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If You Don’t Know Specialty Coffee, You Don’t Know Beans

Just what makes specialty coffee so dang special? The beans, you might surmise? The way the beans are roasted? The country and altitude in which the beans are harvested? Or perhaps a grading system known as coffee cupping scores?

If you guessed any of the above, you might just be on your way to becoming a barista. All of the above lead to coffee cupping scores. And the scores tell why the cup you may be drinking now is a specialty-grade coffee…or not. But what exactly is a coffee cupping score?

Here’s the scoop. In the 1980s, the Speciality Coffee Association (SCA) created a methodology and grading system to codify and rate freshly brewed coffee made from newly roasted beans on a scale from one to 100. The goal is to help coffee drinkers distinguish specialty coffee from commercial-grade coffee (the ordinary joe at your local diner, or even your favorite Starbucks latte).

The cupping process allows for an agreed-upon standard to check the quality of all coffee. But only the best—those receiving a score of 80 points or above—are deemed good enough to be designated “specialty grade coffee.”

There’s Even More To The Scores

To further standardize the scoring system, the SCA came up with a cupping form used to rate the coffee. It consists of a scorecard used by a panel of Coffee Quality Institute (CQI)-certified and SCA-endorsed coffee cupping experts known as Q graders to identify and evaluate the individual characteristics, and overall quality, of each cup. Something akin to the coffee Olympics.

Based on these SCA standards, evaluators rate the following characteristics on a scale of 1 to 10. Panelists evaluate these characteristics every 4-5 minutes, as the taste changes with temperature, before reaching a final score:

Fragrance/AromaEven non-coffee drinkers can appreciate a good coffee when they smell one. Graders evaluate the samples in two stages. First, by the fragrance of the dry ground coffee, and then by the aroma of the coffee once it’s infused with hot water.

FlavorTaste + smell. That’s what it’s all about. To determine a flavor score, graders consider each coffee sample’s intensity, quality, and complexity.

AftertasteThis is all about how the taste and aroma settle in the mouth. We’re all familiar with that negative aftertaste. If it makes your face pucker up, that’s bad.

AcidityThat’s bitter coffee. A coffee’s acidity is evaluated as soon as that first sip hits the mouth. Panelists judge acidity based on the coffee’s origin, roast, and intended use.

BodyBody quality is the way the coffee feels in the mouth. Like a savory cabernet, here graders are looking for a full-bodied coffee.

BalanceAhh, like everything in life, it’s all about balance. Putting it all together, balance refers to all aspects of a coffee’s flavor, aftertaste, acidity, and body.

SweetnessThis one’s just like it sounds, folks. No one likes a sour-tasting coffee. A deliciously sweet fullness of flavor is what we’re looking for here.

Clean CupWe’ve all heard Maxwell Coffee’s claim that it’s good to the last drop, but is it really? This is where the panelists decide which coffees pass that test. From the time the coffee hits their mouth to the final swallow, graders evaluate the overall flavor of each sample.

UniformityConsistency is key! Each panelist takes two cups of the same coffee sample to use for grading. If there is any inconsistency of taste between cups, the score goes down.

OverallNow it’s time to put it all together. Here’s where the individual panelists make their appraisals to get a holistic rating of the sample.

DefectsAnd then subtract. Panelists take away points for any negative aspects of the coffee that diminish its overall quality.

The Moment You’ve All Been Waiting For — The Final Score

Now it’s math time. Once the Q graders evaluate all of the coffee samples, they add together the individual scores to get a total. Next, they subtract any defects to determine the final coffee cupping score. If a coffee scores a total of 80 points or higher, it’s considered specialty-grade coffee. Anything less than that didn’t hit the mark.

There are different calibers of specialty coffee, too. The SCA’s scoring key describes the range of specialty-grade coffee like this:

  • 90-100 – Outstanding – Specialty
  • 85-99.99 – Excellent – Specialty
  • 80-84.99 – Very Good – Specialty
  • < 80.0 – Below Specialty Quality – Not Specialty

At Nomi, we always deal in coffee above that 80-point threshold. This means you can rely on the fact that you’re drinking a specialty coffee every time you order from us. To further guarantee that quality cup of specialty coffee, Nomi Brew works closely with our coffee producers as true partners in our mission to create holistic and sustainable transformation in the countries where we source our beans.

That’s why we can say with certainty that we’re bringing you outstanding specialty coffee every time. And that’s something YOU can feel good about every time you fill your morning cup!

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