What is the Cup of Excellence? How does COE grading coffee differ from SCA?

Vietnamese Coffee Exporter
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How does the Cup of Excellence grading coffee differ from Specialty Coffee Association? If you love specialty coffee, the coffee grading style of the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) is certainly no stranger. Helena Coffee Vietnam has a pretty detailed explanation of SCA’s cupping form here. SCA’s cupping form is the most popular document in grading coffee, widely used in the specialty coffee community, from roasters and baristas to coffee import and export companies.

However, the SCA cupping form is not everything. The Cup of Excellence coffee competition (arguably the most famous in the world) uses an entirely different scoring format from SCA.

This article is based on the experience of Helena Coffee Vietnam, whose training course specializes in tasting and grading coffee under the Cup of Excellence format, under the guidance of one of the prominent CoE judges, Scott Conary.

What is the Cup of Excellence (COE)?

The Cup of Excellence (CoE) is more than 20 years old as an in-depth annual competition for evaluating and honoring specialty coffees. It started under Best of Brazil in 1999 to find the best coffee in this country; CoE is now present in 15 countries. CoE is often associated with Alliance For Coffee Excellence (ACE). In short, CoE is the competition to find the best coffee in that country. ACE specializes in developing the specialty coffee market, auctioning CoE-winning coffee, and organizing and introducing CoE to new countries.

ACE is also behind recent hit events like the 2022 Taiwan Private Coffee Auction or Best of Thailand 2022. ACE and CoE are essential in turning specialty coffee into luxury goods. The auction of coffee-winning CoE has long been a hot topic, and the price each roaster is willing to pay for lots of “excellent” coffee is increasing over time.

The first prize of the CoE Indonesia 2021 lot is paid at USD 80/pound, although this is the first year Indonesia has organized the competition. In Taiwan, the most expensive lot of coffee is priced at USD 183/pound, demonstrating the tolerance of many coffee connoisseurs of roasters willing to pay the price for quality coffee grown in Taiwan.

Once the farm has won the CoE or even just reached the top of the National winner, coffee growers have a chance to change their lives. The farmers kept most of the auction money, and their reputation also increased rapidly, helping most coffee lots from the same farm sell for a higher price.
To sum up, Cup of Excellence is an annual prestigious competition held in several countries to identify the highest specialty coffees produced.

How to take the Cup of Excellence

Cup of Excellence coffee is never cheap, especially the 3rd prize lots and above. But does the price go hand in hand with quality? Not everyone is lucky enough to try a lot of CoE coffee, but if you knew more about the rigorous rounds to honor the best batch of coffee, perhaps you would understand more about their value.

The rules of Cup of Excellence are pretty complicated, but in general, to be able to enter the top CoE, each farm needs to go through 3 steps:

Step 1: Pre-selection:

Any farm, farmer, or organization can submit samples for the contest. Thousands of pieces are sent back yearly, but only 150 models with a minimum score of 86 are allowed to continue. If you pass this first round of judging (i.e., Competition Money), all entries must be sent to a separate storage facility. The Cup of Excellence will then retrieve the sample from the storage facility.

This means that participants cannot choose the best sample to take the test, and hopefully, they can continue to submit this sample through the following rounds. In addition, there will be no way that the winning coffee will be different from the auction coffee. CoE has no room for fraud, and it is imperative that if participants want to compete, they must be ready about their coffee production and confident in their quality.

Step 2: National Jury:

The local judges will score the coffee lots from the Pre-selection round. In this 2nd round of scoring, up to 90 coffee samples (with a minimum score of 86) are allowed to continue. After that, these lots are further marked, and only a maximum of 40 coffee samples are selected after the 3rd round of grading.

Step 3: International Jury:

In round 4, the international jury will taste all the coffee samples that passed round 3. Up to 30 samples with a minimum score above 87 will go to…

… around 5. 30 coffee samples continued to be tasted and re-scored to decide whether each lot deserved the title of CoE (over 87 points).

And finally, in round 6, the 10 best samples from round 5 are scored again and ranked from 1 to 10. Coffee samples with 90 points or more won the Presidential Award.

After CoE announced the winners, CoE and ACE were responsible for selecting and packaging the winning coffee lots and sending samples to buyers around the world. About six weeks after the International Jury, the online auction begins.

Thus, in a CoE contest with about 300 coffee samples, the jury had to taste about 9,000 times. Each lot of coffee reaching the top 10 CoE is tested and scored at least 120 times. It is not without reason that coffee winning the CoE award is always the standard criterion for quality coffee.

Difference between the Scoring Cup of Excellence and the Specialty Coffee Association

Reading this far, you may be confused: coffee reaching 87/100 sounds normal, but why is it so valuable in CoE? There are two main reasons: the scoring of CoE is very different from that of SCA, and the harshness of a CoE of 0.25 points can also make a huge difference.

First, let’s compare the SCA and CoE cupping forms:

What is the Cup of Excellence? How does COE grading coffee differ from SCA?

Let’s take a look at SCA’s cupping form:

  • Score from 6 to 10 for 7 attributes to be evaluated: Fragrance/Aroma (dry/wet), Flavor (flavor), Aftertaste (aftertaste), Acidity (sour), Body (‘thickness’ of the coffee in the mouth), Balance and Overall. The maximum total score for seven attributes is 70.

