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Cuptasting: quality control for coffee exports.


To get the best returns from their export shipments, suppliers of coffee beans should conduct cuptasting tests. How this control of quality works.

Coffee is one of the leading commodities traded on the international market by developing countries, including many of the least developed. In a market that is characterized by abundant supplies, low prices and strong competition, exporters must be able to meet the quality requirements of buyers to obtain orders at optimum prices. One of the principal techniques for ensuring coffee exports of a consistently high quality is cuptasting, which, along with the essential process of grading, assesses the characteristics of the coffee bean that are important to buyers.

Although many coffee exporters carry out the grading process prior to shipment, fewer conduct cuptasting tests (or "liquoring") of the coffee bean. In the grading operation, the visual appearance of the coffee bean is evaluated (its colour, size and uniformity of shape), and the number of defective beans per lot is counted. Cuptasting, in contrast, focuses on the smell and taste of the brewed coffee bean--the main selling points for coffee. As coffee is a beverage that is judged by the ultimate consumer primarily on its flavour in the cup, taste is a prime element determining the price of the coffee bean. Suppliers of coffee on the international market should therefore be familiar with this technique and apply it in their export operations, which should enable them to achieve higher returns on their exports. Considerable savings should also be possible through reduced rejection of export shipments containing nonuniform qualities of beans.

Who carries out cuptasting

Cuptasting is carried out at the main trading points between the coffee tree and the roasting plant. It is practiced by exporters in producing countries, coffee authorities in those countries, agents and dealers in the importing countries, roasters and, when the case arises, arbitration boards. Cuptasting is used to make a range of decisions arising during the trading and processing of coffee--accepting or rejecting lots of green coffee beans; formulating blends of beans; determining processing conditions such as the roasting time and temperature; and controlling the final quality of the product that goes to the consumer.

Exporters: The first time that a coffee usually undergoes cuptasting is at the offices and laboratories of exporters in the producing countries, assuming that they have the necessary know-how and equipment. To be sure of supplying a high-standard export product, exporters should check on the quality of all individual lots of coffee delivered to their mills.

The factors that should be examined at this stage are:

* Is the coffee of the required standard with regard to the producing zone, altitude and so on? These elements relate to the "body" (consistency), acidity and flavour of the coffee.

* Is the coffee absolutely clean and without defects such as fermented beans ("stinkers"), and is it free of an earthy or a mouldy taste?

Some exporters who do not cuptaste their coffees rely on their mill managers' know-how of detecting ferment or mould by smelling the parchment coffee (i.e. coffee beans with the skin still on). Many specialists do an excellent job of eliminating defective lots of coffee in this way. The ultimate assurance of quality can, however, be obtained only by cuptasting.

The next step that exporters take is blending or bulking (combining) the green coffee into larger lots, unless a big batch comes from one plantation and is large enough to make up a shipment of its own. Exporters usually carry out another cuptest of individual lots after milling and before bulking. This method goes a long way towards preventing an inferior lot from getting bulked with good coffee, thereby avoiding a costly mistake. Bad beans mixed with good ones make the entire batch unreliable, which means a loss in value. In such cases quality claims from roasters, dealers and agents are unavoidable, and allowances must subsequently be paid, either through negotiation on an amicable basis or decisions imposed by a board of arbitrators.

After bulking, exporters carry out the final cuptasting of the export product, to complete their quality record. This serves as a further check in case quality problems occur with a buyer later on. Samples of the final bulks are usually sent to the buyers, the so-called "shipment samples."

Coffee authorities: The coffee authorities of a number of producing countries also carry out quality control on shipments made by their exporters. For instance, specialists of the Colombian Coffee Federation collect shipment samples for cuptasting, and exporters are allowed to send their coffee to the port only after the experts have approved the quality. When the coffee arrives at the port of shipment, the port office of the Federation draws another sample for cuptasting. Only coffees that pass this second test get a green light for exporting.

Not all producing countries exercise the same degree of quality control. In many supplying countries, quality is rather a matter of confidence between the exporters and ultimate buyers in consuming countries.

Dealers and roasters: The next steps in the quality control procedure are undertaken by agents, dealers and roasters when the coffee shipments arrive at the market. Outturn samples are drawn immediately upon unloading, and the necessary cuptests are carried out, because quality claims have to be formulated within a short period after arrival (in Europe within 14 calendar days from the last day of discharging from the ocean vessel).

