Tasting Analysis Job Survey Interpretations Report

By K.C. O’Keefe, Consultant


In November of 2012 the SCAA conducted an electronic Tasting Analysis Job Survey. The purpose of the survey was to quantifiably confirm the need for specialty coffee tasting education and taster testing. The survey attempted to confirm the job tasks typically performed by tasters as well as discover the industry expectations of professional tasters. This report will highlight the confirmed need for taster education and testing, as well as highlight several notable survey discoveries. Please refer to the complete annexed survey results when referring to the specific question response data.

A survey invitation was sent to SCAA membership and affiliates via email at the beginning of November 2012, and the survey was closed November 30th. A total of 465 individuals started the survey, with 340 (73%) completing the entire survey. The majority of respondents self identified as owners and managers who consider themselves cuppers, while the least amount of respondents came from Brokers and Retail Managers (Figure 1). 64% of the respondents cup or taste test daily, while 13% cup or taste test less than once a week (Figure 2).

The survey was divided into two groups. 67% of respondents formed Group A, those who self identified as equal or authority over the Principal Taster for their business. 33% formed Group B, those who self identified as not the Principle Taster for their business (Figure 3).

Group A’s population contained more green coffee industry respondents than Group B, while Group B’s population contained more retail industry respondents. It should be noted that questions 5-20 reflect group A’s responses, while questions 21-38 reflect group B’s responses. Most of the questions can be directly compared, and when compared the two group’s responses reflect this green industry verses retail industry variation in the population of the two groups. It should also be noted that the majority of respondents in both groups work for wholesale or retail roasting companies. (See Figures 4 & 5)

Quantifiable Need for Specialty Coffee Tasting Education and Taster Testing

The purpose of the survey was to quantifiably confirm the need for specialty coffee tasting education and taster testing. The survey results emphatically confirm this need.

More than 87% of the respondents declared that they perform an official cupping or taste test weekly, 64% of them daily (Figure 2 – page 3). The frequency of official taste tests demands that companies develop reliable tasters. Likewise, the respondents declared tasting related tasks are important. Of a list of 29 tasks, all of them were considered important or critical by more than 50% of those surveyed. The top five tasks were considered critical or important by more than 90% of the respondents. (Figures 6 & 7, pages 7 & 8).

The respondents self identified that it would be of value for the tasters in their companies to gain further expertise in areas related to taster analysis (Figure 6). 50% of respondents positively stated they would use a cupper or taster certification program if developed by the SCAA, while an additional 41% said the might (Question 20 & 38).

Taster Tasks and Expectations Survey Discoveries

1. Retail sensory quality control is a significant part of a specialty coffee taster’s responsibilities.

Only 8.6% of respondents self identified as retail managers, and 30% work for retailers, yet retail quality control tasks were consistently rated high throughout the survey. As observed in Figure 6 (on page 6 above), the respondents self identified that retail taster trainings are their top two needs for further expertise. Espresso Taste Testing was the top need with 63%, and Brewed Coffee Taste Testing was second with 61%. This need for retail taster training suggests that end product sensorial evaluation is important to the entire “tasting” sector, not just retailers.

Group B rated the ability to Evaluate Espresso Shots as the most critical taster expectation (Figure 9: Question 23), while Group A rated it as critical with 51%. Secondly in question #27 Group B rated this as the second most critical task, with 67% rating it critical to their company. (Group A rated 56.3% Critical – Q11).

Group B rated retail coffee shop quality control as the most common task area preformed daily and the most critical task area, with 53% (Questions 21,22). This can be compared with only 26% of Group B who considered Green Coffee Cupping Critical (8th out of a list of 10 areas).

In question #7 Group A rated the expectation to “Taste the difference between extraction levels of brewed coffee” as critical and/or important by 89% of the respondents (Figure 10). Group B rated this expectation as the second most important, with 92% rating it critical or important (Figure 9- Q 23). This can be compared with only 68% who rated sensorial quality control of washed Arabica as important. Equipment Calibration was also rated high. It was the 5th (of 29) most critical task with 62% by Group B (Question 27).

Ironically this survey reveals that retail sensorial evaluations are performed more often, are considered more critical, and are a greater perceived need of the professional tasting community than traditional green coffee evaluations (cuppings). The SCAA should be challenged to assume this number one identified taster need, and re-orient specialty coffee sensorial analysis to equally emphasize the skills of taste testing brewed coffee and espresso, as compared to the skills of green coffees cuppings.

2. General Management skills are critical to Specialty Coffee Tasters.

Group A considered General Management the most critical and/or important task area, with 83% considering it critical and/or important (Figure 11 – See Bellow). Group B also rated it high, with 79% considering it critical or important (Question 22). It was also one of the most frequent daily task areas, with 60% of Group A saying it is a daily task (Figure 12, Question 5). While General Management is not directly related to “Taster Education”, it is undeniable that the industry considers it an essential skill for the Specialty Coffee taster.

3. There is a need for Sample Roasting Education.

Sample roasting education was identified as the third highest need for continued education (Figure 6, page 6). 56% responded that it would be a value to their business if their tasters gained expertise (Questions 19 & 37). More than 55% of the respondents labeled sample roasting as a critical task, and sample roasting was labeled as a frequent activity by more than 70% of those surveyed.

4. Cupping protocol discipline is an equally important skill set compared to tasters’ sensory skills.

“Weigh and grind coffee correctly; perform tasting protocol consistently each time”. Of the list of 29 specific tasks both survey groups unanimously rate this as the most critical task. Close to 70% declare the ability to consistently perform the tasting protocol as critical. It was also rated one of the most frequently executed tasks, done often by more than 80% of the respondents (Figures 7 & 8).

This may be an under appreciated methodical skill set. It is suggested that SCAA should develop ways to rigorously train and explicitly test cupping protocol discipline.

5. Green Coffee Cuppers are expected to filter out sensorial defects.

Group A rated identifying taste defects from roasting and green coffee as the top two critical tasks of the Principal Taster (Figure 10, Q 7, page 10). More than 65% of respondents rated accurate taste detection of defects critical to their company’s economic success (Questions 10 & 26). These results affirm that one of the primary objectives of sensorial quality control is to filter out taste defects. The taster continues to perform a critical preventative quality control role for the industry. The SCAA must continue to develop ways to train and test the tasters’ ability to catch sensorial defects.

6. Descriptive tasting skills are more important than the use of the SCAA 100 point system and format.

Use of the SCAA 100 point system and cupping format was rated as critical by only 26% of the respondents, while 57% indicated describing coffee with acceptable terminology a critical task (Figures 9 & 10, Q 7 & 23). For Group B descriptive skills were second in critical rating. Identifying fragrances and aromas were also ranked as one of the most important tasks (Figure 6 & 7).

While the SCAA 100 point system has relevance, descriptive abilities certainly appear to be more important to the industry. Testing and training of cuppers should focus more on evaluating their descriptive abilities than their use of the SCAA 100 point system. The current Q program has no requirement of the use of descriptive language in cupping, yet micro-analyzes cuppers’ use of the SCAA point system as the chief evaluation tool of a cupper’s ability.

7. Sensory evaluation of Robusta is of low importance to the current specialty coffee community.

More than 53% of respondents labeled sensory evaluation of Robusta coffee as not applying to their workplace, with an additional 15% declaring it as not important (questions 7 & 23).