Scoring Specialty Coffees

By Darren Doyle

coffeeWe receive questions every week at International Coffee Farms on what the standards are for scoring fine coffee. First a bit of clarification: Specialty coffee should not be confused with “gourmet” or “premium” coffee. These are simply marketing terms with no defined standards.

According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), “Coffee which scores 80 points or above on a 100-point scale is graded ‘specialty’.”  Specialty coffees are grown in special and ideal climates, and are distinctive because of their full-cup taste and little to no defects. The unique flavors and tastes are a result of the special characteristics and composition of the soils in which they are produced.”

So what does this mean?
Most of us are familiar with how wine is slurped, spat and graded by a wine connoisseur, who then awards the wine a score, usually from 50 to 100, and that score is one of the important factors that determine the quality and thus the value/price of the wine.

For consumers, we can, at a glance, see the score awarded to a wine that we know little about and can make an informed buying decision based on this score.It also separates the two buck chuck from the $200 bottle of Chateau Margaux!

This scoring method has its critics though. Some people point to the fact that this scoring method is subjective and open to interpretation. The Specialty Coffee Association of America, established in 1982, and with members in over 40 countries worldwide, has set very strict industry standards when it comes to scoring Specialty Coffee.
These standards are set by a Standards Committee. “It is a quantifiable and qualifiable measure, based upon scientific testing, which set values and/or ranges of values for coffee.”

Cupping the coffee is the process of evaluating and scoring brewed coffee. Cue the sipping and slurping and spatting! This is where Q Graders (Quality Graders), or master tasters, certified by The Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) blind test the coffee and award scores based on fragrance, aroma, flavor, acidity, after taste, body, balance, sweetness, cleanliness and uniformity.
Each section is analyzed and broken down in detail, awarded points from 1 to 10 and independently scored by dozens of Q Graders. Aroma alone can be described as animal like, ashy, burnt, chocolate, earthy, floral, nutty, woody and even spicy.

Q Graders
There are currently more than 3,500 certified Q graders worldwide, and growing. The Q Coffee System identifies quality coffees and brings them to market through a credible and verifiable system. This system allows Specialty Coffee farmers to have their coffee tested against industry standards to ensure that they get top dollar for the coffee and are rewarded for years of hard work, with the focus on coffee Quality, not just Quantity.

The retail value of the U.S. coffee market is estimated at $46 billion dollars a year, with Specialty Coffee comprising approximately 51 percent volume share but nearly 55 percent value share. Up from only 1 percent almost 25 years ago and surpassing non-specialty for the first time ever.

According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), demand for coffee is set to increase by 25 percent over the next 5 years. “Consumption is increasing as societies in India, China and Latin America continue to be Westernized,” the ICO’s executive director Roberio Silva told The Wall Street Journal.

To promote and self-regulate this growing industry, growers, exporters, roasters, retailers and equipment suppliers have established trade associations. These associations exist in both coffee-consuming and coffee-producing countries.
Among the countries that are very famous for producing excellent specialty coffee are Ethiopia, Kenya, and Panama.

coffee-chartHow is Q Grading coffee reflected in the price?
At the end of the day, coffee is a commodity. Although it is the 2nd most traded commodity in the world after oil (in dollar terms)!

When you are watching Bloomberg in the morning and you see coffee scroll across the bottom of your screen, this is the New York “C” market index for commercial coffee.

Trading right now in a range from around $1.20 – $1.30 a pound. Hard to get rich off that price when it can cost $1.50 a pound to produce it!

But Specialty coffee, coffee that scores 80 points and above when cupped by a CQI trained Q Grader, that meets strictly set SCAA standards, sells for 5, 10, 20, and even 100 times that price.

Here in Panama every year the SCAP (Specialty Coffee Association of Panama) hosts annual coffee auctions where roasters and producers from all over the world flock to Panama to bid on the Best of Panama coffee.

The lowest price on the list was $9.70 per pound, about 8 times the “C” market rate. The highest price paid was $140 per pound for Finca Esmeralda’s world class Geisha. The average price was somewhere around $17 to $20 a pound.
Quite the difference from your Bloomberg ticker price!

As you can see from these prices, Boquete is well-known internationally as the perfect location to produce amazing Specialty Coffee. With the right altitude, rich volcanic soil and year-round perfect weather, it is no surprise that roasters from around the globe descend on our small town each year searching for the Best in Panama specialty coffee.

So you can see why everyone here at International Coffee Farms is excited about the bright future for the Specialty Coffee industry. We have acquired 3 farms so far in 2015 and are in negotiations with many more. These farms are ideally situated in the Boquete region and have all the attributes necessary to produce amazing Specialty Coffee. All they need is a little love!

If you like the idea of joining our Merry Band of Panamanian Coffee Farmers, please email me at or call 877-208-7988.

Share This:

Scoring Specialty Coffees