Saturday, November 22, 2014

Better Beans: Q Grading, Acidity and Scoring Quality Part Two

In part one I addressed the difference between trade cupping and production cupping. In this part I will address the SCAA's adoption of the Q Graders Certification.

Q Grader Certification Participants first learn to ignore their own preferences and "calibrate" their palette to the SCAA evaluation form. In this way, cuppers become "objective" to the coffee being evaluated through an established set of criteria. For evaluative purposes, the samples must be "correctly" (light) roasted, this being identified as a trade roast so as to not "color" the sample. The form identifies seven areas of evaluation, and a score is used to rate each area. To be "calibrated" means that all evaluators score a sample within a narrow point range.


The evaluative areas are: Fragrance/Aroma; Flavor; Aftertaste; Acidity; Balance; Body and Overall. An evaluator would score each area as they would taste the samples, noting if any cup was off. Coffee samples would be grouped together by geographical region, so you wouldn't compare an African coffee to an Indonesian or Central American. Like is compared against like. Coffees that score above 80 are considered Specialty Grade, with higher scores adding value. Coffees scoring above 90 are considered quite remarkable. If this seems to be a somewhat arbitrary and confusing set of parameters you would be right. How does one score for body, for example? Does more body in a cup result in a higher score? Or balance? What is the difference between Aroma and Flavor? What, if anything, is the guiding principal?

Given that these coffees are trade roasted, one characteristic stands above all the others: acidity. It doesn't take long for participants to figure out this fact, and the kind of acidity that the instructor deems ideal, usually described as juicy. Participants are encouraged to describe the coffee in a manner that suits this model, if you really want to impress find more obscure names for common fruits: quince for apple or pomelo instead of grapefruit. If you are having trouble coming up with a term, just say stone fruit. This accounts for the peculiar practice of Third Wave roasters to feature coffees that sound more like a fruit salad or a package of Starburst than what would traditionally be thought of as coffee. This may help explain the rather scripted narrative parroted by so many of today's self-proclaimed coffee snobs.

The argument made in favor of promoting trade roasted coffees is that it more accurately presents the attributes that traditional roasting styles hide and so is in itself a marker of quality. It would be like a person trained to detect flaws in sheet metal insisting that all cars must remain unpainted; then becoming bored with flawless metal and so begin celebrating flaws as evidence of the steelworker's artistry. The juicy acids that have become so prized have less to do with terroir than with post harvest fermentation. Hence why natural processed coffees, especially from Africa, score so high (and how Brazil's have become specialty). Also why producers may intentionally manipulate the coffee during processing, such as Honey Processed, to increase fermentation.

Because of the trade roasts being used,the point system developed for the Q Graders can best be understood as an acidity index. Certainly this is not the first time our industry has taken a single concept to its extreme . . . much in the way of if dark roast is good, darker roast is better. I spent the first half of my career always hearing that I didn't roast dark enough Now its that I over-roast. Certainly there have been many  examples of over-roasted coffees, a certain large chain comes to mind, but the notion that a roaster may choose a darker roast only to hide inferior coffees is a fallacy. Defects do not roast away. For years the American coffee market was dominated by mass-marketed commercial canned coffee notable for its very light roast. Were they promoting high quality coffee? Hardly. They sourced the cheapest coffee they could find and roasted as light as they could to save money. There is no one correct roast, light or dark. The correct roast is the one that brings out the best qualities of a coffee.



Now, if acidity is your thing that is fine but there is at issue the entire concept of objectivity with relation to a product. Coffee is not manufactured, it is grown. How it is grown impacts both the environment and the people who live and work there. While no one would argue we need clear quality standards for a coffee to be considered specialty, focusing exclusively on the product too easily ignores the ecological and social issues surrounding its production. Worse, it often green washes that same product. One does not have to look far to notice the origin pictures gracing many third wave roasters web sites are often full-sun coffee plantations. And while many of these same roasters tout their Direct Trade arrangements with said plantations, its important to remember that Folgers buys their coffee direct as well. Even if you paid the owner of said plantation a premium price it does not mean that those premiums are in any way shared by those who work there or benefit the community as a whole.

