Numbers and Scores – All A Bore

A Blast from the Past –
Written by Michael Vournas – January 16, 2009    
A topic still relevant today.

   What do I have to say about this number stuff? Let’s see. Many number stories have made it to the so-called news these days. Numbers reflecting everything from consumer confidence to bailout amounts, to our plunging 401K balances. We even hear of numbers with respect to coffee. Usually represented as, this coffee scored an 84 or an 88 or, by God we gotta have it, a 94! It must be so much better than the other coffee that”only” scored a 93! Really? I say knock it off already.

   I have always had an aversion to ascribing a number to a coffee. And, I have had many, many discussions with importers, roasters and aficionados about numbers and what the hell they really mean. I ask the question: Do you score the steaks, hamburgers, corn, grapes and bread you eat? Do you score your kids? Your friends? Why not?

   I have heard that coffee has been compared to wine and we all know the oenophiles who ascribe numbers to various valuations of wines, so why shouldn’t we in the coffee business use similar numbers too? Because it can cause trouble, misunderstanding and confusion (and damn it, why do we have to copy them anyway). And it does nobody really any good. There, I said it. Prove it you say? OK.

   I will go out on a proverbial limb and say that it is extremely rare that we here at Vournas Coffee ever score any coffees with numbers. Yes, you heard me. I can’t, off the top of my head, ever recall any as I write this, in fact. Reason being: it takes  a cupper to an analytical and mathematical equation; a place where the quest for the right number designation supersedes how you are actually experiencing the coffee with your “I enjoy a great cup of coffee” head on straight. It takes a cupper away from the tasting/physical/comprehensive assessments that your brain makes regarding tastes.

   At Vournas Coffee, we cup all of our coffees and generally have a full table of regionally offered coffees from which we are cupping to choose what we will buy and carry for our valued customers. While they are often somewhat similar in taste, they are usually somewhat of a far cry from each other for those of us who cup coffees daily. When “ties” exist on practical taste (the few that do really occur) we re-cup those “tied” coffees against each other directly without others there to allow total concentration on coffee quality – NOT NUMBER DESIGNATIONS! You see, your customers will usually not drink their coffee and ascribe a number. They will drink it because it tastes better than that available at the store down the block! Does a number 91 taste good? How about a number 91.5? Better? Noticeably so? Give me a break.

   First off, if you rely solely on numbers, those numbers are yours and yours only. Everyone has their own distinct favorites, likes and dislikes. Those numbers are in your mind unless you do daily calibration exercises to ensure that your cupping buddy who had a garlic pizza last night is tasting the same things as you who enjoyed a cup of fresh and mild chicken soup. Health conditions, sinus conditions, foods previously eaten all have their detrimental taste affect. Certain organizations which Andrew and I have been involved with, such as Cup of Excellence and PCCA Cupping Competition, utilize scoring sheets which require the application of numeral representations of quality and taste profiles (an 8 in body, a 9.1 in acidity, for example). Those are useful only when you are (a) calibrated with one another and, (b) cupping 51 samples of Nicaraguan CoE coffees all of which were nationally ranked as 84’s or better. But, as a general rule, that doesn’t really happen in a roaster’s shop or an importer’s lab.

   Numbers are also difficult to make heads or tails of because independent cuppers each have their own individual idea of what makes a perfect cup of El Salvador bourbon coffee. What does a scored 100 taste like. I have never had one, have you? And if we haven’t, then how do we know what is a 96?    And then add in years or months between rated cups. Oh boy, now you are slipping into my trap. If a certain coffee was rated a 90 eleven months ago, how do you compare it to the score you ascribe to it now? What has happened in your mouth in the 11 months since?

   I guess the bottom line to my idea is, do you like the way your coffee tastes? It has GOT to be about that. For your customers, you list coffees by region, type, roast, flavor profile – you don’t list them by number designations (a 91.3, a 89.1). They want to know of the terroir, the luscious taste that is a beautiful coffee, the mouthfeel that, like carmel syrup, coats your tongue and smoothly runs down your throat making you feel like royalty. They want to know about how it will taste black or with a splash of milk, maybe over ice, whatever and however they drink it. Coffee is an experience that is so unbelievably amazing and exciting. It is ever so able to reflect slight changes in roast preparation, drink variables and of our life lived while drinking it.

   Let’s not bore people with numbers. LET THEM DRINK GOOD COFFEE AND ENJOY!