How to use the ratings guide?
Updated: Sep 7, 2020
The ratings guide was started as a personal note making task so that I could document my experience with different coffees and subsequently refer to them whenever I wanted to make a purchase. Now that this has turned into a coffee ratings library used by a lot of you, I thought of throwing light onto the structure of the ratings guide so that you can use it better. I will keep updating this blog as and when new features are added.
This section is the most technical part of the blog. You can choose to skip this section to not complicate things for yourself. Here I rate coffees using a 100 point ratings system I designed. In this system, coffees are rated on 5 broad parameters which are important in a brewed cup.
1. Color - Black coffee doesn't have to be black in color. Some of the coffees have a bright orange, deep red or even a greenish-yellow tinge to it. Depending on the richness and suitability of the color to my own perception, I rate it on a scale of 10 points. Most specialty coffees are rated high on this parameter with the exception of a few exotic ones which have a unique color and score full points.
2. Aroma - A great aroma is integral to the coffee drinking experience. Aroma is a way to get a sense of the tasting notes in the coffee and sets the expectations of the cup quality. A sweet smelling aroma may end up with a great score on this parameter. Some coffees end up getting oxidised or the roast profile adds skews the balance towards more bitters, leaving the coffee to have a cardboard or burnt smell. Depending on how the aroma is, the coffee is rated on a scale of 20 points. It has a high weightage because I desire a coffee with a great aroma to complete the experience.
3. Flavour - This parameter is used to objectively define the type of tasting notes in the cup. Certain flavours like chocolate, nuts, orange, biscuit and pepper are commonly found in cups owing to the terroir and processing styles. These are rated moderately on a scale of 25 points. Then there are coffees which have notes likening to berries, floral and tropical fruits end up scoring higher on the scale. A point to note here is that this parameter does not capture the balance of the coffee i.e. whether these flavours are present in the desirable ratio. Some of the flavours might be great to find in the cup but then the overall quality will represent whether the balance or complexity is desirable or not.
4. Finish - This parameter measures the aftertaste. The flavour left behind on your tongue 30 seconds after sipping on coffee is a simple way to look at what it is. Try doing it yourself and be a judge of whether it is sweet/bitter/astringent or desirable/undesirable. Depending on the quality of aftertaste, I rate it on a scale of 20 points. This is an important parameter because it helps me understand whether I need to pair coffees with foods or whether I can enjoy the drink as is. Most coffees which rate high can be enjoyed as is. The middle order coffees are best for pairing with foods, either savoury or sweet (I mention this is Pro Tips section for some of the coffees)
5. Overall Quality - This is the deal-breaker parameter. You should use Overall Quality along with Total points to choose coffees. It's because this parameter captures the complexity of the coffee. I try to understand what the roaster has attempted to do with the coffee as well as the effort of the estates. A sip of coffee can be split into 7 parts i.e. the aroma, how it matches the flavours in the cup, then the mouthfeel, changes in the flavours over the length of the cup, the balance and its desirability, the underlying notes and finally the finish. Based on this, I rate the coffee on scale of 25 points. Just a precaution: more complex the coffee, higher the difficulty in extracting the right cup. Be wise about using this parameter while choosing what coffee you desire. I sometimes buy a simple coffee rated 19 or 20 on 25 just because I don't want everyday to be a challenge. There is beauty in simplicity too.
Total points - This is supposed to give a sense of how much I recommend the coffee. Why I would recommend it covered in the end of the review under "Final verdict". Use this table to get a sense of what the points mean:
Interpreting the point ratings is critical. I won't think twice before buying a coffee rated above 90. They are worth every single rupee you'd spend on them. When it comes to Good or Neutral coffee, you need to exercise judgement for the coffees may be suited to certain palates more than others. An 85 point can be a good everyday option whereas a 90 point coffee may be too much to handle daily. Your preferences are personal to you and need to factor that into the equation while choosing coffee. These ratings are reflective of my own personal tastes and are to be used as reference points, not standards.
This is the section where I present my subjective interpretation of the coffee. The flow of the review mimics how the cup behaves as most reviews are written while sipping on that coffee. Try reading my review while drinking the same coffee. I'm sure most of you will be able to relate to what I've written then.
You should refer to this section the most. Here I present a simplified version of what you can expect from the coffee in terms of 5 points:
1. Balance - Permutations and Combinations of Sweet, Bitter or Complex Acidity indicating how the coffee will taste
2. Complexity - Low, Medium or High in terms of how complicated extracting the best from the cup is. This complexity doesn't mean astringency as is sometimes used in the industry to describe astringency.
3. Best for - Brewing methods that I think are the best ways to brew this coffee and justify its value.
4. Worst for - Brewing methods that I felt are not able to justify the effort that has gone behind the coffee.
5. Pro tips - Here I mention what helped me get the right balance in the cup or how to use this coffee
Here I give an honest no-nonsense take on whether the coffee is recommended by me or not. I also mention any special reason as to why it is recommended or how to use it.
E. Roaster notes
This is the section where I have outlined information provided by the roaster including details such as roast & roaster information, roast level, type of coffee, estate name, altitude, location, processing and varietal. If any of this matters, please feel free to use it. Mostly used by coffee nerds to find how processing impacts the flavours in the cup or the role of elevation in coffee quality. Check out Jonathan Gagne's post out to get a sense of what coffee nerds do. Massive respect for the guy and his work.
F. Roaster Recommended Recipes
This is a bonus section added to a few coffees as per inputs from the roasters themselves. Every coffee has a unique style which can help you extract the best. Try out the roaster recommended recipes and see if you like what you find in the cup.
Side note: Focus on Total Points, Suggestions and Roaster Recommendations if you are in the initial few months of exploring specialty coffee. Ratings break-up and other information such as processing, elevation and varietals can be focussed a little later into your coffee journey.
I developed this reviewing format to ensure parity between the coffees I taste and present a subjective evaluation with the least possible biases affecting it. Now, every coffee is different. And so is every palate. You should use my ratings library as a scale to compare coffees but remember that these ratings are reflective of my palate and personal understanding of the coffee. If you trust my choice in coffee, please feel free to use the ratings. Otherwise, choose to trust your instinct.