For years, farmers have been told that if they want higher prices for their coffee they needed to improve quality; quality defined largely as grading standards that required the investment of expensive processing equipment. This isolated small farmers who had little access to such equipment. Many of these farmers have come together, forming cooperatives, collectively investing in processing mills to bring their coffee up to the same standards of wealthier plantations. Now they are told this is not enough if you want to add value. Now you need to creat a "micro-lot," a limited amount of bags, and enter it into a competition. Maybe you take extra care with this lot, make a real effort; only to find that the one that wins is a coffee that had some random ferment happen to it. The evaluators go gaga over it. "Is that Muscadine? Jambul? It's so juicy!"

So, does this make the Q Grade score useless? By itself, I'm afraid so, at least from a consumer's perspective. It is useful to those of us in the coffee trade as one part of an evaluative criteria but it becomes problematic beyond the cupping table. Not only does it favor acidic light roasts over other flavor possibilities, it excludes externalities in its evaluation and so is devoid of values, absent of ethics.

If you had two Central American coffees, one grown in traditional polyculture shade, from a cooperative who invests in their community, versus one from a large, high-density, full-sun plantation that heavily uses agrochemicals to prop up soil depletion, whose owner is absentee; if the former scored an 84 and the latter an 86, which one could truly be said to be the better beans?  How many points would you give for ecological stewardship if such a box existed on the form; what value would you place on democratically run community institutions? Is it a value to you? It is to me. This is not to say that a cooperative coffee is necessarily going to score lower than an estate coffee, our new crop of Peru Andes Gold just scored an 87.5 thank you very much.

There is, of course, a certain attraction to attaching a score to a bag of coffee, not least is the not so subtle connection to coffee's more admired beverage industry: wine. But, unlike wine, coffee's flavor is far more volatile. How many points do we take off for perishability? Is one point a week too little, five points a week too much? How long has that coffee been sitting on the grocery store shelf? Or worse, sitting on an Airport souvenir shelf (seriously, I saw that)? Then again, some of these coffees are so acidic that it takes a week or two from roasting before one can stomach them anyway.



That score is beginning to look about as relevant as the Blue Ribbon awarded to Pabst Beer.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Half Crack Roasting Co. ditches roaster, roasting.

Chicago, IL.  Half Crack Roasters, darlings of the Specialty Coffee industry since their inception two weeks ago, announced today that they are ditching their roasters and will only serve cold brew coffee from green beans. "Despite pioneering the method of roasting to just before first crack, we realized that even this is too far." Samuel Tillings, former Roastmaster said. "Any roasting destroys the true flavors of coffee," 

"You can't taste origin."

Tillings, a long time presence in regional barista competitions, further explained that any heat applied to the bean, including brewing, destroys the subtle, nuanced flavors of seasonal coffee. "Cold brewing preserves the terroir."  Water is carefully maintained at room temperature. 

Additionally, Half Crack has removed grinders as the friction from the burrs contributed to the loss of flavor. Each cup contains a micro-lot of one bean. "More than one bean muddles its unique character."

A recent public cupping was halted temporarily when twelve year old Phillip Ingersol blurted out, "It's just water!" An awkward hush descended on the crowd as he was quickly escorted from the room.

It takes a refined, experienced palette to fully appreciate the nuanced seasonal characteristics of micro-lot coffee, Tillings said as he nervously adjusted his vest. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Better Beans: Q Grading, Acidity and Scoring Quality Part One

Several years ago I pulled into a gas station to fill up my car. Those who know me also know I have a penchant, some may say affliction, for vintage British sports cars. The car in question was a British Racing Green Austin-Healey with a vanity plate that read Kaladi. The particular station had an espresso cart operated by a new roaster in town. Upon seeing the plate on the car the young man came out and informed me that "they had better beans."

"How are they better? I queried.

 "They buy better beans," he responded.

 "That's interesting," I replied, "I'm the coffee buyer for Kaladi and I am very particular about coffee quality so I would be interested in how your coffee is better."

"They buy better beans," he said and walked off.

If there is one thing for certain its that every coffee roaster only buys the very best beans. Whether its a narrative of their intrepid globe spanning coffee buyer or some statement of how selective their requirements are, it seems that every coffee roaster would like you to believe that they have the sole purview over quality. But how does one define quality in the coffee industry? It's a worthwhile question, and one open to contention.

For the most part, when a roaster claims they buy the best beans, they are referring to the grade of coffee.  There are a few different ways in which coffee is graded. What they most have in common is that the fewer number of defects, those things that would have an adverse effect on the flavor, the higher the grade. Defects could be things like blackened beans, or sour beans, insect infected beans, or diseased beans, moldy beans or fermented beans, or simply things that are not beans at all, like sticks or stones.

