enforce them. Still, Carly clarifies, it’s not necessary to be a Q Grader to be able to evaluate coffee at the sensory level.

“It really comes down to building up your sensory memories of particular profiles,” says Carly, “like the tendency for Ethiopia washed coffee to taste floral and delicate, or Kenya coffees to taste bright, herbaceous, or even tropical.”

“At the same time, you’re also developing a shared vocabulary with your colleagues so that when one person says ‘enzymatic’ or ‘gamey,’ you have a calibrated idea of what they mean.”

Carly and many others at Blue Bottle emphasize that it all comes down to practice. As Training Program Manager Pele Aveau puts it, “Developing your palate takes exercise, just like building a muscle.”   

Does the Score Tell the Whole Story?

Like any system of assessment, with cupping, there’s room for interpretation. But for Blue Bottle’s coffee team, there’s no way of getting around the results of the sensory evaluation. The question “Is this coffee delicious?” influences all of our purchasing decisions. Nevertheless, a coffee’s cupping score can never tell the whole story, and it’s possible for a coffee’s physical evaluation to diverge from its sensory score.  

For instance, in Sumatra, the local method of wet-hull processing tends to produce many more physical defects in coffee than would be acceptable in other parts of the world. But as long as one is familiar with the typical flavors of a Sumatra coffee, which tends to be on the earthy side, the physical defects may have little effect on the cupping score. In other words, what matters most is that a coffee is delicious, consistent, and representative of its expected profile.

Why Standards Matter

Sometimes, a coffee’s high regard seems arbitrary—for instance, why does a single origin from Panama garner such a high price? Or why are washed Ethiopia coffees considered to be among the finest on earth?

While everyone’s allowed a subjective favorite, with scores closer to ninety points, these coffees are not just consistent; their profiles are more expressive and truly unique. For people who scrutinize the nuanced differences between coffees every day, such distinctiveness can be mesmerizing.

Whether you’re after expressive single origins or comforting blends, if it meets specialty standards, you’re drinking some of the best coffee in the world. Such good fortune doesn’t just benefit those of us lucky enough to be near a cafe—for a farmer, selling coffee for specialty prices can mean the difference between losing money and actually making a sustaining profit.  

Learn more about developing your own coffee palate, a skill that’s available to everyone with a little practice.