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The Art of Coffee Rating: Understanding Cupping Scores and Specialty Coffee

Greetings, coffee enthusiasts! Today, we're delving into a topic that's close to every coffee lover's heart: cupping scores and the fascinating world of coffee rating. You've likely encountered those enigmatic numbers adorning coffee bean bags. But what's the story behind them? What secrets do they hold? Well, get ready to journey back in time to unravel the origins of cupping scores, decipher their significance, and uncover why they play a pivotal role in our quest for exquisite luxury coffee.

cupping score after coffee review

Coffee Rating: The Historical Roots of Cupping

Cupping scores aren't just a recent fad. Their roots trace back to the late 19th century – coffee-crazed San Francisco in the late 1800s, with its iconic cable cars and bustling piers. In this backdrop, Clarence E. Bickford, a green coffee broker, laid the foundation for the coffee cupping process. It's mind-blowing to think that what we know as cupping today had such humble beginnings.

The term "cupping" itself made its formal debut in William H. Ukers' legendary work, "All About Coffee", in 1922. This was a game-changer! But the icing on the cake? The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) further etched cupping into coffee history by releasing "The Coffee Cupper’s Handbook" by Ted R. Lingle in 1984.

Deciphering the Secrets Behind Coffee Rating

Cupping scores, or coffee ratings, in essence, range from 0 to 100. But here's a fun fact: No coffee ever scores a perfect 100. It's like that elusive unicorn! While coffees scoring 80 points or above earn the esteemed title of "specialty-grade", those magical beans that score 90 or above? They're the rockstars, making up less than 1% of the market. To give you a clearer picture:

  • 65-80: Think of this as Commodity Coffee. It's the backbone of supermarket blends and instant coffees.
  • 80+: This is where the magic happens. Specialty Coffee that dances with balanced, nuanced flavors.
  • 90+: The crème de la crème. These beans are the epitome of coffee perfection.

While a high coffee rating indicates quality, it's the luxury coffee sector that takes these scores and pairs them with unmatched exclusivity.

The Intricacies of Coffee Rating

So, how exactly is coffee evaluated? Cupping scores are a culmination of various attributes:

  • Aroma
  • Flavor
  • Aftertaste
  • Acidity
  • Body
  • Balance
  • Uniformity
  • Cleanliness of cup
  • Sweetness
  • Cupper points (Yes, that's a thing!)

Imagine being a judge at a coffee Olympics, with each coffee showcasing its unique skills and strengths!

The Specialty Coffee Divide

Here's a kicker: Good coffees, which are the heart and soul of the specialty coffee world, typically score between 82-88. Coffees with ratings of 80-82 points are still considered specialty grade, but they represent the lower end of the specialty spectrum.  

But any coffee that scores below 80? It's shown the exit door from the specialty club.

Cupping Scores Around the World: The Global Perspective

Did you know? The coffee regions around the globe have a distinct impact on the beans, which is beautifully reflected in cupping scores. While each region's unique terroir plays a role, the cupping score brings out the differentiators.

Africa – The Cradle of Coffee

Africa, especially Ethiopia, is often regarded as the birthplace of coffee. Beans from regions like Yirgacheffe and Sidamo have been renowned for their floral and fruity undertones, often scoring above 88. The rich history, combined with the diverse microclimates, gives African beans a unique edge in the cupping arena.

South America – The Coffee Powerhouse

Countries like Colombia and Brazil dominate the coffee export scene. While Brazil boasts a range of beans, from nutty and chocolatey to fruity, Colombian beans are often bright and juicy. Cupping scores in these regions often fluctuate between 84-89, with some exclusive lots pushing past 90.

Asia – The Dark Horse

Asian coffee-producing regions, especially Sumatra and Vietnam, have made significant strides in the specialty coffee realm. With their earthy, full-bodied profiles, they're garnering attention in cupping events, with scores often in the mid-80s. The unique processing methods, like "wet hulling" in Sumatra, add a unique twist to their scores.

In each of these regions, while many beans achieve high cupping scores, it's the luxury coffee beans that truly stand out due to their rarity and unique narratives.

The Connoisseur's Perspective: Beyond the Numbers

When I attended my first cupping session, a wise old barista whispered, "Remember, the score is just a guide; the real magic lies in the experience." Especially in the realm of luxury coffee, where every sip promises an unparalleled experience, sometimes beyond what the score indicates. Over the years, I've realized how right he was. While cupping scores provide a standardized evaluation, the true essence of coffee is its ability to evoke memories, emotions, and sensations.

Personal Anecdote: The 92 vs. 86 Dilemma

During a trip to Colombia, I had the privilege of tasting two beans side by side—one scored a whopping 92 and the other, a humble 86. While the 92 was objectively excellent, the 86 resonated more with my palate, reminding me of my grandmother's cozy kitchen. It drove home the point that scores are essential, but personal preference is paramount.

The Evolving Nature of Coffee Ratings

As coffee cultivation techniques, processing methods, and roasting practices evolve, so do the coffee ratings. What was considered an 88 a decade ago might be an 86 today. It's a dynamic realm, and as connoisseurs, we must keep our palates trained and our minds open.

Conclusion: More Than Just a Number

Diving into the world of coffee rating and the realm of luxury coffee, we're reminded of the rich tapestry that is coffee. From the birthplaces of coffee in Africa to the powerhouse producers in South America, and the unique flavors of Asia, cupping scores weave together narratives of regions, cultivation practices, and personal experiences. They serve as both a guide and a story, a testament to the labor, love, and passion poured into every bean.

But here's where the allure of luxury coffee comes into play. This ultra-premium segment of the coffee world elevates the experience to an art form, beyond conventional coffee ratings. While cupping scores might guide us to the best beans, luxury coffee is about the entire experience — the exclusivity, the story behind each cup, the nuances that make each sip an event. It's not just about tasting coffee; it's about immersing oneself in a rich, sensory journey.

But as any seasoned coffee lover knows, there's a world beyond scores—a realm of personal memories, emotions, and sensations that a number can't capture. So, as we cherish those high-scoring luxury coffees, let's also celebrate the underdogs, the unsung beans that resonate with our individual palates.

The next time you hold a bag of beans, appreciate not just its score but the journey it represents. From farm to cup, it's a story of dedication, artistry, and passion. And for those ready to explore further, the world of luxury coffee awaits, promising experiences that go beyond the ordinary. Because, in the end, life's too short for average brews. 

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