To aid in this removal of defects, it is helpful if the beans share a similar size and density. Bigger beans are equated to healthier beans: greater density in beans is generally equated to higher elevation. When the beans are the same general size and density they flow through the pulping and milling equipment more effectively. Consistency is also necessary when using color sorting devices that separate defective beans using spectronomy. Uniform bean size and density was once more important to roasters as well to ensure a more uniform roast, albeit newer technology in roasters has rendered this less important today.

There is a confusing array of terms to designate a coffee's grade, there being no globally recognized lexicon indicating grade. Some countries use names to designate grade, like Supremo, Extra Fancy, Kohlinoor; others use various letter or number designations, such as Grade 1, AA, SHB, SHG, etc. Additionally, these grades may be different according to the import market: a AA grade may not be the same for the US as for Europe. Generally speaking, though, the higher the grade, the bigger, more uniform density the beans are with the fewest allowable defects.

Grading is done at the export mill, often just before export. As the coffee is bagged it is marked with an identifying number indicating its lot. A lot is a set number of bags that will fit into a shipping container, usually 250, assuming that the bags are around 70 kilos or 150 or so pounds. Of course, different countries will have different size bags as well so this will affect the number of bags in a lot. Lot sizes can also be smaller in cases where a buyer has specified a particular preparation or segregation of a coffee. But it is this number assigned that is ultimately important as this will theoretically follow the coffee to its destination. A coffee bag will have a total of three numbers for identification; the first designates its country of origin, the second the export mill that prepared the coffee, the last the individual lot.

Along the way the coffee will be evaluated by cuppers. Historically this has been the purview of the exporting firm and the importing firm. In practice today, this model is more variegated, but suffice it to say that these cuppers are operating within the "trading" of coffee and so are often called trade cuppers. Trade cupping concerns itself largely with identifying faults and defects in flavor that grading misses. The role of the trade cupper is to act as a gatekeeper for exporter or importer. The last thing these firms want to have happen is for a lot of coffee to be rejected by the buyer because of a fault in the flavor. Best to catch these things before the coffee has left the port. Trade cupping concerns itself with identifying faults such as ferment, mold, past crop, taints from improper preparation or storage, anything that would mar the coffee's flavor and risk rejection by the end buyer, whether that is an importing firm or a roasting firm.

In order to assess coffee for defects the coffee is roasted very light so that certain taints, especially ferment and mold, are more pronounced. At a certain point in roasting, the roast itself can make it more difficult to suss out these faults but they are still there. The fact is, if you are cupping a number of coffees on a cupping table there's no time for subtlety. You want things to slap you in the face. You are not looking for the finer points of the coffee's character, only making sure that you and your firm are protected from a rejected shipment. Trade cupping is not necessarily about determining quality as it is about ensuring that the coffee is fit for export. That being said, experienced professional trade cuppers are astute identifiers of real quality. They can recognize virtually all aspects to a coffee's growing and preparation in just 5 cups. Some of these cuppers work for famous estates and exporting mills crafting signature flavor profiles from their production area or estate.

The concept of flavor quality, however, is a far more complicated concept to come to an understanding on.  One could erroneously believe that there is some sort of objective standard we could agree on, but here we move away from taste faults into the realm of taste preferences. For the better part of the last century coffee was experienced as a blend. These blend profiles, at least at first, were a roaster's signature, their trademark. Its helpful to remember that Maxwell House Coffee gets its name from the Maxwell House Hotel, who awarded the contract (and name) based on winning a tasting competition. Hills Bros, too, was well regarded for the "Arabian" blend featuring Mocca and Java coffees.

Over the years, though, these brands began competing on price and this put pressure on the coffee buyers to reformulate the blends for price. Before this change in priorities, coffee buyers had specific taste requirements in order to shape the blend. Not only would the coffee need to be clean and defect free, it needed to fulfill a particular taste profile within the blend. This devolved into hopelessly muddled blends, largely indistinguishable from one another where coffee buyers sought the cheapest possible coffee that offended the fewest number of people. With blends consisting of a dozen or more individual components, it is fairly simple to replace one with another and the consumer would be unable to notice any change.  Along with cheapening the beans themselves, there was a push to reduce weight loss during roasting with lighter and lighter roasts, becoming known as "Continental" or simply "American" roasts.

