Things I think about stuff.

Shawn Steiman, and why Cup Of Excellence might not be so excellent…

Warning: Involved, coffee-related blog post ahead! I’ve been struggling a little bit with figuring out what I want to blog about, and lately I tend to just write and reblog whatever catches my eye. I realize I don’t have a lot of coffee-geek followers, so if you’re here for the feminism, you might want to skip this post.

Monday 31 October: Halloween!

While most people were drinking heavily, faces covered in fake blood and latex scars, a small group of Wellington’s resident coffee geeks had the pleasure of Shawn Steiman’s company for a few enlightening hours. Shawn is, quite possibly, the only person in the world with a PhD in coffee. He’s a professional coffee consultant, licenced Q-Grader, and the author of The Hawai’i Coffee Book: A Gourmet’s Guide from Kona to Kaua’i. He’s also a fellow Star Trek fan, who totally got my dorky jokes about the Q Continuum. 

While Shawn had many interesting things to say about the Hawai’ian coffee industry, and its future within the global market, that won’t be the guts of my blog post. If you’re interested in that, though, I suggest heading over to Shawn’s blog

What I really want to write about is what he had to say about the SCAA score sheets, and why we’ve basically been doing it wrong all along. For anyone who doesn’t know, SCAA stands for the Specialty Coffee Association of America and they, along with Cup Of Excellence, call the shots on which coffees everyone thinks are amazing in any given year. 

The score sheets they use to evaluate coffee are based on a 100 point system which grades aroma, flavor, acidity, aftertaste, body, balance, sweetness, uniformity, defects, something ambiguously referred to as “clean cup” and an overall score. (If the idea of finding out what all these terms mean really gets you excited, you can download a PDF of the SCAA cupping protocols here.

The problem, if I may paraphrase Shawn, is that these score sheets don’t work, for a variety of reasons. Most of all, they aren’t objective. You can see straight away that attributes such as “balance”, “uniformity” and “overall” are entirely subjective. However, even qualities like “acidity” and “body” will inevitably be graded on the cupper’s personal preference, rather than the actual amount of acidity or body within a coffee. The cupper tastes the coffee and thinks, simultaneously, “What is this taste?” and “Do I like it?” They mark both of those answers on the sheet. What you end up with is a score sheet that gives you information about the person who cupped, their personal preferences towards coffee, rather than the coffee itself. 

In addition to this, the 100 point system is only designed to cater to a very specific kind of coffee. It does a great job of evaluating washed, South American coffees with high acidity, high body and high complexity, but there are a lot of truly tasty coffees out there which don’t fall into that narrow definition of “excellent”. Some of my favourite coffees have been crops which would, in all likely hood, score low on an SCAA score sheet, because I happen to love sun-dried coffee. 

When you cup with a 100 point score sheet, all you end up with is a score out of 100, which tells you nothing at all about the coffee you just tasted. You can mark 8 for acidity, but what does that mean? Is it a citrus acidity, or mallic acid (more like apples)? One person may find exceptionally high levels of acid a pleasant experience, while another would find it intolerable. The 100 point scoring system does nothing to “encapsulate the experience of the coffee”. 

Shawn has his own cupping sheet, in which he has removed the subjective characteristics, and rates everything on intensity, rather than quality, while leaving more room for descriptions of a coffee’s unique attributes. However, by his own admission, this score sheet is flawed. Much of the elegance and efficiency of the 100 point system is lost, and it becomes impossible to define a “winner”. You can’t have a Cup Of Excellence if everybody admits that what “Excellence” tastes like is entirely subjective.

Which is, I think, an important point. There seems to be a huge gap between those who are “educated” about coffee, and the average consumer. When customers ask me for a recommendation, or what my favourite coffee is, I will often tell them the Ethiopian Harar or Sidamo. However, as soon as I ask them what sort of flavours they like in a coffee, it becomes quite apparent that those beans aren’t going to make them happy. 

Similarly, if you were to ask me what the best coffee for a plunger or chemex was, I would say a light roast, because the filter method is best able to bring out the sweetness and acidity. However, a majority of our customers are buying some of our darkest roasted beans, often the espresso blend, to put through their filters at home. 

The problem here is that we have a 100 point system which goes to all of this trouble to grade coffee, and then we (the Industry) are baking all of the desirable characteristics out of that coffee because our customers want darker roasted beans. 

How do we fix it? I have no idea. Even Shawn has no idea, and he is much smarter than I am. Down at Constable St, we’ve started offering samples of plunger-brewed light roasts to anyone who asks for them, and it seems to be getting people interested. For me, discovering the pleasure of an acidic light roast was a matter of discovering that I was allowed to enjoy it. When you think of coffee like wine, the best tasters are those who love food and have tasted a variety of different flavours. They are then able to recognize those sensations, and put words to them. 

The first time I tasted a light roast, I had no words for what I was experiencing. I simply classed it as “unfamiliar” and decided I wasn’t interested in figuring out what the strange orange juice sensations on my tongue were. It took some time for me to recognize that coffee could go beyond tasting like chocolate and tabacco, and that I did have vocabulary for some of the new flavours I was experiencing. 

Those of us who sell coffee need to get more proactive about giving our customers the right vocabulary to enjoy coffee. If I tell a customer that one of our coffees has a high acidity, the most common reaction I get is, “Gross. I don’t want that.” Because most customers see acidity as an undesirable thing. However, I can tell them it has citrus flavours, which usually goes down a little easier.

Those of us who buy coffee need to get better at describing the coffee we want. It’s no good going into a store and asking what the person behind the counter’s favourite coffee is, because everyone likes something different. It’s also no good buying the espresso blend from your favourite cafe, and expecting it to taste the same in your plunger at home. 

For anyone interested in reading more about Shawn Steiman’s opinions and research into coffee, you can find a PDF of The Points Principle, the article he wrote for Roast Magazine, here. 

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