Scoring the public can understand
I got into one of my favourite topics of discussion today on Twitter with Kyle Glanville from Intelligentsia, Sam Jones from 2% Jazz, and even Nick Cho waded in a bit - scoring coffees.
In the Specialty Coffee world, the SCAA has mandated (back in 1983ish) that a coffee scoring 80 points or more (on Ted Lingle’s cuppers scorer sheet) is “Specialty Coffee”. At 80 points, a coffee is reasonably free of defects, and for a long time, “free of defects” was a marker for what defined specialty coffee.
The thing is, coffee has progressed a lot from that time. Defects are a huge, massive problem in the world of coffee, but less so today than it was in 1983, at least in the specialty segment. Specialty as in a very small (but growing) number of farms taking care in what they pick, how the coffee is processed, and how it is sorted. In 1983, it was nearly impossible to find a farm doing what a typical high end Nicaraguan, El Salvador, or Rwandan farm is doing today.
Don’t get me wrong. Farms doing coffee right is still a rarity: perhaps only 1-3% of farms in most producing countries are doing “the right things” today. But the production of true specialty coffee at the farm level is much more prevalent today than it was in 1983.
I believe that the 80 point standard (based on Lingle’s cupping scoresheet) is dated. I would love to see the industry move towards 85 points as a baseline for true specialty coffee, and 80-85pts is the realm of “near specialty” for companies like Starbucks, Second Cup, etc.
But I bet a lot of what I wrote above is gobblygook to many of you. “what is 85pts?” “Who defines that?” “How is it scored?”. “what’s the relevance to me?”
Are you familiar with Wine Advocate’s point scoring system for wine? Ever walk into a wine store and see a wine scored 88 points, 90 points and think “okay, they like it, I will too!” Do you understand that point scoring system?
You may or may not, but I think a lot of the specialty wine buying public understands that Robert Parker’s wine scoring system (adopted or modified by much of the wine world) means stuff that scores over 85 is damned good, and stuff that scores over 90 points is awesome.
But here’s the real crux: if you don’t know how the wine scoring system works, it’s easy enough to find out - simple google searches yield easy to understand results like this.
That doesn’t exist for coffee. If anything, you turn up way too complex and geeked out results that show a lot of insider talk (“what the heck is bright?”) or a raft of charts and graphs that mean nothing to the average specialty coffee consumer. A 91 point Robert Parker wine score is easy to define; a 91 point coffee? Less so.
For far too long, the specialty coffee industry has been playing to itself. The SCAA score sheet has never been consumer friendly or even consumer designed. The CoE score sheet even less so - they are designed for roasters - the people who buy green coffee. People in the biz like to talk about “oh, the ability of the scorer influences the score”.
There have been efforts by some to do a more consumer friendly scoring system or website: I won’t mention the most popular one out there, because I have issues with a website and scoring system that gives 90+ points to stale, mass packaged Italian coffees, or capsules. I will say the most prominent example of “scoring coffees for the consuming public” online today is extremely flawed, and skews very badly on its scores, not jiving at all with what the industry scores internally.
At some point, specialty coffee (lead by the SCAA, SCAE, ASCA etc) will need to develop a universal scoring system that pays as much attention to the buying public as it does to the green coffee buyer. Or if not developed by the trade organizations, perhaps it can be developed by Specialty Coffee’s version of Robert Parker.
Who is Specialty Coffee’s Robert Parker? He or she doesn’t exist yet. Well, they may exist (I can think of a few candidates - and they are in the UK and Ireland) but they haven’t tackled this weighty issue yet, as far as I know.