If a quality problem arises during roasters' or dealers' quality control procedures (including cuptasting), this is made known to the exporters at once, and negotiation for amicable settlement starts at the same time.

Apart from controlling the quality of arriving shipments and -- prior to that point -- of stocklot (lots offered "quality as per sample") and shipment samples provided by their suppliers, roasters check the quality for blending purposes. They ensure that the ultimate consumers are provided with high-quality blends that are standards throughout the year. (The blends may, however, undergo minor changes over the year, depending on the availability of the various components and their relative prices.) This also requires cuptasting.

Arbitration boards: When amicable negotiations fail to resolve a quality problem, the parties sometimes agree to submit the matter to arbitration. For this purpose, arbitration samples are drawn, usually by the exporter's forwarding agent at the port of destination. The samples are taken according to local custom (in some European ports the rule is that 10% of the bags have to be sampled, which is an expensive procedure). They are then sent to the arbitration board agreed upon. The board is composed of experienced coffee traders, graders and tasters. The arbitrators check the quality of the green bean, of the roasted coffee and of coffee in the cup and decide upon the value to be assigned to the shipment.

How it is done

The actual process of cuptasting is basically the same at all stages. The only variable is the number of cups tasted. To judge the basic merits of a coffee, a taster should test two to five cups per sample. To detect defects such as fermented beans, however, it is wise to test ten cups per sample. In some cases, 20 to 30 cups is a more desirable test to indicate the frequency of occurence of a certain defect.

Preparations: The roasting and grinding for the testing session are key factors. The person in charge of the roasting should be fully familiar with the roaster and its proper functioning so that the bean is roasted uniformly and to the full extent.

The coffee should be ground only when it is completely cooled. For successful testing, the "drip" grind is most desirable. Too fine a grind releases the aromatic substances of the coffee bean too quickly, and, in turn, too coarse a grind releases them too slowly, making the aroma less perceivable.

For the testing session trays of green and roasted coffee (usually one tray for each type) and the cups or glasses for the brewed coffee are arranged on the table. The trays of coffee should all be filled to the same level. Although the process is "cupping," glasses are better suited than cups for the brewed coffee, because their transparency provides a better view of the coffee. The glasses should be wider at the top than the bottom, thereby offering a larger surface of brewed coffee for smelling and tasting.

The weight of ground coffee in each cup should be in the proportion of about 10 gr. to 230 gr. of water. The roasted beans should be weighed and ground separately for each cup, to ensure that possible defective beans exert their full impact on the brew. Water for brewing the coffee should be fresh and cold. "Hard" water (containing a high amount of chalk) should be boiled for 10 to 15 minutes, while normal water can simply be heated to the boiling point.

Testing process: The total time for any one test does not, as a rule, exceed 20 to 30 minutes. The testing usually proceeds along the following lines.

The tester appears at the table when the trays of green and roasted coffee are ready and the grounds are in the cups. He or she judges them, taking note of both their appearance and aroma, since some defects present in coffee may be determined by merely smelling the freshly ground sample, especially if fermentation has occurred or the coffee has an "earthy" smell. The coffee taster's first step is therefore smelling, slightly agitating the grounds while inhaling. Samples with certain odours, for instance an "earthy" smell, are marked.

While the tester is judging the trays of green and roasted coffee, the water is being heated for the coffee brew. The tester immediately smells the freshly brewed coffee in the cups (or glasses) without agitating the mixture.

When the coffee has stood about three minutes, each sample is slightly stirred and smelled again. The assessments made are recorded by the tester. The scum is then removed from the top of each cup to prepare the samples for the liquoring (tasting) test.

The tester next tastes a spoonful of the coffee in the cup or glass to get an idea of its acidity and, after "chewing" it a little, spits it out into a "spittoon." He or she then takes another spoonful, puts it into a different part of the mouth to test the flavour and aroma, and again spits it out. The same procedure is followed with the rest of the samples, and notes are made on each test.

In about 15 minutes, when the coffee is slightly cool, a second taste test is performed to provide any additional facts.

When the entire test is complete and the tester has assembled the notes, a clear picture of the coffee should emerge, with a full description of each sample. Tasters usually use a scale system, ranging from one to five or one to ten points, sometimes counting double points for the most important characteristics -- either appearance or taste -- required of the coffee in a particular market. The rating method employed is the prerogative of the individual taster.