By the 1960's, the lions share of the U.S. coffee market was dominated by just a few roasting firms: Smuckers, who has Folgers; Kraft with Maxwell House; Nestle and Sara Lee. Most coffee sales were through the grocery isle, and couponing dictated who garnered the most sales. As the flavor quality declined in these brands the number of new customers to coffee waned. And for those who continued drinking this swill, the amount of sweeteners and "creaming agents" increased. The National Coffee Association conducted a yearly winter drinking survey and consumption was decreasing every year well into the 1980s.

But it wasn't only about price in blending coffee beans, there were a number of smaller, regional roasters that still relied on flavor quality to lure customers. Some of them date back to the early days of coffee in America like Gillies Coffee of New York. Others were a direct response to the ever worsening quality in commercial coffee, a return to quality, such as Peet's Coffee in California.  These roasters distinguished themselves from the commercial canned coffee by retaining the darker, European style of roasts and sourcing out quality beans that could stand up to such roasts. Ever so slowly, a new breed of roaster began to grow in America, what now is referred snarkily as the second wave.

Roasters such as this relied on specific flavors of coffee that represented their brand. Whether packaged as a single origin or a signature blend, coffees were chosen for their flavor profile. A coffee buyer for these firms would seek out coffees based on these profiles. Some were the "classics" of coffee: Sumatra and Kenya, for example. Others were less well known here in the states, but came from respected estates that had for years prepared special coffees for the European market. These coffees were more carefully sorted and processed, for more exacting coffee buyers. Sometimes you will still see a coffee identified as "European Prep."

In any case, a coffee buyer for these firms expected high quality beans from their sources and rather than trade cupping the coffees for defects, they instead cupped for profile. Rather than roasting the samples very light, the samples would be roasted closer to production temperatures to tease out the potentials of the coffee. In this way a coffee buyer would be able to see if the coffee would fit with the profiles they wished to promote. A coffee buyer here would still be expected to recognize taste faults, but their primary objective was looking for favorable flavor attributes whether that was part of a blend or a stand alone coffee.



Depending on the size of the firm, such cupping would include samples, from production as well to ensure the roasts were coming out right. While this type of cupping differs in style and intent from trade cupping, it was never really identified separately as such. One could call it profile cupping or production cupping, but rarely would someone differentiate it, referring to both simply as cupping.  It was, generally speaking, new territory anyway, and there existed a lack of common language for this type of cupping.

This would become problematic as time progressed. Without a lexicon to describe quality, it made it difficult to define quality. The materials at the time focused around faults and defects, barely mentioning favorable taste attributes beyond something like, clean, balanced, smooth and so forth. So, if you wanted to set out to buy the best coffee you would be hard pressed to describe exactly what that meant. So we can forgive the young man in the beginning of this story for not being capable of defining what he meant by having better beans. The problem was systemic to the trade.

In 1982 many of these roasters gathered together to create a "common forum" to promote quality coffee. The idea was to unite those in the coffee trade to a common purpose: to serve as a sounding board and educate the public; and to generally be a source of support in a world of coffee mediocrity. This group became known as the Specialty Coffee Association of America and is today the world's largest coffee association. Over the years, the SCAA has attempted a number of initiatives designed to promote coffee quality, and naturally one of these would be to develop a standard of what "specialty" coffee is.

Much of this early work consisted of developing guides for common usage. Ted Lingles's 1985 handbook, The Basics of Cupping Coffee, now in its fourth edition, was one such handbook. In it, he outlines his objective stating that it was "written as a sales and marketing tool(,) to promote specialty coffee, adding further that it was "designed to initiate discussion on the most appropriate and descriptive terminology" and "does not presume to be the definitive text."

In addition to producing material, the SCAA began hosting seminars on cupping specialty coffee during its annual exhibition and trade show. In the past, learning to cup coffee was sort of an arcane endeavor, usually reserved for those in the business. Traders would learn from other traders, roasters would learn from roasters. Coffee buyers were often somewhere in between. On the one hand, they needed to be conversant with traders to access quality coffees, but on the other, needed to understand what worked from a production standpoint. A good coffee buyer would need to learn how to navigate these two perspectives. I have known too many roasting firms where there existed an acrimonious divide between the coffee buyer and roaster on what constitutes good coffee. Usually this resulted from a coffee buyer who spent a fair amount of time "in the field," who becave acclimated to trade cupping and lost the  perspective of customer preferences and expectations.

