By Todd Mackey
There are those times that stand out amidst harder seasons. Days where the mere absence of any issue and lack of conflict can be stunningly beautiful, when “nothing immediately wrong” is wholly special and can stop one dead in their tracks. Then there are stretches where even the rain has sunshine glistening through it, those times when—just as things cannot possibly get any better—you catch the ace of spades on the river, giving you a royal flush. Without even a smile, you proceed to rake the table clean, tip your dealer generously, and walk away knowing neither you, nor anyone else at your table will be likely to see anything similar happen again for a very long time. Highs and lows, strikes and gutters—they are very much relative. It is funny how so often context governs our sense of outstanding experiences.
The global specialty coffee community, together, faces many of the same challenges at the cupping table. While identifying the best and worst samples within the context of any given lineup is a task that even many novice cuppers can succeed in, it should neither be our sole objective nor aspiration. Whether producers, traders, roasters, or anyone in between—those of us who find ourselves building the business of green coffee must have a wider and more complete perspective as we wield our spoons and record the numbers that will either qualify or disqualify coffees for the specialty grade.
Of course we know that any green coffee, sample roasted and prepared with proper cupping protocols, and scoring 80 points or greater can be called ‘specialty coffee,’ but what constitutes a professional cupper assigning this designation? Surely as specific target characteristics of specialty coffees become as diverse as the wide range of roasters aiming to buy them, we cannot rely solely on whim and subjective preference to determine what we together define as specialty coffee. We desperately need to take a collective step back to outline not only our numerical standard, but why a coffee can be rightfully awarded the grade. I believe that specialty coffee must have two critical and undeniable aspects: nothing wrong and something right. But you don’t have to take my word for it, our cupping form itself takes this position exactly!
Of the ten total attributes analyzed by the cupping form, three underwrite the baseline quality of the sample. Operating in a binary fashion, the cupper appraises the uniformity, cleanliness, and sweetness of each cup in a set of five to ensure nothing is wrong. This portion of the form is often referred to as its perfect objective. All specialty coffees should, before anything else, be uniform, clean, and sweet.
The remaining seven attributes, fragrance & aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, balance, and overall, operate on a ten-point hedonistic scale. The cupper is essentially asked to compare this particular attribute of a sample to that attribute as it performs across the full range of like-type coffees that they have evaluated historically. This is the cupper’s opportunity to identify and recognize unique characteristics in the coffee, rewarding them dimensionally for not only their complexity but also their intensity. It is this portion of the form that allows its user to differentiate very good (7+), excellent (8+), and outstanding (9+) traits of a sample in order to communicate throughout the value chain all that is right with the coffee. To quote a dear friend and colleague of mine, “When in doubt at the cupping table, take the advice we give our children while melting down and struggling to communicate… use your words!”
Let’s collaborate to agree on specialty standards, not only in concept, but also in practice. Obviously, the greater the number and wider a range of coffee qualities that a cupper has appraised, the harder it will be for any given sample to stand out from the bunch. Conversely, the fewer average and off-quality coffees a cupper has tasted, the more difficult for she or he to properly place upper tier specialty coffees relative to the full spectrum of the ten-point quality scale. While this varied landscape presents a challenge, we can celebrate it as a significant opportunity if only we opt to listen closely to one another’s varied perspectives while above all, holding the line that we have drawn at 80 points. When yielding technical feedback, we must be certain that our descriptions and scores are aligned. How can a coffee that is described as ‘inconsistent, rough, and dry’ be rewarded with 82 points while a ‘berry-like, floral, and intense’ coffee of like- type achieves only an 83.5? This inconsistency is maddening and inhibits capacity-building throughout the value chain for all stakeholders.
Similarly, while most green coffee professionals would agree that we have never before had quite so much excellent specialty coffee readily available, they would also likely argue that we are in an age of score inflation. Coffee’s complex and diverse value chain deserves massive credit for collaborating to make this so, but as the number and diversity of specialty roasters is burgeoning, we cannot let our increasingly focused and narrow points of view lead to myopic and limited definitions of the specialty standard. The industry cannot afford for it to be just as important to ask how a coffee scores as it is to inquire who signed off on its marks.
As we charge forward, let’s fully and boldly celebrate coffee for all of its potential. Let’s not shy away from accurately appraising uniform, clean, and sweet coffees that, while lacking character and boasting a solid 79-point cup, offer great value in our trade. In doing so, we stand only to increase our collective ability to differentiate exceptional coffees and more importantly, communicate clearly and meaningfully across the global value chain for the purpose of truly making coffee better.
The next time you are put on the spot to define specialty coffee, stop at four simple words—nothing wrong, something right.
Todd Mackey is an accomplished coffee cupper, barista, and roaster based in Providence, RI. He is the training manager for Olam Americas, Specialty Coffee Division. Through his years in the trade, he has specialized as a trainer to each of these segments. Todd serves as an SCA Lead Instructor and is currently the Vice Chair of the BGA Executive Council.