Cleanliness of the equipment and the testing room is important to ensure an optimum testing situation. The testing conditions must remain constant from one testing session to another so that the only variable in the test is the coffee to be tasted.

Evaluation factors: The different varieties of coffee traded on the world market are assessed according to similar, but slightly different, criteria.

Arabicas: For washed arabica coffee (produced in several African and Latin American countries), the highest marks are given to samples with a well balanced "body" and acidity, and a distinct flavour (a "well rounded" cup) (coffees with these characteristics are sold at the highest prices on the market). Ratings are given for body (heavy, good, fair, slight); acidity (heavy, good, fair, slight, sharp); and flavour (good, nice, fair, slight). Defective tastes include the characteristics of being "hidy" (with the taste of hide or leather resulting from fermentation); fruity; winey; sour; an onion taste; a chemical taste; earthy; mouldy; musty; and with a "potato" taste (caused by a special insect).

For blends sold to consumers, roasters obtain the required well rounded cup by combining coffees of various growths.

Robusta: Robusta coffees have a more or less coarse, harsh or hard taste. The characteristics of robusta when brewed are described as "neutral" (the best), "fairly neutral," "little robusta taste," "moderate robusta taste," "normal robusta taste," and "strong robusta taste." Robusta coffee can show more or less the same defective tastes as arabica coffee.

For blending, roasters try to obtain robusta coffee with as little as possible of the typical robusta taste, that is, as neutral as possible. In some countries, however, for instance Italy and France, consumers prefer a strong, pronounced flavour, and beans are roasted very dark. The robusta taste is therefore less of a negative factor in those markets than, for example, in other European countries.

Brazilian: The qualities on which Brazilian coffee is graded are varying degrees of "softness," from "strictly soft" at the top to "rank Rio" at the bottom, the latter with a strong carbolic taste.

Equipment required

To set up an efficient cuptasting operation, it is necessary to acquire special equipment:

* A sample roaster (available with one to about six drums).

* An adjustable grinder (coarse grind for cuptasting).

* A table to arrange the cups or glasses and the green and roasted samples, ideally a round turntable.

* A set of glasses or cups.

* Sample trays for the green and roasted samples.

* A set of tablespoons.

* "Spittoons" (for spitting out the coffee after tasting each sample).

A new four-drum sample roaster costs about US$8,300. (Secondhand roasters are sometimes available at a much lower figure.) New adjustable grinders are priced at around $240. Specially manufactured round turntables with built-in spittoons using running water are available for approximately $5,500. Cuptasting can, however, be carried out without this latter item--a normal large table will do the job. Spittoons can be supplied by manufacturers of cuptasting equipment at about $245, but any medium-size pot can be used equally well.

In short, the only major piece of equipment to be acquired consists of a sample roaster and grinder. The other articles can be bought at a household shop. Sample trays are often given away as advertising material by coffee trading companies.


An essential part of an effective testing system is tasters with the required know-how. Learning testing techniques from experts is the only way to acquire this knowledge. Various coffee trading companies offer young trainees from developing countries the possibility to learn the techniques of roasting, preparing coffee for tasting sessions, and the actual grading and cuptasting, during periods of several weeks in their laboratories (see page 2).


An exporter can achieve savings through the introduction of cuptasting. These can be measured by calculating the costs of quality claims that could have been avoided in the past by eliminating coffees of inferior value in export shipments.

A considerable amount of money can no doubt be saved by an exporter through:

* Not accepting inferior lots of coffee from the growers at the normal price.

* Not mixing inferior lots with better grades of coffee, thus avoiding quality claims.

In addition, an exporter can build a good reputation by shipping invariably flawless coffees to dealers and roasters. This will, over the years, pay off in terms of better prices, mainly because no subsequent quality allowances will have to be discounted from the original contract prices.

PHOTO : Cuptasting is one of the key ways to ensure high quality in coffee bean exports.

PHOTO : Left, coffee beans are tested for quality prior to export by a cuptaster in Brazil.

Max Hug is a Senior Trader and quality control official (the chief tester) of a major coffee trading firm in Switzerland.
COPYRIGHT 1990 International Trade Centre UNCTAD/GATT
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Author:Hug, Max
Publication:International Trade Forum
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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