  • Uniformity has five boxes because each coffee sample requires five cupping samples on the same table. If all five samples taste the same, the Uniformity score is 10.

  • If Uniformity = 10, Clean cup (coffee feels ‘clean’) and Sweetness (Sweetness) automatically ten each.

  • If out of 5 cups of cupping, 1 sample is different from the other four samples, the judge deducts 2 points from the Uniformity.

  • With the cupping cup having a very different taste, the judge should guess what the defect is and make a note of it. Since the sample has 1 cup with defects, the Clean cup is deducted 2 points. Sweetness is also deducted 2 points.

  • Overall (Overview) is based on the reviewer’s perception of coffee quality.

  • Defect: Taint is an error when a cup of cupping tastes only slightly different, especially in scent. The fault is a bug that affects the taste of coffee. If there is a Defect, the scorer subtracts 2 points for Taint and 4 points for Fault out of the total score.

  • Coffee with a score of 80 or higher is considered ‘Specialty Grade Coffee.’

What about Cup of Excellence?

  • Scale from 0 to 8 for eight attributes: Clean cup (cleanness and unmistakable taste), Sweetness (Sweetness), Acidity (Acidity), Mouthfeel (palate feel), Flavor (flavor), Aftertaste (aftertaste), Balance, and Overall (overview).

  • All samples are automatically started with 36 points: if a coffee sample scores 7 points for eight attributes, this sample score is 7 x 8 + 36 = 92 points.

  • Each coffee sample requires 4 cups of cupping. If each cup has a defect, that sample will be deducted points depending on the severity of the error.

  • Defect of CoE has three grades (1 to 3), while SCA has two levels (Taint and Fault). How to calculate the defect score of Cup of Excellence: several defective cups x defect level x 4. For example, in 4 cups of cupping, 1 cup is defective, and the severity is 2; this sample will be deducted 1 x 2 x 4 = 8 points.

  • From 6 points or more, the grader can grade in steps of +0.5 (meaning from 0 to 6, sample and integer score only). But for six or more, this sample can have a score of 6.5.

  • From 7 points or more, the rater can grade in steps of +0.25 (7.25, 7.5, or 7.75).

When scoring the CoE, the rater needs to know why the attributes are arranged in the above order:

  • Clean cup and Sweetness: pure and sweet are the two essential elements of coffee with CoE

  • Acidity and palate: characteristic features of each sample

  • The rest of the factors: to evaluate the structure and balance of the coffee

Writers could talk about the difference between CoE and SCA all day, but let’s focus on the one I find most interesting. If attributes like Acidity or Aftertaste may be familiar if you’ve ever had a cup with the SCA form, the Clean cup is a unique attribute in the CoE grading process. The clean cup is more than simply pure and error-free coffee. Clean cup with CoE also means:

  • Tasteless, scentless

  • No dirty taste

  • No chat (harshness and astringency)

  • Different flavors can be distinguished

  • The different attributes (like Acidity or Sweetness) are apparent.

Explaining what the Clean cup looks like on paper is difficult. But imagine: a sample of coffee can have many flavors, but the question is, can you feel the acidity/sweetness/feel in the mouth/aftertaste? Is each taste note you perceive separate, or is the whole cup of coffee disordered? To feel the Clean cup in Cup of Excellence, the judges must be trained very carefully and must learn to taste and evaluate differently from the grading method of SCA.

Example of bean scoring based on Cup of Excellence

To be more intuitive, let’s try to calculate the coffee score based on the Cup of Excellence form:

  • The coffee sample with eight attributes scored 6 (which means it’s pretty good because CoE uses a scale from 0 to 8), and the total score of this sample is 6×8+36=84. 84 points for Cup of Excellence’s scorers are only a Specialty standard, not excellent.

  • When a coffee sample with six attributes reaches 6 and 2 details go to 7.5, the total score will be 87. This coffee sample can meet the Cup of Excellence standard (if this score is maintained through a series of rounds).

  • With four attributes scoring 6 + 4 attributes reaching 7, this sample has reached 88 points, a very high score by CoE standards. The judge must pay attention to every detail during the tasting process to score the coffee in steps of 0.5 and 0.25.

  • When two attributes reach 6 + 7 details reaching 7, the coffee sample reaches the threshold of 90 points. A score of 90 and above is an excellent achievement, and it is scarce for CoE coffees to achieve this score. Samples from 90 were awarded a Presidential Award, not simply a Cup of Excellence.

That’s how it is scored, but will coffee with a CoE score according to the SCA scale achieve the same score? Helena Coffee Vietnam asked the same question to Scott, and the answer was: Maybe. Cup of Excellence coffee is Specialty, but coffee reaching the Specialty threshold (80/100) is not necessarily considered Cup of Excellence quality. Helena Coffee Vietnam also tried to score CoE coffee based on the SCA scale; the reward coffee samples only differed by about 1 point.

However, 1 point with Cup of Excellence is also a process. That’s why coffee tasters have to change their thinking when using the CoE or SCA cupping form. I hope the article helps you understand a different way of cupping coffee. If you are familiar with cupping with the SCA form, try changing to the CoE form to understand a different philosophy of feeling and grading coffee.

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