Roasters Rock

“    The single biggest problem in communication
is the illusion that it has taken place.”
— George Bernard Shaw

CuppingMr. Shaw could very well be talking about the coffee industry. How many times have you heard the words ‘bold’ or ‘bright’ or ‘strong’ used to describe coffee. These terms only make sense to the speaker. The listener has to apply personal filters that may be far from what the speaker intended.

According to one source, if you count all of the little island nations and tiny producers, coffee comes from over 90 countries. It is unclear as to how many languages that represents, but we can safely assume it is a LOT. When we try to communicate about coffee, this can be a challenge to the effective exchange of information.

Even if we restrict conversation to only English speakers, there is a huge chasm of understanding when trying to explain taste characteristics of specialty coffee. For that matter, it is even a comical challenge to ask ten people to define what specialty coffee means!

In the coffee world, we strive to communicate within the supply chain so we can improve the quality of coffee, but we struggle to be understood. Thanks to an experiment worked on by the Kenya Coffee Research Center and the Coffee Quality Institute more than a decade ago, a language tool was created to help us try to communicate taste characteristics by quantifying them and calibrating the interested parties. Additionally, a base group of words were chosen to talk about aromas and tastes. It is now known as the SCAA / CQI cupping protocol, and it is the basis for the Q-Grader certification program taught around the world.

Now that there are Q-graders calibrated in many places of the world, about 3700 in 60 countries, communication is getting easier. Roasters, importers, exporters, cooperatives, and farmers are getting certified as Q-Graders to be able to participate meaningfully in conversations about cup quality and ways to improve it. With increased communication has come increased profits for the farms and cooperatives and increased coffee quality for the importers and roasters. Everybody in the supply chain benefits.

One of the most important tools a roaster can have is a strict, repeatable cupping protocol that drives decisions about roasting and green coffee sourcing. If you do not have one yet, DO IT! If you need an easy path to get it done, use the Q-Grader protocols and keep massive amounts of records on your coffee and detailed cupping notes.

There are practical, financial, and logistical reasons for roasters to become Q-Graders. Here are a few:

1)    Intensive education: you learn more in one week than you can learn by ‘experience’ in 15 years.

2)    You may not realize it, but your importer, exporter, and farmer contacts are getting certified.

3)    Imagine being able to say, “I would like to improve the ‘fruitiness’ that comes from acetic acid, so would you please ferment the coffee in the tanks for an additional few hours?” and have your listener understand what you mean and why you want it?

4)    If you can’t afford to travel to every origin you deal with, at least you can email your cupping results back and forth and be able to understand and communicate with the partners you can’t visit.

Some larger roasters needed this ability to communicate before CQI invented the cupping protocol, so they invented their own and taught their suppliers. Now that the world has adopted the SCAA / CQI system, they have retrained their staff and their suppliers because it is a lot easier to have everybody on one system.

“Society cannot share a common communication system so long as it is split into warring factions.”
— Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht

Other organizations have invented cupping protocols for specific reasons, like the Cup of Excellence (COE) cupping protocol. It celebrates coffees entered into a competition by awarding a score that makes more sense to a consumer. Often the two systems seem to be ‘at odds’ with one another, but in fact they serve their purposes well. If talking to the supply chain you would use ‘Q,’ and if you were trying to sell coffee to the public at large you might use the COE score.

Even the SCAA has decided to add a layer of confusion in cupping certifications by announcing the SCAA Coffee Taster Certificate that seems to have a purpose of… well, it is not exactly clear why they have done it.

The bottom line is this: If you are a roaster, then you MUST cup coffee. If you want to increase the quality of your coffee by communicating with the supply chain, you should be a Q-Grader. You must keep excellent notes and also be able to communicate your results to your partners to get what you want in your green coffee purchases. That’s why roasters cup coffee!

Rocky Rhodes is an 18 year coffee veteran, roaster, and Q-Grader Instructor, and his mission now is to transform the coffee supply chain and make sweeping differences in the lives of those that produce the green coffee. Rocky can be reached at

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