Coffee professionals established the Specialty Coffee Association’s (SCA) set of standards through scientific testing. Their rules provide a quantifiable means of producing and reproducing the perfect cup of coffee. From the green beans, through the complete brewing process, employing the SCA’s Golden Cup coffee criteria ensures you’re capturing the best coffee has to offer.
Read on to learn how these standards can be applied in your coffee brewing. See how you can enjoy gold standard coffee at home.
What are the SCA standards?
The SCA’s Standards Committee has established science-backed benchmarks for four criteria. The criteria allow industry experts, coffee shops, and home enthusiasts to have quantifiable measures of a coffee’s quality. Their requirements are the green beans, the process of coffee tasting, known as cupping, the water used for brewing, and the brewing method itself (1).
Green Coffee Standards
Coffee experts grade green coffee beans according to their number of defects and their water activity. The SCA also mandates the type of surface, lighting, and sample size that one must when analyzing a sample of green coffee. Firstly, for specialty coffee, a sample of green beans must have no more than one category 1 defect. Such is a dried cherry or foreign material. Secondly, it can have no more than five category 2 defects. These are things like broken or chipped beans.
The best coffee must also have a water activity measurement of no more than 0.70 aw. Water activity is a measurement similar to moisture content. However, it offers an even more precise accounting of the water present within a foodstuff. When it comes to green coffee beans, high water content makes the beans more prone to spoilage. It also artificially elevates their price by adding weight that will evaporate during roasting.
Cupping coffee is mostly just tasting coffee. The main difference is tasting it in a prescribed and mindful way, like a coffee lover’s version of wine tasting. There are many ways of cupping coffee. Still, according to experts, the SCA standards are a particularly high-level version (2). The SCA dictates many standards for cupping coffee. These range from the obvious to the more esoteric. For example, the weight of brewing coffee or the size of the stirring spoon.
Most importantly, the testers must brew coffee using 8.25 g of whole bean coffee per 150 mL of water. The water should be at a temperature of 200 ℉ and meet SCA water standards. The coffee then must be served in a glass or ceramic vessel that holds 7 to 9 ounces and has a top diameter between 3 and 3.5 inches. Other rules include things like the grind size, the darkness of the roast, or even the cupping table type.
Coffee is mostly water. Although home brewers often ignore this factor, it does make sense that the water used in brewing has a significant impact on the quality of a cup of coffee. The SCA water standards target water hardness, odor, color, alkalinity, and acidity. To be able to meet the standards, the water must be color and odor-free and contain no chlorine. It should also be close to neutral, with a pH of 7.0.
Surprisingly, a little bit of hardness is better for coffee brewing water. Thus, the standards don’t recommend softened or distilled water. This recommendation is crucial, despite distilled water preventing a scale build-up inside your coffee machine. The minerals interact with the coffee to give it a creamier body and enhanced mouthfeel (3).
The SCA has a very specific brewing standard that dictates the ideal brew strength. This ideal is known as the Golden Cup standard, and it states (4):
Coffee shall exhibit a brew strength, measured in Total Dissolved Solids, of 11.5 to 13.5 grams per liter, corresponding to 1.15 to 1.35 percent on the SCA Brewing Control Chart, resulting from a solubles extraction yield of 18 to 22 percent.SCA Golden Cup Standards
But what does that mean in practical terms? Let’s dig deeper into the next section.
What is the Golden Cup standard?
The Golden Cup standard is the SCA’s definition of an ideal brew. This ideal fundamentally clarifies the optimal brew strength using total dissolved solids as a quantifiable measure. Coffee shops and coffee machine manufacturers both strive to meet this guideline, and SCAA-certified coffee makers are guaranteed to achieve it.
To meet the standard, the required ratio of coffee to water is 55 g per liter. The water temperature must be 200 ℉. A coffee maker that is looking to meet this standard needs to maintain a specific water-coffee contact time. This, again, depends on the grind: 1 to 4 minutes for a fine grind, 4 to 6 minutes for a drip grind, or 6 to 8 minutes for a coarse grind. Additionally, it must provide turbulence such that there is even mixing of coffee and water for uniform extraction. Finally, the filter must minimally affect the flavor and body of the coffee while limiting sediment in the cup.
SCAA’s Cupping Protocol
When tasting coffee to establish these standards, the testers follow a particular cupping protocol. Importantly, the protocol also meets the cupping standards discussed above. To start, the room in which it takes place must be well lit and free from distracting odors, sights, and sounds.
The tested coffee must have been roasted within 24 hours of the tasting and ground not more than 15 minutes before. The examiner then places ground coffee in the cupping vessels and pours the hot water directly on top. The grounds are left to steep for 3 to 5 minutes. Afterward, the experts evaluate coffee for fragrance, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, balance, uniformity, clean cup, sweetness, and defects, with different aspects considered as the coffee cools.
The first step is to visually inspect the coffee and then stir it and evaluate the fragrance. After 8 to 10 minutes of cooling, it is slurped and sipped to test for flavor, aftertaste, balance, body, and acidity. Finally, as the coffee approaches room temperature, the uniformity, clean cup, and sweetness are scored. Cuppers use the coffee taster’s flavor wheel to define tastes and aromas accurately. Evaluation ceases as the coffee reaches 70 ℉.
Understanding the SCA’s standards is the first step to taking your coffee appreciation to a higher level. Indeed, some rules are easier to implement at home than others. This article offers actionable advice to make your coffee from good to great, to the gold standard. Start small, by mastering the perfect water temperature, or the ideal brewing time. Master this and you’ll be brewing better java in no time!
- Coffee Standards. (2018). Retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/584f6bbef5e23149e5522201/t/5d936fa1e29d4d5342049d74/1569943487417/Coffee+Standards-compressed.pdf
- Turer, Spencer. (2019, September 10). The Complexity of Cupping: Ensuring Accuracy and Credibility Through Alignment and Calibration. Retrieved from https://dailycoffeenews.com/2019/09/10/the-complexity-of-cupping-ensuring-accuracy-and-credibility-through-alignment-and-calibration/
- Dissolved Minerals in Water and Their Effect on Coffee. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://grindscience.com/2016/03/dissolved-minerals-in-water-and-their-effect-on-coffee/
- Specialty Coffee Association of America. (2015, December 23). SCAA Standard | Golden Cup. Retrieved from https://www.scaa.org/PDF/resources/golden-cup-standard.pdf
Husband, father and former journalist, I’ve combined my love of writing with my love of coffee to create this site. I love high end products, but write all my content with budget conscious coffee enthusiasts in mind. I prefer light roasts, and my normal brew is some sort of pour over, although my guilty pleasure is the occasional flat white.