Are You Handing Away Your Future One Cupping at a Time?

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Imagine if a business threw away valuable competitive information every day – information they paid to create. That would be crazy, right? Well, amazingly that describes the great majority of coffee businesses worldwide. It might even describe yours. How can this be? Cupping is high value work. But the final output is often thrown away or stored on a shelf never to be looked at again, as if it has low to no future value. That’s an incredible waste of time and money across the industry.

Cupping represents one of the coffees industry’s greatest lost opportunities. What many see as a quality control cost that should be contained is, in reality, a key to revenue growth. Businesses cup every day. They base critical business decisions on the outcome, and then move on to the next cupping. As businesses grow, this process becomes more formal. Industry standard sheets are used. Depending on people’s role in the supply chain, custom sheets are created. Cupping sheets hold enormous business value. But as they are paper, in most cases, they get thrown away or put on a shelf – effectively the same thing. This also happens with cupping apps where a lack of integration creates the digital equivalent of throw away paper information.

Businesses that recognize the value of optimising small recurring daily events gain leverage. They understand that mundane daily rituals can have enormous value over time. Collecting information over time enables better short and long term business decisions. What type of decisions? Decisions that drive growth: Who are our best suppliers by quality vs. price? Our best buyers, roasters, cuppers? How does this compare to the previous batch, to last year? Which roast machine is performing the best? Which facility? The list is almost endless. Information about these daily events can even answer questions like: Is storing on-site vs. in a climate-controlled warehouse saving us money but costing us quality?

Questions like these can have far reaching consequences and many come back to quality and cupping. These pieces of information exist within most coffee businesses. But getting to them quickly and easily and having confidence in the answers feels difficult and time consuming. There is an underlying truth – businesses that understand and leverage the benefits of incremental improvements outperform their competitors. These businesses are the winners across many industries. They exist in the coffee business at the high-volume end where lower margins and corporate processes require people to focus on them for survival. They also exist in specialty coffee, we know hundreds of them.

Dark coffee can be great – dark data, not so much. You may have heard of big data. It’s how Amazon ads keep appearing for the last thing you searched for. It’s how Netflix recommends movies and Google shows you Chinese restaurants nearby when you’re travelling. These are big companies that collect and use vast amounts of information. Interesting, yes. But not particularly relevant to specialty coffee. Something has come from these large internet businesses that is very relevant to specialty coffee. Dark data, also known as dusty data. So, what is it?

Dark data is a problem for every industry. Consulting company Gartner Inc. defines dark data as “information assets that organizations collect, process and store in the course of their regular business activity, but generally fail to use for other purposes.” Does that sound familiar? If you’re responsible for cupping, I am sure it does. Startlingly, in the coffee industry one of the largest collections of dark data is quality information. Think about that for a minute. The information our industry most often fails to use ‘for other purposes’ is our quality information! Unlocking the business value of this information has goldmine potential.

Picture2Cupping is a treasure trove of information. There is the obvious quality metric – how does it cup? But there is a LOT more information to be gained from cupping. It can be used to measure suppliers, buyers, traders, batches, roast profiles, etc. If you’re reading this, you can probably name at least 10 more items. Getting the answers to these questions requires connecting this information to other information. Who cupped it? When? Where did we buy it? What did the roast profile look like? How/where was it stored? Connecting information can take time. Unless you build that collection into your daily routine.

Currently there are several cupping apps available to capture this information that are available for Apple and Android phones/tablets, including Cropster Cup. These apps have a variety of features from basic cupping sheets to custom cupping sheets and even industry standard sheets. A few allow a group to cup together and a couple allow you to export data. Only one connects your cupping directly to your inventory and all the processes surrounding it. This is a critical component if you want to analyse the information you are collecting quickly and easily.

No discussion about cupping using a device is complete without addressing the elephant in the room – paper. Paper cupping sheets are easy to use, quick and self-explanatory. But paper is also easy to dispose of and difficult to go back to. This is why the coffee industry continues to throw away such important information. If you carry a smartphone, a lot of these ‘positives’ are no longer valid. According to, there are 2.3 billion smartphone users in 2017 and this number will rise to 2.87 billion in 2020. It’s safe to assume that, if you’re reading this, you have a smart device. It’s probably the device you use more than any other. Adding a cupping app takes seconds and the more connected that app, the greater its value. The beauty of this approach is that everyone in your business can do the same on their own device – a device that is as familiar to them as paper.

Picture3It’s a testimony to the specialty industry that most of its advances to date have been achieved with ‘one off’ cupping information. The next wave of advances will almost certainly come through analysing it over time across the supply chain. This will become the new normal. This dark data has tremendous value to buyers, sellers, traders, roasters, cafe owners, etc. If you are in the specialty coffee business, you already create this information. Connecting it to everything from inventory to blend ratios and more is the key to unlocking its true potential. Businesses that understand the value of this information over time will be big winners. We already see this happening with customers in specialty coffee. The tools to analyse this information exist and can be used by anyone with even basic computer knowledge. Tools like Cropster deliver standard and customizable roast, inventory, and cupping analysis reports to specialty coffee businesses worldwide every day. These are tools you would expect in large corporations and they are readily available to even the smallest roasteries. The result is that businesses of all sizes have access to tools that help define goals and provide insights regardless of their size. This means every business can make buying decisions, set prices and track consistency of production and inventory based on real information, leveling the playing field from origin to the cafe.

As an industry, specialty coffee already collects the information needed to introduce the next great advances. We simply need to change one habit to begin to reap the rewards. We need to change what we do with the quality information we collect. Instead of filing it in binders or, worse, throwing it away, we need to create it in a way that allows us to unlock its enormous potential. Connected cupping apps already do this. The businesses that leverage these apps and connect them to their production early will be big winners. They will make better decisions and produce a better product – a goal we all share.

Paul Bartholomew is head of marketing at Cropster, the specialty coffee market’s leading software development company. He has been helping businesses benefit from advances in technology for over 30 years.