So, establishing a common vocabulary for coffee quality would be a good thing, and training would seem to be the perfect endeavor for the SCAA since its mission is to promote specialty coffee. To this end, it has adopted a program called the Q-Grader Certification that sets forward a systematic framework for evaluating and describing specialty coffee. Using the cupping form originally set out in the Coffee Cupper's Handbook it establishes a training program to certify participants to identify and rate specialty grade coffee. The Q certification is as good as any metric to create a normative vocabulary for assessing quality.

Sadly though, the SCAA has made the same mistake in perspective.












Friday, January 10, 2014

Mortar and Pestle named official grinder supplier for World Barista Championship

(Los Angeles, CA) Organizers from the Barista Guild announced today that the Mortar and Pestle will be the official grinder for this years World Barista's Championship. "We wanted to emphasize the hand in handcrafted espresso beverages and thought what better way to do this than doing away with mechanized grinding equipment," Nicholas Gramby, head of product procurement for the Barista Guild, said.

The decision recognizes the general movement within the industry of late, eschewing technologically advanced equipment in favor of simpler devices that focus more attention on the preparer than the misdirected focus on the product. "Customers want a show, Nicholas explained, "they could never hope to have the sophisticated taste and knowledge of a skilled barista but this way we can educate them about terroir and processing methods." 

It is hoped that the addition of the mortar and pestle into Third Wave coffee bars will help slow the line times down another 3 to 5 minutes, allowing baristas to more fully develop their coffee lectures to eager, uninformed customers. "Currently, our line times are averaging around 15 minutes, that's just not long enough to fully explain to the customer where their coffee is coming from," one barista said. 

While it is too early yet to judge the potential success of the new model, many high end coffee bars are already adopting the mortar and pestle along with the return of propane-fired, piston-lever espresso machines, and finally, finally, ridding the stores of condiment bars. "We want customers to fully appreciate the coffee as we intended it," a spokesperson said. "Plus, they really make a mess over there." 

Asked about any concerns about how the longer times may affect customer loyalty, Nicholas was quick to point out that they are already at work on a model that eliminates the customer altogether. "We're very excited about this new model, I mean, customers are just such a hassle"

"Just think of what we could do without them!"

Friday, August 30, 2013

Fourth Wave Coffee Shop Opens

(Portland, Oregon USA) A new coffee shop opens today in Southeast Portland billing itself as the first Fourth Wave coffee shop in the world, pioneering a new model in retail coffee. The new store, called The Cupping Room, attempts to recreate the environment of a cupping contest by offering coffee only in sample form. Customers are allowed to purchase a cupping spoon and slurp and spit a variety of seasonal coffees. "Most third wave coffee shops pride themselves in their limited offerings, the best refusing cream and sugar," Elliot Frenton, The Cupping Rooms manager said. "We wanted to take it to the next level and offer our coffees as they are supposed to be experience, on the cupping table." Elliot went on to explain, "Great coffee shouldn't be consumed, it should only be tasted."

The new model represents a culmination of efforts by industry professionals who, for a long time, looked down on the consuming pubic. "Customers don't really know how to properly enjoy coffee," one expert explained. "Its up to us to educate them."

The new store will feature an array of coffee samples from around the world, emphasizing natural processed coffees in micro-lots of 1 bag or less. Customers are provided spit cups and those who choose to swallow their samples will be held in contempt and ridiculed just as soon as they leave the store. The store will also feature music from reel to reel tapes since vinyl is so over.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Cambodia announces new DPP coffee.



(Phnom Phen) Coffee farmers in Cambodia today announced a new process coffee for the high end specialty coffee trade, DPP. The process is unique in the world and was discovered by farmers in the Ratanakiri region already famous for its civet processed coffee. Farmers discovered that much of the coffee passed from the civet was being consumed by feral dogs in the area before they were able to harvest the beans. Farmers then traced down the scat of the dogs and were delighted to discover all was not lost. The resulting double ingested coffee produced a unique flavor that the farmers realized would have appeal to the increasingly specialized coffee market. "Nowadays, it seems everybody's getting into the mammalian excreted coffee craze, not just civets, but monkeys and elephants, too. Having our coffee pass through two mammal's digestive tracks gives us a clear advantage," coffee farmer Thun Yesman said. This new coffee is designated as DPP, Double Pooped Process and promises to be the most expensive coffee yet in an already crowded market.