When you’ve been doing something for a while, you become compelled to step back and take a look to make sure you’re doing something worthwhile and that you’re doing it the right way.” This sentiment is especially true if you’re a perfectionist. Although I have grudgingly abandoned the idea of achieving self-perfection, I seem to still expect it of systems: iPhones, computers, cable TV, bean to cup coffee machines,—and cupping. Coffee cupping—as our industry’s formal and, thus far, only universally agreed-upon sensory quality assessment tool that has very real financial implications—is an ideal system to use, right?
The industry feels that it has made huge progress over the last decade, but perfection in cupping is probably as likely as perfection in me. As an industry, we may need to pursue the next evolution of cupping and, at the very least, we need some reflection and realignment.
Why We Cup
Before we dig into some of the reasons for re-evaluation of the cupping process, let’s look at some of the reasons why we cup in the first place. According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s cupping curriculum, we cup coffees for the following reasons:
- Quality and price discovery
- Subject to Approval of Sample (SAS) applications
- Quality assurance (incorporating roast profiling, as well as consistency monitoring)
- Palate enrichment
These are some valuable motivations—particularly those that influence which coffees are bought and sold and at what prices. And, as Brian Spencer, green coffee sourcing manager at My Virtual Coffee, House states, “Cupping provides a simple tool for evaluating multiple samples in a convenient time frame and with a minimum required sample size.”
Without spending any more time acknowledging the value and need for cupping, we can probably all agree that we need to have a formal, efficient system for evaluating coffees.
Below is an excellent introduction to coffee cupping.
Is the Cupping Process Working?
Short answer: yes. More accurate answer: not wholly.
As Phillip Beven, founder of California based Oasis Coffee, says, “It’s so amazing to go to origin and be able to speak the same language.” This simple statement reflects what’s generally working with cupping. We have developed an industry language that allows us to understand each other across borders. This language of ours includes vocabulary and numbers—i.e., descriptors and scores—which theoretically help us agree on an objective coffee quality. From here, we can make informed buying and selling decisions that allow our businesses to succeed while, in turn, securing the growth of specialty within the greater coffee industry.
Getting back to the longer and more realistic answer of “not wholly,” however, imperfections of the cupping process are many—from protocols to calibration to bias.
“Protocols” is the term generally adopted within our industry to identify the best practice/industry guidelines for preparing a formal cupping. Protocols for consistency in roast degree, steeping time, grind degree, water quality and temperature, lighting, and many other factors exist to ensure that a cupping session is as scientific as possible, thereby yielding (in theory) objective results. Because coffee tasting is inherently rife with uncontrollable variables, such as the differences between tasters (taste buds, taste experience, psychology and physiology to name a few), it’s particularly important to identify and systematically manage these controllable variables.
The SCAA, Cup of Excellence and CQI training programs, among other programs and companies in the coffee industry, have done an excellent job instilling cupping protocols around the globe in recent years. Although these organisations impart slight variation in protocols, they generally espouse similar guidelines, and all agree that consistent practices from session to session are critical. However, “in general, scientific practices are not consistently followed in most cupping labs,” says G.D. O’Mally, founder of Café Truce Columbia, a coffeehouse in Bogota, and the chair of the SCAA’s professional cupper development committee. “This introduces unacceptable margin for errors in extraction and flavour development in the cup,” O’Mally notes.
Indeed, my own impetus for writing this article came from my frustrations owing to variant protocols in a lab setting. Earlier this year, I found myself participating in origin cuppings where some important, basic protocols weren’t followed.
The intention to host a formal cupping was very clear, and these producers (unlike most around the globe) had appropriate equipment and the general setup for professional cupping. (Credit must go to dedicated NGO, industry partners, and government organisations around the world for devotedly dispensing cupping training and supplies in recent decades.) Nonetheless, training and/or resources simply didn’t support meticulous analysis. In these cases, water temperature wasn’t monitored, roast degrees between samples were wide, and cuppers did not rinse their spoons from cup to cup.
There were more problems than these, but these particular inconsistencies stuck out as highly problematic. Could I really make an informed buying decision or even provide helpful commentary about coffees where so many influential variables were uncontrolled? (Note: A buying decision on the ground at origin is separate from a final pre-shipment sample approval process.)
To be clear, protocol lapses are in no way limited to origin-side operations. I posit that many professional coffee buyers and sellers don’t maintain proper protocols 100 percent of the time and some
don’t even attempt them.