The latest issue of Cafe Culture Magazine includes my article, “Coffee Cupping: The Good of Taste Subjectivity,” that looks that the shortcomings of traditional 100-point coffee cupping systems and urges the industry to be more inclusive with its descriptions.

Coffee Cupping: The Good of Taste Subjectivity

It’s important that we debunk the popular myth that professional coffee cuppers provide some kind of one-size-fits-all rigid 100-point coffee review that is universally accepted by enlightened consumers and coffee professionals alike. Although coffee cupping is a helpful tool for producers, roasters and retailers to diagnose and understand more about their products, as an industry we must begin to rethink how to use the information it provides more effectively and also how to present it to consumers in a more approachable and meaningful way.

Ask any coffee marketer where coffee cupping scores come from and you’ll hear grand tales of wise and gifted gustatory wizards slurping away at endless tables of coffee, instantly decoding complex flavour mysteries and assigning precise scores on a neatly organized scale between 1 and 100: 1 being the worst coffee in all of history and 100 the best imaginable in the foreseeable future. In reality, this is all far from true and also far from useful for the coffee consumer.

We each have differing sensitivity to coffee’s component molecules and interpret the electrochemical signals sent to our brains based on our unique personal experiences and biochemistry. It is not only possible but rather, likely that no two people sense the aroma and taste of coffee exactly the same way, which significantly complicates the idea of any universal standard for determining the objective meaning of “good.”

Furthermore, the reviews and reviewers themselves warrant some scrutiny. Human beings are notoriously lousy instruments for the objective evaluation of flavour, of which 75% or more is from retronasal aroma. Our tongues are equipped only to sense the five basic taste modalities: sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami (positive savoury) — possibly fatty, which is presently being debated and may be added to that list soon.

Most of coffee’s flavour sensation is detected by the 2,000 or so receptors in our nasal membranes that can distinguish somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 unique smells. That figure sounds impressive until you consider that a dog possesses a sense of smell between 10,000 to 100,000 times as acute as a human, meaning that the family pet is a far better coffee taster than you — if only we could teach Fido how to fill out the scoresheet. In the absence of man’s best friend at the coffee cupping table, including any friend or a panel of friends is advisable to capture a broader range of sensory data.

Coffee cupping evaluation systems like those developed by the Specialty Coffee Association of America and used by the Coffee Quality Institute’s Q Grader program are designed to reward the qualities that exemplify what the industry generally agrees to be most valuable and represent ideal characteristics in washed Arabica coffee: the harmonious balance of bright and intense acidity, complex aromas, flavours and mouthfeel, low bitterness and high sweetness. A mathematical 100-point scoring system is universally comfortable and easily communicated among different cultures, so scoresheets are designed, sometimes contorted to fit within that measure. Some delightful coffees processed by other methods, for example dry natural-processed or Indonesian wet-hulled coffees, are either shoehorned into the same narrow definition of quality or overlooked entirely. The same was true for the entire species of Robusta coffees until recently given their own quality differentiation system and specialty scoresheet created in a coordinated Fine Robusta effort led by the Uganda Coffee Development Authority.

Although useful for an internal evaluation of coffee and discussion among the supply chain, industry quality ratings and our arcane lexicon of coffee cupping sensory terms are of little value to consumers: at best pushing them in the direction of coffees that they may not like and worst, patronizing or belittling their opinions. What the specialty coffee industry believes to be good isn’t necessarily what people like and any heavy-handed attempt to tell them otherwise is perceived as coffee snobbery (if you can’t taste the difference or otherwise disagree with us, you’re clearly unsophisticated).

The situation, however, is not as bleak as it may seem. Knowing that we are faced with the shortcomings of a limited set of protocols in coffee cupping and a widely diverse range of consumer tastes, we can all be flexible to apply subjectivity to reviews so that they relate better to consumers and recognize that every coffee has a buyer.

Choice is key among consumers in the age of specialty foods, so coffee cupping and other tools can provide information to help guide consumers to products they will personally value most, regardless of which may be preferred by the so-called learned masters. Recognition of flavour profiles other than those preferred by coffee insiders and validation of consumers’ taste preferences will help specialty coffee expand from an exclusionary club of elite enthusiasts to serve a much larger mass audience of customers than it does today. We must shift from today’s, “we know what’s good and will tell you why,” to “here is the information you need to select what you enjoy.”

The consumer statement, “this coffee is delicious,” should be the ultimate goal of every coffee grower, every roaster and retail café, regardless of what is tabulated on any scoresheet. After all, “specialty” is not strictly a quality designation; it’s a differentiation or statement of unique value. There is nothing more valuable to business and the long-term success of an industry than an informed and happy customer.