What Defines Specialty Grade Coffee?

Introduction: The SCA Score for Coffee

Complex grading system of SCA cupping scores

While there truly is nothing better than a great cup of joe, coffee lovers know that specialty coffee has a taste and aroma all its own. But what exactly defines specialty grade? Surprisingly, many coffee connoisseurs are unaware of the complex grading system, developed by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), that goes into scoring a delicious cup of coffee. The SCA, a nonprofit organization, aims to foster a global coffee community through education and support of sustainable practices within the specialty coffee industry.

How is Specialty Coffee Graded?

A. So what is it that separates specialty-grade coffee from the rest?
B. Does it have to do with the length of roasting?
C. Does it come from a specific region?
D. Is it how the coffee is brewed?


Specialty-grade coffee is determined by a set of ten specific quality factors that are assessed and graded by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). The SCA is a nonprofit organization that aims to foster a global coffee community through the education and support of sustainable activities surrounding the specialty coffee industry.

What are the 10 Factors in the SCA Scoring System?

Representation of SCA cupping score 10 point criteria

Once the beans have been roasted and brewed, the resulting cup of coffee is ready to be judged. For each of the ten quality factors, a maximum of 10 points can be awarded for a final score out of 100. When assessing the quality of the cup of coffee, specialty graders evaluate these 10 qualities:

1. Fragrance: The fragrance is judged by sniffing the beans after they've been freshly ground and are still dry.

2. Aroma: Once infused with hot water, graders sniff the brewed beans again to judge the coffee's aroma.

3. Flavor: While flavor can be subjective, the goal is to judge the coffee's flavor based on its "mid-range" notes, between that first sip and smell of the aroma to its lingering aftertaste. Graders are expected to take a full slurp, ensuring their entire palate is involved in the evaluation.

4. Acidity: This quality factor assesses how bright and lively the cup of coffee tastes. When favorable, the acidity can be described as "bright," but an unfavorable brew will have a "sour" taste.

5. Balance: A great cup of coffee will have an ideal balance between the different qualities in the scoring system. It judges how the body, acidity, flavor, aroma, and fragrance work together.

6. Uniformity: Assessing how consistent the flavor is across the various samples tested by the graders.

7. Body: Body refers to the mouth-feel of the liquid itself. Some coffees, like Sumatra, are expected to have a full body. In contrast, a Mexican coffee tends to be low in body. The respective coffees are judged on the pleasantness of the mouth-feel, despite the difference in body.

8. Sweetness: Sweetness doesn't necessarily mean sugary-sweet, but rather the pleasant fullness of flavor instead of a sour or "green" taste.

9. Aftertaste: The aftertaste refers to the lingering flavor. It's important that it is pleasant and doesn't leave a bitter or displeasing taste.

10. Clean Cup: A specialty-grade roast is expected to be "clean," meaning that it shouldn't have any unpleasant or non-coffee-like flavors or aromas present.

Quality Factor Description
Fragrance Judged by sniffing freshly ground, dry beans.
Aroma Assessed after brewing, by sniffing the brewed beans.
Flavor Evaluated based on "mid-range" notes, from first sip to aftertaste. Involves full palate.
Acidity Describes the coffee's brightness. Favorably "bright," unfavorably "sour."
Balance Ideal harmony among body, acidity, flavor, aroma, and fragrance.
Uniformity Consistency of flavor across samples.
Body The coffee's mouth-feel, judged on pleasantness.
Sweetness Not sugary-sweet, but a pleasant fullness of flavor.
Aftertaste The lingering flavor, which should be pleasant.
Clean Cup Free from unpleasant or non-coffee-like flavors/aromas.

 Table 1. Criteria for cupping scores

To illustrate, let’s consider a coffee scoring an 88 on the SCA scale. This coffee might possess a rich, complex aroma with hints of chocolate and citrus, a bright yet balanced acidity, and a velvety body that leaves a pleasant, lingering aftertaste. Contrast this with a coffee scoring 95 (very rare score), which could offer an extraordinary sensory experience, with a unique and intense aroma, exceptional clarity of flavors—perhaps notes of jasmine and bergamot—and a harmonious balance that is rare and memorable. These examples demonstrate how subtle differences in quality factors can elevate a coffee from 'very good' to 'outstanding.' 

Conclusion: The Final Score

After the final assessment, coffees with a score above 80 earn the specialty coffee status. Those with an impressive score of 95 or above are in the rare 1% of coffees worldwide to earn the title of "Outstanding." 

At General Warfield's Coffee, we believe that specialty coffee is an art. All of our small-batch, artisanal roasts are sourced with SCA scoring in mind, meaning you can be sure that your next cup of specialty coffee is going to be exceptional.




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