As the demand for specialty coffee grows around the world, sourcing beans that impress even the most seasoned coffee professionals may become a challenge.
The majority of specialty coffee roasters work with coffees that score between 80 and 89 points on the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) quality scale.
Notably, a score between 80 and 84.99 falls into the realm of “Very Good” specialty coffee, while a score of 85 to 89.99 is considered “Excellent”.
The dream of many specialty coffee roasters is to source beans that top these scores, such as those that come with a score of 90+. However, knowing what to look for, where to find them, and how to roast them can be difficult.
To find out more about how roasters can source 90+ scoring coffee, I spoke with WBC-certified judge and WCE representative Danilo Lodi.
What is 90+ scoring coffee?
The SCA coffee cupping protocols were developed to help farmers receive a fair price for the varying levels of quality of their crops.
Additionally, they aim to promote the development of higher quality coffee.
Rated out of 100, all coffee with a score of over 80 points is what those in the industry know as “specialty coffee”. Anything below that is considered commodity coffee, which is the bulk of what the world trades and consumes.
Effectively, roasters who source 90+ scoring coffee are dealing with the very best coffee available on the market. That said, cupping protocols are far from a simple score out of 100.
The final number factors in the scores of several individual components of the coffee. These include aroma, flavour, acidity, body, balance, and uniformity, as well as the presence of defects – or lack thereof.
Subsequently, these protocols are the best current method of reducing the subjective coffee drinking experience to a standardised scoring system.
In other words, 90+ coffees do not all share the same qualities, and they do not have to be particularly complex.
“People tend to think 90+ coffee is always very complex in flavour,” says Danilo, who is also a green coffee buyer and farm consultant. “But it’s more about the clarity of the flavours. They’re so clean, sparkling, and intense – making them on point.”
Essentially, it is about finding coffees that excel within specific categories to the extent that they can be considered outstanding.
In Danilo’s opinion, the score summarises the quality of the cup from aroma to flavour and aftertaste.
Many 90+ coffees are sourced in order to be used at premier coffee competitions. In some cases, the coffee itself is on trial, but on many occasions, it is the barista’s ability to use the coffee effectively that is graded.
Typically, judges rate coffees on how prominent and clear flavour notes are, especially if the competitor has described the coffee as such. These ratings can be very useful for coffee roasters.
How do producers grow 90+ coffee?
The work that goes into developing “normal” coffees into specialty coffees is extensive. Many of the coffee varieties that possess specialty potential have been bred over generations.
Furthermore, farming techniques have been continuously improved to get the best out of them.
Terroir also plays an integral role in the flavours expected from coffees from specific origins. Simply put, terroir is the combination of climate, soil quality, rootstock, and topography that makes an agricultural environment unique.
That said, a farmer’s skill, determination, methodology, and experience are often the deciding factors when producing high scoring coffees.
“It’s the farm: the picking, processing, and drying,” Danilo says. “The methods used will make a huge difference.”
Another assumption is that only certain arabica varieties, such as Gesha can reach the high scores across the board of 90+ coffee.
The Gesha variety frequently achieves top marks when it comes to evaluation and competition. Its natural qualities – paired with a terroir that optimises its potential – often create a complex and delicate flavour profile.
However, Danilo has found that this is not necessarily a rule written in stone.
“You must choose the right combination, as many 90+ coffees are from the Typica variety,” he explains. “I have found a 91 point coffee that was Catuai, so it is not only Geisha that can reach ninety points.”
How can a roaster find 90+ coffee?
When sourcing 90+ coffees, Danilo suggests that roasters should seek out farms that pay special attention to producing high-quality micro-lots.
For many producers, specialty coffee lots form a small percentage of their income. In other cases, it’s the main focus.
Subsequently, sourcing for a roastery can be competitive at the best of times, as many roasters are looking for coffees that will set them apart from the competition.
“You just need to know where to buy, because they are not at the top of the chain,” Danilo says. “Plus, there is not a lot of this kind of coffee, because many people are already trying to get their hands on it. You have to trump the other buyers.”
In the case of 90+ coffee, working with such small lots of green beans may mean that there is not enough stock to sell to more than one buyer.
Danilo believes one of the easiest ways to find 90+ coffee is to go to auctions such as Cup of Excellence or Best of Panama.
“Those places are more accessible, as there is an international panel that puts the coffee front and centre for distributors,” he explains. “So, what you buy will be 90+, but you will have to compete with other people who are bidding.”
Therefore, building relationships with the right farmers can help roasters be first in line for 90+ coffees.
Even if a farm is entering one of its lots into a competition, it will often choose one that has the potential to make the producer the most profit.
However, the coffee that has been kept back at the farm could be more appealing and match precisely what a roaster is looking for.
It is not by coincidence that outstanding coffee grows in some of the most picturesque parts of the world. However, the extra work put in by farmers to deliver quality processing techniques and drying methods is a critical factor in bringing a crop into the top tier of specialty coffee.
That is why prices for 90+ coffee beans can quickly skyrocket, as the labour put into quality-driven production adds a premium to any final product.
At MTPak Coffee, we aim to give roasters of all sizes the resources to bring incredible coffee to the market. Our range of coffee packaging is made from sustainable materials such as kraft and rice paper, as well as LDPE and PLA-lined bags.
Furthermore, we can use digital printing to customise coffee bags to highlight your unique 90+ coffee, with a 40-hour turnaround and 24-hour shipping time. This allows us to offer low minimum order quantities (MOQs) of packaging, no matter what size or material.