April 27, 2023

Will the new SCA cupping form & protocol add more value for specialty coffee?


At this year’s Re:co Symposium, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) unveiled the beta version of its Coffee Value Assessment

The SCA says this new cupping form and protocol will allow industry professionals to have a more “complete and high-resolution picture of a specific coffee”. Moreover, these new tools should mitigate any potential bias during assessment.

Since its implementation in 2004, the SCA cupping system has largely remained the same. Considering this, these new changes are sure to have massive implications on how industry professionals assess coffee quality.

Read on to learn more about the Coffee Value Assessment, as well as its potential future impact on the specialty coffee sector.

You may also like our article on what cupping can tell producers about their coffee.

What is the new Coffee Value Assessment?

The Coffee Value Assessment is a result of a three-year project conducted by the SCA to develop its cupping and grading protocol. This is one of the most important tools and resources used by specialty coffee professionals all over the world. Cuppers and green coffee buyers use it to score coffee on the 100-point SCA scale – the industry standard for quality.

However, despite its prominence in the sector, the SCA cupping form and protocol have largely been left untouched since the early 2000s. 

Moreover, these protocols have faced some criticism in recent years. One of the most notable is that they place too much emphasis on grading and scoring green coffee. In turn, this means coffee professionals can unintentionally ignore some of the more holistic aspects of coffee quality. Opinions also remain divided as to whether the cupping forms are either too subjective or too objective.

There have also been similar criticisms of the SCA Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel. Some people claim the flavours listed are too geared towards Western palates. In turn, this means they aren’t inclusive enough of other cultures and cuisines.

How will the new protocols work?

As part of a wider effort to improve equity for all stakeholders in the supply chain, the organisation has developed the new Coffee Value Assessment protocol and guidelines.

In October 2022, the SCA shared the results of a survey which included some 1,600 cupping professionals in Latin America, the UK, and the US. Essentially, the survey looked into the “intersubjectivity” of cupping. This is the idea that the results don’t accurately reflect both a cupping professional’s expert opinion nor their personal preferences.

A month later, the SCA launched a pilot project to resolve these issues, and also proposed the need for an evolved cupping form. The result: the Coffee Value Assessment protocol.

Essentially, the new protocol and guidelines are split into four separate assessment stages. Coffee professionals can either use these separate to one another or collectively:

  • Physical – an evaluation of green coffee which assesses moisture content, physical appearance, and any visual damage to the beans. You can apply the results to a number of grading systems.
  • Extrinsic – an evaluation of factors such as “identity”, certification, and origin.
  • Affective – an evaluation of the cupper’s personal opinion on coffee quality based on the 100-point scale.
  • Descriptive – an evaluation of a coffee’s flavour and aroma attributes, with no positive or negative implications.

Capturing more valuable data

Current SCA cupping form and guidelines only rely on affective and descriptive assessment stages. In theory, this means the Coffee Value Assessment should allow industry professionals to gather a much wider range of information about coffee.

Yannis Apostolopoulos is the CEO at SCA. He explains the overall purpose of the Coffee Value Assessment.

“The CVA protocol achieves what most of us in specialty coffee already know to be true – that there is no single marker of what makes a specialty coffee ‘specialty’,” he says. “And also that tastes and preferences differ in regions around the world.

“This new way of assessing the value of coffee respects and celebrates the diversity of taste preferences of customers in different regions and markets,” he adds.

A coffee professional prepares coffee for a cupping session.

How could coffee producers benefit?

It’s important to note the Coffee Value Assessment is still in its beta stage. However, there is already considerable discussion about how the new protocol will impact coffee professionals – especially producers.

“The most exciting part for us is the paradigm shift this programme represents for our industry, as it relates to the power dynamic between coffee producers and coffee buyers,” Yannis says. “Over time, this new way to assess the value of coffee will create a publicly accessible database of cupping data from around the world, giving coffee producers unprecedented access to invaluable data on consumer preferences by country or region.

“This will allow producers to bring their coffees more effectively to markets that are willing to pay a premium for them,” he adds. “There has never been such an ambitious project at this scale, and we’re looking forward to continuing to evolve it with the support of the global coffee community.”

Based on survey responses, the SCA concluded that current cupping protocol and guidance essentially reduces a coffee’s quality to a single score on the 100-point scale. This criticism has also been prevalent in the wider specialty coffee sector.

Effectively, this means that some producers can miss out on adding value to their coffee. Let’s say for example that a cupping professional scores a producer’s coffee 81 points based on their experience level. However, another cupper with more experience may score the same coffee 83 points. 

Ultimately, this has a significant impact on the price that the farmer receives. And considering that many smallholder farmers live below the poverty line, ensuring producers receive a fair price for their coffee is absolutely essential to the future of the industry.

Accounting for certification & origin

With the new Coffee Value Assessment, industry professionals will theoretically be able to take both a coffee’s physical and extrinsic attributes into account when determining overall quality. Furthermore, they will also be able to assess affective and descriptive characteristics, too.

Looking at extrinsic factors specifically, this new assessment category could have a major impact on how we perceive coffee quality. For instance, we may start to see certain producing countries – or even regions within these countries – emerge as more “boutique” origins with higher scores based on the Coffee Value Assessment.

Likewise, coffees with a number of certifications – including organic or even carbon neutral – could also receive higher overall scores, and further shape our perception of coffee quality.

With the SCA’s Coffee Value Assessment yet to be formally implemented, we’re yet to see exactly what the consequences will be. But there’s no doubt it will be a significant change to how we grade and assess coffee.

In theory, the new system will allow for more transparency about coffee quality and prices. Ideally, this will help producers to add more value to their coffee and access new markets.

Whether this works or not, a more open discussion about coffee quality, the language we use, and how we score it can certainly serve to push specialty coffee further in the right direction.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on whether events can show small producers the value of specialty coffee.

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