Understanding the new SCA Coffee Value Assessment

Esther Gibbs
September 7, 2023
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Esther-Hope Gibbs is an Authorised Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) Trainer for the Sensory Skills programme, and a certified Arabica Q Grader. In this article, she introduces specialty coffee roasters to the new SCA Coffee Value Assessment – with no intention of dismissing the Q Grading system or current SCA grading guidelines. 

The SCA scoring system has been used since 2004 and is synonymous with the Q Grading Score for a coffee. It is a quantitative and qualitative assessment of coffee through green grading and cupping to present a score out of 100. This score ultimately determines the quality of a coffee. The score also leads to the determination and influence of specialty coffee pricing. 

Over the last three years, the SCA has conducted research to determine the flaws within the current value system. As a result, it has created a new assessment that offers more to producers and buyers alike.

The Association has released a 58-page article introducing its new Coffee Value assessment, which collates the data collected during its research. Now, the Association is looking to it out and begin training using its new assessment criteria

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Why change the assessment criteria?

The SCA explains that many have raised questions about what the current cupping score system can offer in terms of assessing the intrinsic value of the coffee. 

Ultimately, the system is a combination of subjective and objective assessments. These are dependent on calibration to produce a number that can be used without much meaning. The SCA recognises that people often value different characteristics of coffee. This could be traceability or the complexity of flavour. 

The amended Value Assessment is a tool to help attribute value to a coffee. It provides a “high-resolution picture” by assessing four key aspects independently to avoid bias. Once these assessments are made, the results can be used as a value discovery tool. 

The four aspects include:

  1. Physical Assessment: The beans’ colour, moisture content, defects, and size. 
  2. Descriptive Assessment: The coffee’s fragrance, aroma, mouthfeel, flavour, acidity, sweetness, and aftertaste.
  3. Affective Assessment: The impression of quality, and hedonic preference. This is where sensory defects should be recorded.
  4. Extrinsic Assessment: This refers to informational or symbolic attributes that are considered to add value to the coffee. 

These assessments must be done independently, and there are separate forms for each assessment. 

That said, the SCA recognises this is not always practical. For insurance, the amount of time or coffee available may be limited, so a person may not be able to carry out multiple cuppings. Therefore, the SCA has provided an alternative combined form for those who want to complete the assessment quickly. 

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What do these changes mean for specialty coffee roasters?

The main purpose for the change is that the SCA is looking to replace the singular dimensions of the cupping score number in contracts. 

It is important to note it is still a work in progress and the SCA acknowledges there are limitations it needs to address. For instance, the Association admits more research needs to be done into green coffee defects, as it doesn’t currently reflect the plethora of processing methods now widely used in the industry. The physical assessment looks at colour, defects, moisture content, and screen size. 

Additionally, the document includes a lot of information about how samples should be roasted. There are strict roasting guidelines in the CQI assessment, but the SCA understands everyone will not have access to the same equipment. 

Generally, the SCA states that coffee should be roasted to a medium, about gourmet agtron 63, and roasting defects should be avoided. While the Association acknowledges roasting parameters should be kept the same, it understands the physical properties of a bean, particularly moisture content, could affect the way it needs to be roasted. 

The SCA suggests categorising coffees of different moisture in groups. Then these should be assessed in smaller groups with the same roast profiles to suit the coffee’s properties. 

The descriptive assessment does not necessarily need to be cupping. It could be a batch brew or French press, as long as grounds are kept aside for assessing the fragrance. The liquor should be assessed at least 3 times for each coffee once it reaches 70°C (158°F).

For an affective assessment, 5 cups will be required to assess for consistency and uniformity. The SCA further advises that no more than 6 coffees should be assessed at once unless you have experience. 

Within the descriptive assessment, The SCA uses a rating of 1 to 15 for intensity. Then, it has a “check all that apply” or CATA assessment underneath. This provides room for your own description, should those not cover what you experience in the cup. 

Furthermore, the Association has new terms for acidity: dry or sweet acidity. The old assessment focused on naming the specific acid tasted in the cup. More recent research from Coffee Mind has suggested this is not possible. 

Flavour is also split for taste, which includes sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, as well as ortho-nasal, which refers to flavour wheel attributes. The use of a hedonic scale between 1 and 9 indicates little or no acidity, for example. The central point would refer to neither high nor low, and 9 indicates the acidity as high. This is opposed to the previous scale of 6 to 10 starting with “good”. 

In this assessment, sweetness is also assessed on a scale. Affective tests are based on a reaction to a stimulus and are, therefore, subjective. Lower than 5 is a dislike. 

That said, there is a manner of trust that is given to a cup taster to be true to their own assessment. The cup taster should understand what is desirable within the market and not just their own preferences. 

Notably, there is no section for “clean” cup or balance like in the CQI, as those should be assessed within other categories such as “overall”. 

The final largest difference is that there is no space to calculate the total score to avoid reverse cupping. This is where people select the overall score and then add in the scores retrospectively to hit that score. All data must be entered into a computer or online tool for calculating the assessment. 

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Understanding the value of coffee

The last section of the new assessment focuses on the value of a coffee beyond its flavour and taste. 

This is the extrinsic assessment and includes identifying information about the coffee that the buyer might find valuable. This may include country of origin, region, the name of the farm, its elevation, iCo number, processing information, and more. It could also be elaborated further into the story behind the coffee and its impact on the community. 

Not all buyers will value the same extrinsic information, so it is not graded as such. However, it is essential to present all this information to the potential buyer. The assessment provides a holistic picture of the economic, aesthetic, and human value of coffee. 

The new Coffee Value Assessment is being trialled globally, and roasters can access the forms to try out. 

What this system could mean for producers is that a more thorough and detailed assessment will be made of their coffee. In turn, this provides buyers with a more dynamic understanding of the coffee and encourages economic value to be added to the coffee when appropriate. 

For roasters, it could mean that purchasing decisions will be easier, as they won’t have to find the information themselves. Beyond this, it may even remove the need for assessing the coffee themselves, as detailed assessments will be done beforehand.  

These forms will showcase the strengths and weaknesses of each coffee to help roasters better select coffee for purpose, as well as encourage deeper gratitude for the hard work done by producers. 

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We offer a complete range of coffee pouches and bags, takeaway cups, and custom coffee boxes in a variety of sizes.  Our range of 100% recyclable coffee packaging options is made from renewable materials such as kraft paper, rice paper, or multilayer LDPE packaging with an environmentally friendly PLA lining

For more information on sustainable coffee packaging, or our SCA membership, contact our team. 

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