Caffeinated ruminations outside the Coffeegeek Orthodoxy.
Better Beans: Q Grading, Acidity and Scoring Quality Part Two
In part one I addressed the difference between trade cupping and production cupping. In this part I will address the SCAA's adoption of the Q Graders Certification.
Q Grader Certification Participants first learn to ignore their own preferences and "calibrate" their palette to the SCAA evaluation form. In this way, cuppers become "objective" to the coffee being evaluated through an established set of criteria. For evaluative purposes, the samples must be "correctly" (light) roasted, this being identified as a trade roast so as to not "color" the sample. The form identifies seven areas of evaluation, and a score is used to rate each area. To be "calibrated" means that all evaluators score a sample within a narrow point range.
The evaluative areas are: Fragrance/Aroma; Flavor; Aftertaste; Acidity; Balance; Body and Overall. An evaluator would score each area as they would taste the samples, noting if any cup was off. Coffee samples would be grouped together by geographical region, so you wouldn't compare an African coffee to an Indonesian or Central American. Like is compared against like. Coffees that score above 80 are considered Specialty Grade, with higher scores adding value. Coffees scoring above 90 are considered quite remarkable. If this seems to be a somewhat arbitrary and confusing set of parameters you would be right. How does one score for body, for example? Does more body in a cup result in a higher score? Or balance? What is the difference between Aroma and Flavor? What, if anything, is the guiding principal?
Given that these coffees are trade roasted, one characteristic stands above all the others: acidity. It doesn't take long for participants to figure out this fact, and the kind of acidity that the instructor deems ideal, usually described as juicy. Participants are encouraged to describe the coffee in a manner that suits this model, if you really want to impress find more obscure names for common fruits: “quince” for apple or “pomelo” instead of grapefruit. If you are having trouble coming up with a term, just say “stone fruit.” This accounts for the peculiar practice of Third Wave roasters to feature coffees that sound more like a fruit salad or a package of Starburst than what would traditionally be thought of as coffee. It also explains the rather scripted narrative parroted by so many of today's self-proclaimed coffee snobs.
The argument made in favor of promoting trade roasted coffees is that it more accurately presents the attributes that traditional roasting styles hide and so is in itself a marker of quality. It would be like a person trained to detect flaws in sheet metal insisting that all cars must remain unpainted; then becoming bored with flawless metal and so begin celebrating flaws as evidence of the steel's unique character. The juicy acids that have become so prized have less to do with terroir than with post harvest fermentation. Hence why natural processed coffees, especially from Africa, score so high (and how Brazil's have become specialty). Also why producers may intentionally manipulate the coffee during processing, such as Honey Processed, to increase fermentation.
Because of the trade roasts being used,the point system developed for the Q Graders can best be understood as an acidity index. Certainly this is not the first time our industry has taken a single concept to its extreme . . . much in the way of if dark roast is good, darker roast is better. I spent the first half of my career always hearing that I didn't roast dark enough. Now its that I over-roast. Certainly there have been many examples of over-roasted coffees, a certain large chain comes to mind, but the notion that a roaster may choose a darker roast only to hide inferior coffees is a fallacy. Defects do not roast away. For years the American coffee market was dominated by mass-marketed commercial canned coffee notable for its very light roast. Were they promoting high quality coffee? Hardly. They sourced the cheapest coffee they could find and roasted as light as they could to save money. There is no one correct roast, light or dark. The correct roast is the one that brings out the best qualities of a coffee.
Now, if acidity is your thing that is fine but there is at issue the entire concept of objectivity with relation to a product. Coffee is not manufactured, it is grown. How it is grown impacts both the environment and the people who live and work there. While no one would argue we need clear quality standards for a coffee to be considered specialty, focusing exclusively on the product too easily ignores the ecological and sociological issues surrounding its production. Worse, it often green washes that same product. One does not have to look far to notice the origin pictures gracing many third wave roasters web sites are often full-sun coffee plantations. And while many of these same roasters tout their Direct Trade arrangements with said plantations, its important to remember that Folgers buys their coffee direct as well. Even if you paid the owner of said plantation a premium price it does not mean that those premiums are in any way shared by those who work there or benefit the community as a whole.
For years, farmers have been told that if they want higher prices for their coffee they needed to improve quality; quality defined largely as grading standards that required the investment of expensive processing equipment. This isolated small farmers who had little access to such equipment. Many of these farmers have come together, forming cooperatives, collectively investing in processing mills to bring their coffee up to the same standards of wealthier plantations. Now they are told this is not enough if you want to add value. Now you need to creat a "micro-lot," a limited amount of bags, and enter it into a competition. Maybe you take extra care with this lot, make a real effort; only to find that the one that wins is a coffee that had some random ferment happen to it. The evaluators go gaga over it. "Is that Muscadine? Jambul? It's so juicy!"
So, does this make the Q Grade score useless? By itself, I'm afraid so, at least from a consumer's perspective. It is useful to those of us in the coffee trade as one part of an evaluative criteria. It becomes problematic beyond the cupping table. A stand out coffee on the cupping table does not necessarily make for a great cup of coffee, as I have said before. Not only does it favor acidic light roasts over other flavor possibilities, it excludes externalities in its evaluation and so is devoid of values, absent of ethics.
If you had two Central American coffees, one grown in traditional polyculture shade, from a cooperative who invests in their community, versus one from a large, high-density, full-sun plantation that heavily uses agrochemicals to prop up soil depletion, whose owner is absentee; if the former scored an 84 and the latter an 86, which one could truly be said to be the better beans? How many points would you give for ecological stewardship if such a box existed on the form; what value would you place on democratically run community institutions? Is it a value to you? It is to me. This is not to say that a cooperative coffee is necessarily going to score lower than an estate coffee, our new crop of Peru Andes Gold just scored an 87.5 thank you very much.
There is, of course, a certain attraction to attaching a score to a bag of coffee, not least is the not so subtle connection to coffee's more admired beverage industry: wine. But, unlike wine, coffee's flavor is far more volatile. How many points do we take off for perishability? Is one point a week too little, five points a week too much? How long has that coffee been sitting on the grocery store shelf? Or worse, sitting on an Airport souvenir shelf (seriously, I saw that)? Then again, some of these coffees are so acidic that it takes a week or two from roasting before one can stomach them anyway.
That score is beginning to look about as relevant as the Blue Riboon awarded to Pabst Beer.