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Why Rate And Describe Coffees?

An advertisement for coffee is likely to say it tastes wonderful, bold and smooth. The reviews on this site will have numerical scores instead of "wonderful", and detailed descriptions instead of "bold" and "smooth." But the reviews and PR both do the same two things: they rate and describe. This short primer will teach you to rate and describe coffee for yourself.

This sounds like work; why not relax and enjoy the coffee instead? To really enjoy a coffee, to be able to remember that enjoyment in its details, one must form a mental impression of it. Rating and describing is that process. It becomes second nature in a while; and your enjoyment of the coffee will deepen.

Rate Classic Cups; Describe Unusual Coffees

Great coffees come in two varieties: those which taste like coffee; and those which don't. Food lovers want foods that taste like themselves; wine lovers, on the other hand, want wines that taste of anything but wine. Coffee lovers are more tolerant; we value both sorts. Coffees that taste like coffee are called "classic cups;" coffees with a unique taste don't have a collective name, but here I'll call them "unusual coffees."

Classic cups are tough to describe; they just taste like coffee. But they are easy to compare and rate, because some clearly taste better than others. Unusual coffees are hard to score; it's like comparing apples to oranges. But they are easy to describe, because they all taste so different. The distinction between classic cups and unusual coffees is a piece of good luck for someone starting out. You can learn to score by comparing the classic cups; and you can learn to describe by comparing the unusual coffees.

So if you want to "taste along" with the scoring and description instructions; here's a list of coffees to try:

  • For rating coffees, roast up three different classic cup varieties; I recommend a Java or Sulawesi, a Colombian, and a Panamanian coffee. Also pick up a can of decent supermarket coffee, an all Colombian, if possible.
  • For describing coffees, roast up some unusual coffees; I recommend picking from Sumatra Mandheling, Ethiopian Harar, Ethiopian Yrgacheffe, Kenya AA, Guatemalan Huehuetenango, Guatemalan Antigua, or Costa Rican Tarrazu.

Tasting Coffee

Cupping is the method professionals have evolved to compare many different coffees side by side. Use it to do your own comparisons; detailed instructions are given on the cupping page.

In addition to cupping, there are some simple tricks that coffee tasters use to get the most out of any cup they drink. The same techniques are used by just about all experienced tasters of any food or drink:

  • When you smell a coffee (or any other food or drink) breath slightly through the mouth as well as the nose. This improves acuity.
  • Coffee aromas are carried by molecules of different weights. The light ones spread out more than the heavy ones. This means one can get different aromas at different distances from the cup or dry grounds. So, when smelling coffee, move your nose closer to catch the heavier, roasty, aromatics, and further away to catch the lighter, floral and fruit ones.
  • Taste and mouthfeel sensations vary over the palate and tongue. When tasting coffee or any liquid, take a small slurping sip (discretely if in company) so the coffee distributes evenly over the entire tongue and palate. This improves basic taste acuity. Pay close attention to the sensations of the liquid on the tongue as well as the basic tastes. When the coffee is in the mouth, breath in shallowly through mouth and nose again; this improves acuity for flavors.
  • The aftertaste of coffee develops over time. To speed the process, do some fake chewing and swallowing with empty mouth immediately after swallowing. this will give you the most intense impression of the lingering aftertaste.

Rating Coffee

The easiest way to learn how to rate coffees is to cup several fresh roasted "classic cup" varieties along with some supermarket coffee. Coffees are scored in five categories: Aroma, Taste, Finish, Body and Acidity.

Aroma, Taste, And Finish

These are straightforward. How good is the coffee in its aroma, taste and aftertaste? With classic cups, all the coffees will taste the way you expect; so you can confidently score each of them by how much you enjoy them. However, it's worth paying attention to some of the compositional aspects of why something tastes good (we'll get to specific tastes and smells in the next section):

  • Clarity, Transparency, Cleanliness, or Vividness: The smells and tastes of the supermarket coffee will be murky, as if the taste equivalent of a film of soot is between the coffee and your tongue. The other coffees will taste clean and vivid in comparison.
  • Complexity: This is the consequence of transparency. The supermarket coffee will be boring; whereas the other coffees will have interesting and detailed things going on.
  • Balance or Sweetness: The supermarket coffee will lack sweetness and leave a dull-bitter aftertaste. In the other coffees, the bitter and sour elements will be balanced by sweetness, so they taste pleasant and well rounded. This will be particularly apparent in the aftertaste; good coffees leave a sweet, clean memory on the tongue.

Body And Cupper's Correction Points

Body refers to how well the coffee coats and sticks to the tongue. Great heavy bodied coffees are oily-viscous and rich tasting. Great light bodied coffees are also pleasant, feeling slightly buttery. The body score is a quantitative score. So a buttery tasting light bodied coffee that gets a low quantitative body score is given positive cupper's correction points to compensate; whereas a heavy bodied coffee that leaves a dusty or dry impression gets negative cupper's correction points. In your write up, give the reasons for the corrections.

In this tasting, the Java or Sulawesi will be the heaviest bodied, the Panama the lightest bodied, and the Colombia in between.

Acidity And More Cupper's Correction Points

Acidity is the most difficult of the taste categories. In fact, many coffee buyers, under the misapprehension that high acid coffees are sour, tend to see it as a negative. Acidity refers to both mouthfeel and taste. A high acid coffee is zingy on the tongue, sometimes almost effervescent. This is especially apparent when the coffee cools. Use this zing to score acidity. Acidity also shows up in taste as crisp, pleasantly tart fruit flavors. If this element of the taste is sour instead, give negative cuppers correction points. If a low acid coffee in terms of zingyness on the tongue has nice fruit flavors, award positive cupper's correction points.

