Cupping the coffee you farm will give you valuable insights. It can suggest the type of market and buyer it’s suited to, as well as what price it could fetch. Cupping can also help you improve your production and processing methods. You’ll be able to make informed changes to your processes and evaluate their success. In turn, this can help you improve your quality and negotiate higher prices.
But how can you interpret the results of a cupping report? What actions should you take when you receive a poor score for aroma or flavour? Let’s take a look.
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A previous edition of the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s (now the Specialty Coffee Association) Arabica Green Coffee Defect Handbook. Credit: Jacinta Mutono
What Is Cupping?
Cupping is when Q graders assess a coffee sample and award it a score using established protocols. In the world of Arabica coffee, the authority is the Specialty Coffee Association. Any coffee with a score of over 80 is considered specialty grade.
The evaluation can begin by noting the type and number of defects that green coffee beans have before they’re roasted and coffee is cupped. Primary defects can include the presence of large stones and sticks, while secondary defects can include water damage, insect damage, and the presence of hulls.
Find out more in 7 Green Bean Defects Roasters & Producers Need to Recognise
Once the coffee is roasted, it can then be cupped. It will be graded on qualities such as flavour, aftertaste, acidity, and mouthfeel. SCA cupping protocols establish what equipment should be used, as well as standardised preparation and evaluation methods.
Strict protocols are followed to ensure that the process is repeatable. In theory, the same results will be obtained by every party along the supply chain, no matter the location or cupping purpose. It also ensures that everyone speaks the same language when evaluating a coffee, allowing productive discussions about it.
Workers in Machakos, Kenya, carry washed coffee to drying beds. Credit: Jacinta Mutono
The Benefits of Cupping Coffee
Cecilia W. Kathurima is a Q Arabica grader and Research Officer at the Coffee Research Institute in Ruiru, Kenya. She says that a coffee quality assessment can be useful to farmers for the following reasons:
It acts as a Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) tool that can help farmers detect farm-level issues and defects from when the coffee is grown and harvested. These can include soil quality, as well as how the plants are pruned and stumped.
A coffee’s quality is often affected by labour. Cupping can help you identify potential poor labour practices that are having an impact on the coffee’s profile, and replace them with good ones. This can include only harvesting ripe fruit and removing defective cherries as they’re detected.
When processing washed coffees, water quality is closely tied to cup quality. Cupping can allow producers to notice when, for example, contaminated surface water from streams, rivers, and lakes is affecting the cop profile of their crop.
It acts as a negotiating tool by giving producers the confidence required to ask buyers for better prices for their coffee. Cupping will let you know how your coffee scores, which will let you know what price it can demand.
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A producer evaluates the aroma of ground coffee samples. Credit: Jacinta Mutono
What Cupping Reports Say About Your Farming Methods
While many factors can impact your coffee’s quality (such as where it was grown and its variety), how it’s produced and processed also has a huge impact. Certain categories on the cupping report can relate directly to production and processing practices, giving you ideas for how to adapt your methods.
A coffee’s aroma depends on the chemical compounds in the green beans. These compounds will be present in different concentrations depending on variables such as the coffee variety, the weather conditions at origin, the ripeness level, and processing choices.
Fermentation is also a key stage in the development of the compounds that create aroma, and the type of yeast present in fermentation can also impact the aromas that develop. This means that cupping can allow you to evaluate the impact of experiments with fermentation, as well as spot lots that have potentially been poorly fermented.
A low flavour score could be caused by poor agricultural practices during production, such as insufficient fertilization leading to nutrient-deficient soil. When your soil is lacking important nutrients, you’ll normally also notice lower yields and weaker plants. Look out for poor foliage, low resistance to disease, and sparse cherries that ripen slowly. If you see any of these indicators along with a low cupping score, try consulting with a professional agronomist, sending soil samples to a laboratory for analysis, or simply testing your soil’s pH.
Find out more in our Coffee-Farming Guide: How to Improve Soil Quality
A cupper breaks and removes a crust. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre
Multiple cups from a sample will be evaluated, and uniformity refers to the extent to which they all taste the same. If you are looking to form long-term relationships with buyers, this is crucial. Their reputation will depend on the entire coffee lot that they sell tasting just like the samples they provided – as will your reputation.
A lack of consistency in bean size, shape, and quality can lead to the same lot having inconsistent flavour and aroma profiles. Remember that sometimes all the beans within the lot can be of a good quality – but still sufficiently inconsistent that the flavour varies or there are problems during roasting.
You can improve uniformity by sorting each lot and carrying out your own quality control checks. Make sure to remove over-ripe, under-ripe, or damaged cherries, as well as visually inspecting drying beans for broken, chipped, or discoloured ones. Screening coffees will also help ensure that they are all of the same size.
A Clean Cup
The fourth edition of the Coffee Cupper’s Handbook published by the SCA states that “if the coffee beans are kept in a dirty environment, the fats in the coffee beans will absorb odours from the dirt, resulting in an ‘earthy’ flavour. Coffee beans that remain in a damp environment… will absorb a ‘musty’ flavour in their fats”.
If a cupping report details issues with cleanness, storage improvements might be required. As green beans are porous and absorb flavours and aromas easily, moisture, temperature, and light should be monitored in the warehouse. Parchment coffee should be stored inside hermetic bags to prevent direct contact with oxygen and reduce the risk.
Additionally, it’s important to make sure that drying beds and patios are kept clean and dry.
Cupping samples. Credit: Ana Valencia
It’s Time to Involve Producers in Cupping & Grading
Mbula Musau is a Q Arabica instructor, as well as Chief Empowerment Officer and Founder of Kenya’s Utake Coffee, which is a company specialising in coffee quality training, marketing, research consultancy, and development. She says of all the people that she’s trained to become Q Arabica graders, only a few are farmers. The rest are all coffee professionals.
It’s a gap she thinks should be addressed. She says that “farmers understanding coffee quality is a form of capacity building for them, since they’ll be able to produce their coffee from a point of knowledge and meet the quality requirements the market has [which will enable them to] optimise their earnings.”
As a producer, cupping reports will enable you to better understand your coffee’s quality, improve it, and effectively negotiate for good prices. They are an indispensable tool.
As you improve your production, your coffee’s quality will improve. This will increase the likelihood that you’ll be able to ask for a higher selling price. And with better selling prices comes a chance to grow your business, increase profits, and move higher up the supply chain.
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Written by Jacinta Mutono. Feature photo caption: A farmer cups his coffee in Nyeri, Kenya. Feature photo Credit: Jacinta Mutono
Please note: Before implementing the advice in this article, we advise also consulting with a local technical expert, since differences in climate, soil type, varieties, processing methods, and more can affect the best practices for production and processing.
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