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Redefining Coffee Quality: Beyond the Bean

Photo: @andreas.raw

At the 2024 German Brewers Cup, I delivered a performance that centred around (re)defining quality in coffee, exploring that which we currently value and what I believe ought to be added to our definition and conception of coffee's quality in general. The Quest for Excellence: What Defines Quality in Coffee? In the realm of specialty coffee, the pursuit of perfection is a never-ending journey. From the moment a humble coffee cherry is plucked from the tree to the final sip of a meticulously brewed cup, every step along the way contributes to the complex tapestry of flavour and aroma that defines our coffee experience. But what truly sets exceptional coffee apart from the rest? How do we measure its quality, and how can we ensure that every cup we brew is a testament to the dedication and skill of those who cultivate it?

These questions have been central to my own journey in the world of coffee, from my early days as a novice barista to my current role as a seasoned competitor and educator. Over the years, I've grappled with the elusive concept of coffee quality, seeking to understand not only how to taste it but also how to define it.

At its core, quality in coffee is a multifaceted concept that encompasses far more than just flavour and aroma. While these sensory attributes undoubtedly play a crucial role, they are but one piece of the puzzle. True quality extends beyond the bean itself, encompassing the entire journey from seed to cup.

In my own pursuit of excellence, I've come to appreciate the importance of balance and nuance in a well-crafted cup of coffee. It's not just about bold flavours or exotic origins; it's about achieving a harmonious blend of sweetness, acidity, and body that tantalises the taste buds and leaves a lasting impression. But achieving this balance is no easy feat—it requires a deep understanding of coffee's complexities and a willingness to experiment and innovate.

Navigating the Complexity of Coffee Trends

One of the biggest challenges in defining coffee quality is navigating the ever-changing landscape of coffee trends. What may be considered groundbreaking one year could be dismissed as passé the next, leaving coffee professionals grappling with uncertainty and confusion.

I've experienced this firsthand in my own journey as a competitor, where the pressure to stay ahead of the curve can be overwhelming. In the quest for the perfect competition coffee, many are tempted to place their trust in coffees that have already garnered acclaim, believing that success can be bought with a hefty price tag. But as I've learned, the pursuit of excellence cannot be reduced to a simple equation of cost and prestige. True quality transcends fleeting trends, rooted instead in a deep respect for the craft and a commitment to continuous improvement.

Beyond Scores: The Limitations of Cupping Metrics

In the world of specialty coffee, cupping scores reign supreme as the ultimate arbiter of quality. But are these scores truly indicative of a coffee's worth? As I've discovered through years of exploration and experimentation, the answer is far from simple.

While cupping scores provide a useful framework for evaluating coffee, they often fail to capture the full spectrum of a coffee's character and origin. Comparing an 86-point Colombian coffee with an 86-point Sumatran coffee is like comparing apples and oranges—they may share a numerical rating, but their flavour profiles and cultural significance are worlds apart. Likewise, the ways in which they are grown, the environmental impact (or benefit) associated to their cultivation, and the communities they affect are worlds apart; how then do these two coffees end up as numerically identical? That begs the question – what do we value about a cup of coffee? What denotes 'quality' in one cup, and a lack thereof in another? When asking a range people, who will of course receive a range of answers. Coffee professionals might reference a coffee's inherent flavour characteristics, quality of roast and how the coffee was brewed; but at the same time, a general consumer might focus more on whether a coffee is grown or traded "fair trade", "ethical" or has any number of certifications.

Embracing the "Farm Experience": A Journey to Origin

To truly understand the essence of coffee quality, one must embark on a journey to its origins. My own perspective was forever changed during my first visit to a coffee farm, where I witnessed firsthand the tireless labor and dedication of those who cultivate the beans we so often take for granted.

In the remote hillsides of coffee-producing regions, I encountered farmers whose lives revolve around the rhythms of the harvest, yet who rarely have the opportunity to taste the fruits of their labor. Despite the challenges they face, these farmers remain steadfast in their commitment to producing exceptional coffee, driven by a passion for their craft and a deep sense of pride in their work.

The Role of Social Responsibility in Coffee Quality

As my understanding of coffee quality has evolved, so too has my appreciation for the social and ethical considerations that underpin responsible coffee sourcing. In an industry plagued by issues of inequality and exploitation, it's imperative that we prioritise the well-being of coffee producers and the sustainability of coffee-growing communities.

For me, the essence of quality extends beyond mere taste – it encompasses social responsibility and ethical sourcing practices. I strive to support producers who uphold sustainable farming methods, prioritise worker welfare, and foster community development. This ethos resonates with an increasing number of consumers who are willing to pay a premium for ethically sourced products, indicating a growing demand for socially responsible coffee.

Reimagining Quality Assessment: Integrating Sustainability Metrics

To truly assess the quality of coffee, we must adopt a more holistic approach that transcends traditional cupping scores. This entails incorporating metrics that evaluate sustainability, social impact, and environmental stewardship. By assigning numerical values to these factors, we can gain a comprehensive understanding of a coffee's true value, beyond its sensory attributes alone.

Implementing such a system requires collaboration among industry stakeholders, utilising existing frameworks for sustainability reporting and social impact assessment. By integrating these metrics into the evaluation process, we can foster a more transparent and responsible coffee industry, one that honours the labor of producers and safeguards the future of coffee farming for generations to come.

In conclusion, I believe that redefining coffee quality requires a paradigm shift—one that prioritises not only taste, but also ethics, sustainability, and social responsibility. By embracing these principles, we can ensure that every cup of coffee we enjoy is a testament to the dedication and craftsmanship of those who cultivate it.

Join me on this journey as we explore the rich tapestry of coffee quality, one sip at a time.


Beth Steel
Beth Steel
Apr 01

This is a fascinating article that leads one to ruminate over the definition of quality in coffee! I recently took the SCA's Coffee Value Assessment (CVA) course and grappled with the evaluation of social impact and sustainable practices. As a conscious young cupper, I appreciated that you said "To truly assess the quality of coffee, we must adopt a more holistic approach that transcends traditional cupping scores. This entails incorporating metrics that evaluate sustainability, social impact, and environmental stewardship. By assigning numerical values to these factors, we can gain a comprehensive understanding of a coffee's true value, beyond its sensory attributes alone." These are important attributes that I typically look for when purchasing coffee, but struggle with the idea of…

Apr 08
Replying to

Thank you very much for your comment! I believe it's high time we start taking cues from companies that have amassed centuries of data to assess their certifications. Currently, organizations like UTZ, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, and many others have established themselves on solid principles of social and environmental responsibility. They implement rigorous regulations and can evaluate their partners accordingly. However, one aspect often overlooked is the quality of the coffee itself.

By examining these systems, we can glean insights and integrate certain metrics into the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) cupping score sheets. This would allow us to comprehensively evaluate coffee quality alongside social and environmental considerations.

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