What determines good coffee from bad? This question is far more complex than it appears on the surface, and despite the seeming simplicity it’s a question we’re constantly seeking to answer. We have a team of professionals in our sensory analysis department whose job it is to evaluate, assign value, and assist with the purchasing of every lot of green coffee that passes through our international warehouses and offerings sheets.

Cupping, or “cup testing,” is our main tool for discerning and describing the quality and value of the coffees we source, and our cupping lab evaluates more than 5,000 coffees annually. The professionals in our sensory analysis department are also constantly roasting, sorting, inspecting, and tracking additional data such as moisture content and water activity: They are the gatekeepers of quality at Cafe Imports.

We would like to share with you some in-depth information about how we conduct sensory analysis here, what our cupping scores and notes mean, and answer our customers’ questions about what makes good coffee good and bad coffee—well, let’s not talk about bad coffee, because we simply don’t have any of that here.



“Cupping” is the name for a coffee-tasting process that coffee-professionals use in order to analyze quality and make assessments about price and flavor characteristics. The word “cupping” implies the entire process, from how much coffee and water are used in the brew, to the set of steps followed during the evaluation, all the way down to the actual way the liquid is tasted in the mouth. An importing company like Cafe Imports relies heavily on cupping in order to make purchasing decisions—will we or won’t we buy a lot from a producer based on the way their coffee performs on the cupping table—as well as in becoming calibrated as a staff, offering flavor descriptors and notes to our customers, and to monitor the quality of a coffee over the time that it is in our warehouse.

For you, the roaster, you can use cupping in many different ways as well. Some coffee-purchasing contracts are written based on your approval of a cupped sample, which gives you the ability to accept or reject a coffee based on its quality. Cupping is also a good way for you to compare the profiles of different coffees from around the world, or to evaluate your profiles and roast quality.

Many industry entities have various ideas about “how” coffee is cupped, and you can find very specific information about certain industry-accepted and standard protocols from places such as CQI (Coffee Quality Institute) and SCA (Specialty Coffee Association). Our sensory analysis team cups more than 5,000 coffees every year, which has allowed them to develop a Cafe Imports–specific way of approaching the process.

To learn about our protocol and learn more about cupping the Cafe Imports way (which is not the only way and certainly not the only right way), enjoy the video above and the step-by-step instructions below.


To learn about our protocol and learn more about cupping the Cafe Imports way (which is not the only way and certainly not the only right way), enjoy the step-by-step instructions in this PDF.


Designed by Ian Fretheim

Cafe Imports Director of Sensory Analysis Ian Fretheim spent a long time developing a custom Cupping Score Card for use specifically at Cafe Imports, and tailored to our company’s sourcing needs. After careful evaluation and refinement, based on years of on-again/off-again brainstorming and months of application, Ian arrived upon a form that we deemed the “Analytic Cupping Score Card” (Figure 1). This card is designed to both increase accuracy and align our results with our buying practices.

You may notice some big differences between our card and the cards standardized by the Specialty Coffee Association and Alliance for Coffee Excellence—specifically that we do not evaluate fragrance and aroma or “balance,” and there’s no line for “overall impression.” Ian very thoroughly evaluated the categories and characteristics that inspire us to purchase a coffee, and instead, he selected the areas where he wanted his team of cup-testers to focus.

For more information about the Analytic Cupping Score Card, including in-depth explanations of the categories selected (and the ones we left off), please enjoy the following essay, written by Ian himself, where he explores the new design and metaphysical hurdles to its development.



A Long Term Observational Study by Ian Fretheim

Since 2012, Cafe Imports’ sensory analysis team has been collecting water activity (Aw) data on every coffee sample that crosses their cupping table, logging the results in a massive database that has now topped 25,000 samples. After noticing that water activity is one of the most-discussed but least-understood variables in specialty coffee at the moment, sensory analysis director Ian Fretheim decided to put the numbers collected through rigorous evaluation, to see if he and U.S. sensory lab manager Megan Person could arrive at any definitive conclusions about the role of water activity in specialty green coffee. This paper is the result of that long-term study.

There are two relevant measures discussed and compared throughout the paper presented here, and it is helpful to briefly understand them both before diving in: moisture content (MC) and water activity (Aw). Moisture content is measured in percentage (%), and is the amount of water in a system. Water activity (Aw) is a reading that states the energy status of the water in a system. Think of a pot of fresh water and a pot of saltwater side-by-side on a stove: The amount of water in the pots is the moisture content, and the energy it takes for each to boil relates to its water activity.



Ian Fretheim and Cafe Imports would like to thank:

Paul Songer of Songer and Associates in Colorado for his immeasurable help in making the scientific underpinning of water activity more understandable.

Michael Beermann at Sci-Fi Food in Norway for reviewing an early draft and making such insightful suggestions for areas that needed clarification and improvement.

Shawn Steiman, PhD at Daylight Mind and Coffea Consulting in Hawaii for encouraging Ian to take a scientific attitude during the writing process, making the time to review the paper, and offering valuable questions and suggestions.

Ever MeisterCafe Imports’ resident copyediting nerd, for painstakingly dotting I’s and crossing T’s and for making sure Ian’s leaps of thought were as tied down to the ground as they possibly could be.


Ian Fretheim, Cafe Imports’ Director of Sensory Analysis