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New and Improved – The Future of Coffee Rating

August 5, 2010

When I’m not working on RoastLog business, I am the assistant editor at Coffee Review and a coffee consultant with Kenneth Davids Consulting. When people ask me what I do for a living I usually pause for a moment and then finally say, I’m a coffee taster. It’s a lot easier than saying I cup, evaluate, write, train, make purchasing recommendations, assure quality, sample roast and so on. In the end it is coffee tasting that informs my work life.

Every coffee taster has to establish a protocol that will facilitate assessment of different attributes of coffees being sampled. We need this in order to determine which one of a group of coffees tastes best and to help us remember how last season’s lot compares to the new crop arrivals. Although you can take notes any number of places, more often than not a cupping form comes into play.

Depending on the purpose, I use a number of different formats to assess and rate coffee. Although I regularly use the Coffee Review cupping form, I also find the need to use other forms such as the ones promoted by SCAA, CQI and Cup of Excellence. In addition to these well established formats I often use custom forms that have been developed for clients based on the profiles of specific coffees. Which one is best? You’ll probably find as many opinions as there are cuppers. Often the one that is preferred is the one that is used the most, even if it is riddled with inelegance. For me, each one serves a unique purpose, and part of being a professional cupper is knowing how to use them all.

Many of these forms tabulate a score out of 100 points, with anything above 80 qualifying as specialty coffee. Despite the fact that I use this type of scoring mechanism on a daily basis, I find that the numbers themselves have limited utility. What seems so much more significant to me are the words I use to describe what I taste. Unfortunately a string of descriptors is virtually impossible to quantify and that is one of the reasons why numerical scoring has taken on such prominence in the world of coffee evaluation.

At RoastLog we are challenged with designing an easy to use cupping format that will satisfy the needs of the greatest number of users. We have taken a step toward this end by providing those who use RoastLog with the ability to define their own form. If you prefer the term “mouthfeel” over “body” then you can change it. If you think it’s ridiculous to fill in a “clean cups” field when you’re cupping production roasts then you can eliminate it. If all you care to consider is “aroma, flavor and aftertaste” you can do that too. And for those who prefer words above all, there is ample space for note taking.

But really this is just a starting point and we have already received many requests for iPhone and iPad applications. We are compiling a list and we are imagining how new applications will look and function within the RoastLog system. We are happy to hear from anyone who cups on how we can make our cupping application even better.

When we stop thinking within the confines of existing cupping formats and start thinking about new ways to understand what we taste, things start getting interesting. I find that I frequently get into a rut with my flavor descriptors, often relying on comfortable and reliable terms to define what I taste. Tasting with others and discussing flavor is an invigorating way to refresh your terminology files. This gave me an idea. I imagine that someday RoastLog could do essentially the same thing. By storing a comprehensive library of terms, cuppers could drill down from a mundane word like “spicy” to an exhaustive, though well categorized, list of terms that would include types of spices such as: “cinnamon, thyme, clove, nutmeg, rosemary and pepper.” We’d have to figure out a way to make the user interface easy to use but, I’m curious what people think about this idea. What other ways can you think of to explain what we taste? Forget the existing methods for a moment and imagine other possibilities. We have a blank slate to create something exciting together!

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Rich Avella permalink
    August 5, 2010 10:27 am

    How about a form that allows the user to fill in (or choose from) fragrance/break/flavor/body/finish/etc descriptors and then rate the presence or prominence of each on a numerical scale.

    For instance, a roaster could track impressions of what attracted her to a specific coffee on the customized-to-that-coffee form, and then in each subsequent tasting she could evaluate how it’s measuring up.

    -Rich

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  2. crackedconcrete permalink
    August 7, 2010 12:17 pm

    The two formats we use are 1) for green buying (quality/defects) using SCAA format and point scale and 2) for production roasts/ QC looking at roast degree, and overall finished product.

    I would like a portable device (iPhone/iPad) where you can enter cupping notes into those formats and store in a central database. Help calibrate a cupping team or communicate to Importers. Writing notes on a piece of paper and then transferring to spreadsheet is redundant.

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  3. tedstachura permalink
    August 10, 2010 4:56 pm

    Thanks for the feedback!

    Rich – The custom cupping forms I use in consulting work help a great deal in determining the intensity of various sensory characteristics. Not only for production roasts/QA but also in buying green for blending. I can see implications for this with RoastLog since each batch of coffee that is roasted can have specific cupping notes attached to it. Over the course of time, you can analyze the changes of a particular coffee – both based on fading as the crop year progresses and also on any changes you make to the profile… perhaps based on what you taste.

    crackedconcrete – For your production roasts/QC testing do you use any scoring or ranking mechanism?
    Since RoastLog is primarily web based you can actually take cupping notes on an iPad already. In theory it could work on an iPhone too but the user interface was not designed for the small screen so it would be very frustrating at the moment.
    I really like the idea of connecting roasters/buyers with importers to facilitate communication about cupping results. Almost like a social or business networking tool for coffee professionals.

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  4. crackedconcrete permalink
    August 13, 2010 9:08 pm

    For production roasts I will score it against the original cupping score and make notes on the roast. For example, the coffee was originally an 85, but this roast came in around 83 than something was a miss. Truthfully it not an apples to apples scenario score. The quality of the coffee did not go down per se, but the roast profile did not meet target.
    I definitely think importers and buyers should use the same SCAA scale because you are determining the value of the coffee. Some will share their scores, some won’t.

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