Reflections on Cupping – Part Five: History

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So with all this talk of cupping, I have been really curious about its history: when did it emerge, how did it evolve, and when did it become popular?

As an industry that loves lore and myth (see: dancing goats), it was unsurprisingly that I kept coming across the story of the Hill Brothers. They were San Francisco coffee purveyors in the 1800s. One of the brothers, Reuben Wilmart Hills, apparently adopted ‘cup testing’ as a way to use sight and smell to isolate any defects. As the story goes, the ratio relied on seven grams of coffee measured by its correspondence to the weight of a nickel or dime.

You may be picking up on my incredulous tone. The problem with most narratives in food and drink is that they overlook the lived practice of the everyday, especially on the side of growers and producers. After digging some more, I would side with Britta Folmer. In the Craft and Science of Coffee, she writes, “for the better part of 400 years, coffee cupping [has been] an informal art, passed on through the generations by word of mouth” (182). I mean, it is a simple and easy way to brew coffee and not exactly a trademark-able creation. That said, the rise of scoring at the cupping table is pretty interesting…

I recently discovered Katherine Virginia Fischer’s amazing dissertation “The Ends of Coffee: State, Work, and Identity in Post-Cafta Costa Rica”. In her chapter on cupping, she writes “until about the 1960s coffee was ‘good’ if it arrived at its final destination without having been stolen or damaged in transit”. In other words, coffee was graded on a pass/fail basis without any gradations for quality. Through large-scale dark roasting, the ‘inherent’ flavours in the cup were of the roast process rather than origin of bean.

This all changes in the 1960s and 1970s with the establishment of ‘specialty coffee’. A key aspect of the project relied on separating specific types of producers, roasters, and retailers in the industry through the creation of numerical scoring systems. If you will recall the dispatch on taste, we charted how nutritional information like calories are objective but flavour and intensity are subjective. Equally, in coffee there are objective qualities like bean size, varietal, moisture activity but taste is determined by individual impression. Scoring in cupping works to eliminate or soften the subjective through grades in the basic categories of aroma, acidity, mouthfeel, flavor, and aftertaste. These add up to a total score out of one hundred with eighty working as the dividing line between ‘conventional’ and ‘specialty’ coffee.

So let’s ask the perennial question of these emails: is this good or bad for coffee? Well, I think the equally constant response stands: it can be positive but should be tempered with a sense of balance. The difference between an eighty to an eighty-five to a ninety is huge with each step representing higher prices and, in turn, opportunities for long term partnerships and ongoing reciprocal relationships. This is great and as Fischer details, when coffee is relegated to commodity status, producers suffer. However, I have met way too many coffee people who only talk about scores.

For several weeks, we have explored the subjective elements of taste and the way cupping favours particular types of origins and roasting philosophies. Surely undermining any perceived impartialness of numerical scores. Moreover, coffee is so diverse; how do you judge it without considering terroir? As Fishcer writes, it becomes virtually impossible to truly “quantify quality” given “the tremendous range of elements that change and affect the final taste”.

While useful, I think we should make scores only one part of the story of origin. The narrative should also include the unique characteristics (varietal or processing) of the coffee, as well as the farm’s social and environmental practices. Scores should never work to bypass the political dimensions of green sourcing. And that is exactly why you will see far more entries in our Women Producer’s Series or offers from emergent farms via Red Fox or coffees from our direct-trade friends in Honduras over any transparent-less and over-hyped ‘Ninety Plus®’ coffees.