recently a friend and I discussed the viability of starting a niche business selling green coffee. We decided not to do it, but one of the interesting issues to come out of our discussions was cup-score inflation.
Part of our business model would have been to offer customers our coffees’ cup scores. However, scoring our own coffees would present an obvious conflict of interest: competition would pressure us into either inflating our cup scores or risk losing business to competitors who inflated the scores of their coffees.
For example, one of my friends who is a home roaster and Q-grader purchased numerous coffees from a well-known green supplier. He scored all of those coffees 3––6 points lower than the scores provided by the green seller. The most egregious example was a Kenya rated 91 points by the importer, which my friend rated a generous 85. This is not a mere quibble. You should know a 91 when you taste it. You will remember where you were and who you were with. An 85, on the other hand, is not memorable. These scores are not close.
Another example: last year I asked several importers to send me only samples of coffees rated 88 points or higher. The vast majority of samples I received were 85––86 points. While there is nothing wrong with 85-point coffees, it is difficult to mistake an 85 for an 88.
These are all examples of what I think of as the “slippery slope” problem marketers often face: if you are completely honest about the quality of your product but your competitors all exaggerate the quality of their products, you will lose to those competitors. Once one competitor makes exaggerated quality claims, it becomes nearly impossible to avoid inflating your own claims of quality. Over time, the claims of almost all surviving competitors are inflated.
Even when importers score coffees accurately, they often publish the score of a coffee when it was at its best, say, based on a pre-ship sample, and they do not re-score the coffee after it arrives, or later as the coffee fades and loses quality. Some coffees can easily lose a few points in a matter of a few months due to shipping conditions, storage conditions, excessive moisture content, or even the microbes used during fermentation. (See Chris Feran’s excellent post about microbes and coffee fade here.)