In your tasting, the Panama will have the most acidity, the Java or Sulawesi the least, and the Colombia will be in between.

Totaling The Score

The tradition is to score aroma, taste, finish, body and acid up to 10 points each, then add the cuppers corrections running from minus to plus 5, and another 50 points for a total of 100. If you are scoring dry aroma, score it and the wet aroma out of 5 each.

By convention, most specialty coffees score between 80 to 90; a supermarket coffee would score around 60 to 70. A score of above 90 is awarded to outstanding coffees. In the plus 50 system, this requires a few oddities. The supermarket coffee will require detail scores of 2 to 4, a good quality specialty coffee detail scores of 6 to 8, and scores of 8 and higher should only be given to really superb coffees. Most oddly, if a coffee taste bad, it should be given negative detail scores. It is best to regard the scale as running from -10 to 10 when scoring in this system. More sensible looking scores can be awarded if you prorate or double each category rather than adding 50; but most professionals rate with the plus 50 system.

Describing Coffee Taste

The coffees in the last section are best described as "classic cups." There's nothing in them that reminds one of anything except coffee. If one is cupping a lot of alternatives from the same origin; there will be slight differences that one can describe in terms of other tastes, but it's usually a stretch. Unusual coffees are different; they have strong flavors that do remind one of something other than coffee.

Ted Lingle of the SCAA has exhaustively categorized these flavors into two Taste Wheels. You should mine these for vocabulary; but their underlying structure and use is not apparent until you read his cupping manual.

The goal here is simpler. When you smell and taste an unusual coffee, you should try to come up with a short description that will allow you to identify the coffee when you taste it again. You can use words from the taste wheels, from other standard flavor lists like the similar but less systematic UC Davis Wine Aroma wheel, or from the everyday tastes and smells of your kitchen. If the word that comes to mind is not on anyone's list; use it and don't worry. The purpose of describing coffees is so you remember and appreciate them. Word lists are just starting points.

If you are completely stuck; Ted Lingle's taste wheels have the added advantage allowing you to zero in on the precise taste. Here's some explanation of how how this works; however, for full details, consult his handbook:

  • Aroma/Flavor: These range from lightly floral to smoky distillates. They are ordered in terms of the molecular weight of the compounds carrying the aromas. The florals are the lightest, and the aromas are most apparent at a distance, and when tasting with closed mouth. The distillates are heaviest, and most apparent sniffing up close and when breathing in while tasting. The others are in between in the order listed. The lighter aromas tend to predominate in lighter roasts, whereas the heavier aromas tend to predominate in darker roasts. By focusing on these mechanics of how an aroma presents itself, you will be able to more easily identify it.
  • Basic Tastes: these describe the variations on sour, bitter, salty and sweet as they appear in coffee. The terms on the wheel describe conjunctions of basic tastes, e.g. bitter/sour, or sweet/sour. Paying close attention to how the tastes are distributed over the mouth and palate, especially in the finish, will aid in identifying them correctly.
  • Defects: these flaws arise from unripe or rotten beans, poor processing, bad storage, or poor roasting. If the coffee flavor has a disgusting aspect; chances are it'll be close to one of the flavors listed here. The most common defects are chemical, medicinal, and fermented odors from improper processing, harsh astringency from unripe beans, and musty or dirty tastes from improper storage and transport.

The easiest way to start is by printing out a word list and copying it for each unusual coffee you taste. As you taste, check off the flavor terms you get.

Here are some flavor terms usually applied to these coffees:

  • Sumatra Mandheling: earthy, mushroomy, wet forest, molasses
  • Ethiopian Harar: apricot, blueberries, paint thinner, gamy, leathery, dark chocolate
  • Ethiopian Yrgacheffe: floral, lemon, green tea, tannic
  • Kenya AA: effervescent, citrus, blackberry, winy, cloves.
  • Guatemalan Huehuetenango: light, floral, delicate, tangerine, buttery
  • Guatemalan Antigua: dark, apples, spice, dark chocolate, peat
  • Costa Rican Tarrazu: crisp, lemonade, peanuts, almonds, milk chocolate

If your list doesn't look anything like this one; don't worry. These descriptions are traditional, and don't apply to all the coffees from these regions or to all their roasts. The main thing is to get used to putting names to what you're tasting.

If you are also scoring these unusual coffees, you need to take some precautions. Most importantly, you have to delay judgment. Since these coffees are unusual, there may be an initial reaction of delight or dismay that has more to do with the coffee's surprise value than worth. Also, you may not personally like some of the flavor components. Bracket all this out; focus on the objective compositional qualities of the taste and aroma, the clarity, complexity and balance; and only then judge.


Practice makes perfect. The more you cup coffees, the more you focus on the coffees you drink every day, mentally rating and describing them, the better you'll become.

In addition, you should order Ted Lingle's cupping manual. If you have a chance, attend the sensory and cupping courses the SCAA holds at its conventions and other functions.

Finally, cup with others. If there's a friendly roaster in the area, try to get an invite to one of their cupping sessions. You'll see how people argue, play "name that taste," and usually, but not always, reach some agreement. The resource section lists coffee forums and blogs. These will carry announcements of tastings and get-togethers in your area.


UPDATED: June 27, 2005