When I first started A Table in the Corner of the Cafe, a fellow coffee blogger in Florida offered to help me get the Table off the ground by allowing me to post guest reviews on his website, Daily Shot of Coffee. After reading one of my posts, I can’t remember which, one of his dedicated readers sent me an email and firmly told me that I “have to score the coffees” I review for my readers. Otherwise, they won’t know whether or not they’d be interested in trying them.
I thought about that for a while, and I even tried to implement a scoring system at the Table for a while. Most of the other coffee bloggers I know have scoring systems, after all – 5 cup ratings, 100 point scales, 10 point bean systems, etc.
In the end, though, I decided to rest on my laurels – being one of the few coffee lovers that keeps no score.
One Score and Ten Years Ago…
Back in the early 1980’s, the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) mandated that a coffee that scores 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, “reasonably free of defects” was a marker for what defined specialty coffee. However, in the past 30 or so years, a lot has changed – particularly at the farm level. Vast improvements have been made in the past three decades and it seems nowadays, when it comes to coffee scoring, 85 should be the new 80.
A very small (but growing) number of farms are putting much more emphasis on taking care in what they pick, how the coffee is processed, and how it is sorted. Back in 1983, when Lingle came up with his scoring sheet, it was nearly impossible to find a farm doing what a typical high end Nicaraguan, El Salvador, or Rwandan farm is doing today. Of course, 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.
Just click your way over to coffeereview.com and peruse some of their posts – it seems that the 90 point barrier has been smashed with reckless abandon. Nowadays, anyone can get a good score, whereas just a few years ago, I remember that 88 was a pretty coveted number. For example, this review from coffeereview.com is for the low-end, off-the-grocery-store-shelf coffee company Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (producers of K-Cups, even):
Roast: Medium-Dark Review Date: January 2012 Origin: Colombia Price: $9.49/12 ounces
Blind Assessment: Unusual and complex aromatics. Intense, sweetly pungent, slightly savory: blackberry, black currant, lemon, cedar, cocoa. Gentle, tartly sweet acidity; lightly syrupy mouthfeel. Flavor fades a bit in the pleasantly round finish.
Notes: This coffee is certified Fair Trade, meaning it was purchased from small-holding farmers at a “fair” or economically sustainable price. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters is one of the country’s leading specialty roasters, offering a particularly wide-ranging variety of origins and roast styles. Visit www.greenmountaincoffee.com or call 800-223-6768 for more information.
Who Should Drink It: Coffee romantics. Exotic aroma and flavor notes make this coffee more African than Colombian.
How is it that this grocery brand coffee can keep up with (and in some cases, even outscore) some of the best specialty coffee providers out there? We are living in strange times, indeed.
Scoring the Public Can Understand
All of this lingo can be quite confusing. I’d predict that even a lot of people that read this blog are right now wondering what all of this bugaboo means: “Eighty five points – what does that mean? Who’s Ted Lingle? What’s the SCAA? Who defines that? Why should I care? How does this pertain to me?” The biggest problem with coffee companies ascribing scores to their coffees is that there isn’t much of a way for the general public to understand what these scores mean.
Do you know who Robert Parker is? You’ve probably heard of Wine Advocate, at least. Robert Parker came up with a wine-scoring system that has been used or at least modified by much of the wine industry; this system rates wines on a 100 point scale as a means to inform the consumer which wine is good and which wine isn’t. Have you ever walked into a wine store and saw bottles ranked at 88, or 90, or even 97 and thought “Well, these people like it so I probably will too!”? Do you know what that score means or how it’s determined?
If you don’t know, it’s incredibly easy to find out. Just do a Google search. Instantly, you’ll find a list of results with easy to understand guides like this one. However, there is no guide for specialty coffee – it simply doesn’t exist. Sure, there are a lot of blogs out there that have their own guides that you can find easily enough, but the SCAA has never published a “guide to coffee scores” for the everyday consumer.
When Robert Parker gives a wine an 86 point score, that’s easy to understand. Coffee – less so. And for an industry that’s trying so hard to be as widely acceptable as a snobbish institution as wine is, that’s a problem for the SCAA.
Educating the Consumer
The Specialty Coffee Association of America plays to itself.
The score sheet that Ted Lingle designed has never been explained to the public, because it wasn’t designed for the public. It’s, simply put, simply an arbitrary way for coffee buyers, cuppers, and other industry insiders to rate the coffees they drink.
This guide, by no means, educates the consumer. If anything, it lets them off the hook.
Consumers see a 90 on a bag of Rwandan coffee, and they think “Hey, wow! That coffee sounds fantastic!”, not realizing that a Brazilian coffee that scores a 90 isn’t going to taste the same as a Sumatra that scores a 90. They’re not going to taste anything alike for a wide variety of reasons – the consumer isn’t provided any context for the reasons why these coffees are scored the way they are. They just see a big fat 90 staring at them.
And you can bet that the typical consumer isn’t going to investigate this number for him/herself. They’re not going to study the effects of rainfall, humidity, shade, elevation, soil, varietal, harvest conditions, etc., etc., etc. They’re just going to say, “Oh, a 90! That sounds like a wonderful coffee.”
Subjectivity vs. Objectivity
Let’s face it – everyone’s a critic. There is no question about that. The question, then, is one of objectivity versus subjectivity in a field where being subjective is the objective.
I have a difficult time with professional critics in almost any field. I can’t even begin to explain how upset I get when I listen to NPR’s Sound Opinions and the two critics totally blast one of my favorite albums. The same applies to coffee – I get so angry when someone tells me that their Caribou coffee is the greatest they’ve ever had. But here’s the thing – that may very well be the way they like their coffee to taste. That person might not be as hung up on flavor and aroma and acidity as specialty coffee drinkers are.
Everybody has a different palate. My best friend loves tuna – I loathe tuna. He also loves Starbucks – I loathe Starbucks. Judging on a 100 point scale, he’s inevitably going to give any Starbucks coffee a 90+ rating – I’m inevitably going to give it a -60. So whose assessment is correct? Furthermore, some people have more refined palates. I can pick up a lot of tastes that others can’t, and there are others that can pick up a lot of tastes that I can’t. In this scenario, who’s tasting the coffee correctly?
The Table’s Decision
I think that the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s scoring system is outdated and non-consumer friendly. And when it comes to coffee bloggers’ scoring systems, I think that these numbers and scores and ratings are completely arbitrary – if a professional (who was highly trained, is highly respected, and has an amazing palate and knowledge of descriptors) assigned a low number to a coffee, odds are you wouldn’t even have the opportunity to drink it, because a specialty coffee provider isn’t going to carry something that scored poorly; if that same professional gave a coffee a high number, I think we can all agree that it’s probably an objectively good cup of coffee – we don’t need to be told again.
I’m more interested in how it tastes – I’ll decide for myself if I’ll be interested in it or not.
I must apologize to the reader who sent me that email so long ago – here at the Table, you will never see me dole out an arbitrary point scale. No mugs, no stars, no beans, no points – nothing. I will taste the coffee, and I will describe the coffee to the best of my palate’s ability. At the very, very most, I will tell whether or not I think you should spend your hard-earned money on it.