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Reimagining Cupping Competition Scoring, Part 2: Defining the Winning Coffee

coffee sample

Coffee sample. Daily Coffee News photo/Nick Brown

(Editor’s note: This is part two of an ongoing series exploring the start-to-finish development of a new cupping competition scoring system, to be used in practice at the Kona Coffee Cupping Competition in November. Two of the primary goals of the new system are objectivity and local adaptability. See part one here.)

In part one of this series, I discussed some of the flaws in current competition scoring systems. One major flaw is that no system defines what a winning coffee is. In other words, nobody defines what a perfect, 100-point coffee should taste like. How can a winner be chosen if there is nothing to compare the sample to? How can a competitor know what coffee to submit if they don’t know what taste profile to aim for?  

In the development of a new competition scoring system, I aim to address this issue. This post will explore how one can define a profile for use in a competition, and how we intend to apply this strategy to define a profile for Kona coffee specifically.

Defining the taste of a winning coffee is simple. It only requires establishing what characteristics are important and how much of each characteristic should be present.  

Over time, the coffee industry has collectively, consciously selected parameters of a coffee that are important to assess. For example, acidity, sweetness, and body are universally valued characteristics in a brew. There is nothing inherently magical about these three; any other characteristics could also potentially be considered important aspects of a coffee. For a competition, somebody must decide upon which of these or which additional characteristics to use.

Determining how much of the characteristic should be present simply requires someone in charge to say there needs to be X amount. For example, someone might say the coffee should have X amount of acidity. However, that only has meaning if an objective scale exists that can allow multiple users to accurately measure X versus any other amount for this or other characteristics.

We can use intensity — not present to very present — as that objective scale. It works because it is definable and entirely independent of the user. It can be defined using the same work and methodology World Coffee Research used in creating the flavor lexicon, where real world products or flavor solutions are used to define the specific intensity of a characteristic.

As an example, we can add citric acid to water at a concentration of .05 percent.  That taste of acidity is then defined as a 3.5 on a 15-point intensity scale.  Then, instead of saying a coffee has to have “a lot” of acidity, the evaluator might say it should have a 12 on the intensity scale.  A consequence of using intensity is that the user’s preference need not — as it should not — be used to measure the characteristic in any way. Rather, the characteristic is there or it isn’t, and it is there by a definable amount. Thus, characteristics like balance that rely on the user cannot ever be used.

In practice, we can apply a numerical scale to each characteristic that represents its intensity: 0 for “not present at all,” to 10 for “no other coffee could have a higher presence of this characteristic.” To define a winning coffee, someone merely selects what intensity is most highly valued; higher intensities are not always better. Thus, the winning coffee might be defined as: Acidity = 7, Body = 4, Floral = 9, etc. Once the definition is established, comparing any other coffee to it is objective and relatively simple. (We’ll explore how we compare coffees in a future post).

The challenges in this process lie in who gets to do the defining and what definition they settle upon. Defining the winning coffee as described above is, ultimately, arbitrary. This gives the decider a lot of power. If the decider loves natural-process coffees or dark roasted coffees or sour coffees, then such profiles are likely to thrive in that competition. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those profiles, but they could conflict with local, political, or communal ideas and desires.  

What’s the value in a competition if the idea of what a winning coffee should taste like is only meaningful to one person, or a small handful of people? And how do we choose those people? How do they become the decider? Each competition organizer is going to have to answer that important question on their own.

For the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, we are going to invite numerous stakeholders to decide on the definition of a winning coffee. The stakeholders include a board member of the festival, representatives from supporting companies — currently Daylight Mind Coffee Company, Greenwell Farms, and UCC Hawaii — the judges of the competition (to be invited soon), and farmers. Of course, we can’t invite all the farmers in Kona, so we’ll invite representatives from the local farmer associations.

Once the stakeholders are gathered I suspect that it may be quite tricky to reach a consensus, as there are two broad definitions that can be used for this competition.

We could define and use the traditional Kona profile, which existed when nearly all farms sold cherry to large processing mills, leading to a homogenization of the coffee and its flavor. It is, after all, a rather fitting choice for a Kona coffee competition. Alternatively, we could define a modern, geeky, specialty coffee profile of the sort that many probably assume is used in other current specialty coffee competitions. This certainly makes sense if Kona wants to be respected and recognized on the world stage. Both definitions are excellent choices and I look forward to seeing what the group decides.

In our next post, we’ll discuss how we’ll evaluate the submissions and how we’ll determine the winner of the competition.



Kevin Knox

Great stuff! This series already has the makings of a must-read booklet for the industry Shawn.

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