In a world where algorithms score our personal preferences to feed us curated playlists and targeted advertisements, coffee finds itself in similar territory – just without artificial intelligence getting a vote.


Specialty coffee is a term for the highest grade of coffee, and it’s partially defined by a scoring system from certified coffee aficionados. 


According to the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), any coffee that scores an 80 or above on a 100-point scale is considered “specialty grade.” There’s no requirement that coffees must be scored, but most of the coffees consumed are evaluated and tasted to assess flavor and defects. It’s likely the coffee you drank this morning was graded and scored.


You won’t always find coffee scores published on bags or producer websites. Coffee scores are generally used by importers and roasters to make buying decisions. While coffee scoring can be done informally, there’s an industry standard training called Q Certification to make scoring universal. The idea is anyone who is a Q Grader — think of wine sommelier but for coffee — will be calibrated with other Q Graders and use their rigorous training to make objective judgements about quality and flavor.


Coffee scoring and the certifications around it are intended to give people a shared language and unbiased way to talk coffee and exchange notes. Ideally, if two Q Graders live in different parts of the globe and are given the same coffee, they’d score it very similarly. Q Graders must pass a line of tests because the promise of coffee scoring is high: Farmers, no matter who they are or where they live, can get an objective opinion on their coffee.


Still, there are hundreds of factors that could affect a coffee’s score and relying on scores assumes quality is the only target for farmers. As climate change drastically impacts how coffee is grown and harvested — along with the knowledge that most farmers don’t make enough money to cover the cost of production — is coffee scoring truly a sustainable way to evaluate coffee?


Let’s find out.


Coffee cupping is the practice of examining the taste and aromas of brewed coffee. Cupping is done at every level. Most coffees are cupped and scored more than once, beginning with the farms where the coffee grows.


For Wilford Lamastus Jr., a fourth-generation coffee farmer and producer at the Elida Estate in Boquette, Panama, cupping is the straw that stirs the drink.

“On our farm, everything is decided based on the cupping score,” Lamastus said. “We’re a team of nine, and we’re always cupping. Every lot is cupped several times and we keep data of each cupping session, including the score that the coffee received.” 


The Elida Estate was the first farm to produce a coffee that scored a 98. For reference, most of the coffees available at specialty shops score between 82 and 88 points. For a coffee to score above 90 is a noted accomplishment. There’s even a coffee producer with farms in Panama and Ethiopia dubbed Ninety Plus. It’s important because many coffees sell for as low as $1 USD per pound, but coffees scoring in the 90-plus range can go for hundreds more. Coffee from Lamastus’ estate sold for $1,029 per pound.


An objective way to measure coffee quality allows Lamastus and his team to make big decisions about the future of their farms, which is critical in an industry where coffee trees take years to reach maturity and beans can take months to reach roasters. Coffee scores can tell a farmer if a particular plot of land is producing excellent coffee or is struggling in its soil conditions.


“Based on cupping scores, we’ve been able to make decisions about where to invest our resources,” Lamastus said. “Like building walls that keep the weather cooler, constructing fermentation tanks, investing in a temperature-controlled room for anaerobic coffees — even a new piece of land in a warmer part of Panama so we can dry coffees in the sun.”


Coffee scores inform important decisions Lamastus makes on his farm, but there are certain factors beyond his control, including climate.


“Colder temperatures are directly linked to coffee scores,” he said, referring to the slow ripening process coffee cherries ideally go through before it’s ripe to pick.


As climate change shifts and shortens growing seasons, cherries ripen quicker and don’t have the chance to develop as much complexity and sweetness. Although coffee scores might not directly impact environmental sustainability, investing in environmental sustainability can have a positive impact on coffee scores.


While coffee scoring may seem objective, one big factor to consider is access to the cupping table.


In 2019, anthropologist Ted Fischer gave a talk at Re:co, an annual coffee conference, about smallholder coffee farmers in the highlands of Guatemala. His research team collected coffees from nearby farms surrounding a farm that won the Cup of Excellence (COE), an in-country coffee competition and auction that selects the best coffees each year.


“Over 70 percent (of the coffees we collected) cupped above 80, and 50 percent cupped above 85,” Fischer said during the presentation. However, he goes on to say, the COE farm was selling their coffee at $4 per pound, while the smallholder farms averaged around $1.25 per pound.


“These smallholding Mayan producers are excluded from this microlot, third wave, high-value market because they lack the scale,” Fischer explained. “And crucially, because they lack the social capital.”


Even if a coffee scores well and tastes great, access to the market is key. Part of that can come from building knowledge on the farm; Lamastus is a great example of using coffee to empower and inform his decisions.


“The power of scoring should be given to the producer, who really can impact the flavor on the cup,” said Daniel Mendoza, North American Sales Manager for Cropster, a leader in roastery management solutions. “Today, the majority of the producers do not have enough knowledge of the market they are part of, they do not know how to evaluate their own coffee and they do not know how to translate that evaluation to their producing practices.”


Most Q Graders are still located in traditional coffee-consuming countries, and the barrier to achieve this certification can be quite costly.


“Farmers have to save a ton of money,” Mendoza said. “Plus, the cost of calibrating every two years.”


Mendoza, who is from Colombia, said it costs about $6 million Colombian pesos to get certified.  


“Just for reference, the minimum wage in Colombia is $1 million (Colombian pesos) a month,” he said.


Yet it does seem like higher coffee scores can lead to sustainability gains, although in a roundabout way. Julie Francoeur, CEO of Fairtrade Canada, said coffee scores can lead to social and environmental improvements.


“Only inasmuch as higher scores can lead to higher prices (that ideally outweigh the higher costs linked to producing higher quality) and higher prices can lead to higher income, which leads to financial sustainability, which leads to tackling the root cause of many other sustainability issues,” she wrote.


“But on the flip side, if the higher scores are not met with higher prices and with better trading conditions (long term trading partnerships, fair contracts, transparent supply chains…) they can actually deepen the economic boom/bust cycles of some farming communities.”


Emily Smith, a sales executive at Mercon Specialty, a vertically-integrated green coffee supplier, believes it needs to start where it all begins.


“[Sustainability] has to be farmer-led,” says Smith.


Mercon provides farmers with no- or low-cost tools to improve their own growing practices. The intention is for the programs to be farmer-led and for farmers to define what sustainability means.


“We do have anecdotal evidence that coffees cupped from (the farms we’ve worked with) have more consistent and, oftentimes, incrementally higher cup scores,” Smith said. “The problem is that specialty roasters are the most vocal about sustainability and they direct all of that energy to the producers that grow specialty coffee. The score is a minimum requirement to even be considered by specialty roasters.”


As specialty coffees need a score of 80 or above, Smith argues that coffees, irrespective of their potential to reach this status, should be part of the sustainability conversation.


“We don’t really care how the coffee scores,” she said. “We offer the same sustainability platform for commercial robusta farmers. I think there is an inherent problem with specialty coffee that it is defined by a score, when producers all grow coffee in a range of qualities.”


Until this point, we’ve touched on coffee scored at the green level before it’s ever roasted. But there are also examples of scoring coffee after it’s roasted.


It’s not unusual for consumers to interact with scores. Magazines like Wine Spectator popularized a now commonly used metric for evaluating wine, which also uses a 100-point scale. There are publications that score coffee as a finished product like Coffee Review and Golden Bean, the latter a powerful marketing tool for small companies and a way to affirm a roaster’s skills and instincts.


“I have had my coffee rated by Coffee Review,” said Nicole Dutram, a former roaster and current designer for Matchbook Coffee based in Denver. “It was good for the brand, and it did legitimize my skill as an early roaster.”


But Dutram noted coffee scores are often associated with a brand — not the roaster behind the coffee — and it did little to move her career forward.


“I felt successful and award-winning but it didn’t actually make my peers take me any more seriously, or jump start some amazing roasting career where I felt recognized,” she said.


But there are positives. Dutram believes scores can get customers excited, which leads to better sustainability outcomes like being able to charge more for coffee and giving roasters more room to buy green coffee at a higher price.


“We also had our espresso rated for the Golden Bean award, and I think that when you put that stuff out there, some customers do respond,” Dutram said. “It’s another carrot for certain people. I also think it helps when asking for more money for coffee. Customers still feel like the cost needs to be legitimate and I don’t believe most people know how much coffee actually costs.”


Coffee reviews and scores can be helpful for an audience already seeking that information, but that’s not how most consumers view coffee. For many, coffee is seen as a utilitarian necessity or a vehicle for caffeine, and that might have to do with the relatively youthful coffee industry compared to wine. Although both have been around for centuries, the history of celebrating and selecting the best wines predates the specialty coffee movement, which began in the second half of the 1900s.


Coffee is also bought and sold very differently than wine. Many roasteries have cafes where they can sell their beans directly compared to winemakers, who don’t have the same opportunities for face-to-face interactions. A consumer who knows nothing about coffee can walk into a coffee shop and interact with a barista they trust to guide them through their coffee options, which are often much more limited than wine. Whereas a consumer who knows nothing about wine might not encounter a person they know and trust to guide them through the buying process, a prime reason wine scores can be helpful.


Like any rating or review system, wine scores can be a contentious subject. In 2006, the New York Times published an article dissecting the ups and downs of wine ratings. Some wine experts, including people who use or implemented ratings systems, acknowledge ratings help consumers sift through the dizzying array of options but also create a sense that wine scores are a scientific measure of excellence when they’re an objective evaluation tool.


The article mentions wine scores can help consumers in big box stores but might not be a helpful tool in small wine stores focused on local or natural production. Those consumers might come into such a store with some knowledge. Small coffee shops might be in a similar boat, as customers enter with their own expertise and curiosity and are likely to trust the people behind the bar to help them find a satisfying cup.


Coffee scores carry the potential to give farmers vital information about the health of their plants and how to sell their coffee. But it must be considered who has access to coffee scoring education and how individual actors along the supply chain use scores.


To build a more sustainable coffee future, coffee scores should be looked at as a tool to empower farmers. Not only will this build social equity by creating sustainable systems across the supply chain, but it makes it possible to grow coffee responsibly in the wake of climate change.


That’s worthy of raising a cup.