The Challenge: Coffee buyers for roasting companies should be doing much less travel and much more cupping, quality control and customer education.
Kenneth Davids writes:
I guess my reservation with the challenge statement is the repetition of the “much” word. If the thrust of the challenge statement is to argue that coffee buyers should focus first and foremost on the actual character of the coffee they buy and sell and less on travel stories glamorizing a quest for perfect coffees, etc. then I would agree. This critique applies as well to the traditional, older-fashioned marketing apparatus for fine single-origin coffees, wherein imagery of samba dancers and giraffes seemed to figure more prominently in promotional materials than attempts to describe the character of the coffees and what made them taste that way.
One of the reasons I like the latest trend in promotion of high-end coffee is that it tends to focus on what made the coffee taste the way it does – botanical variety, growing elevation, processing method, etc. – rather than on tourist hype or giraffes. True, the affectionate accounts of growers and their families one runs across on websites and packages may come off as a little irrelevant to how the coffee tastes, but I’ll go with it in the spirit of fairness, because if the media can turn hysterical cooks and pretentious winemakers into heroes I don’t see why we shouldn’t try to do the same for our own friends and collaborators in producing countries. True too, the tendency to brand coffee farms or coops and for roasters to buy green coffee by these brands rather than by the actual character of the coffee offered for sale in a given crop year is a little distressing from the point of view of coffee quality and authenticity, but again, if executives in soft-drink company board rooms can try to brand their stuff I can’t see why coffee growers can’t make the same attempt.
Although that does take us back to the argument made in the challenge statement, which is that coffee buyers should focus on the cup in front of them in this time and space and crop year and not on hype, safari glamour, or even on genuine friendship and how great the ron Zacapa was that night in Huehuetenango.
But finally, I think a certain kind of serious coffee travel undertaken over the long run is probably essential for coffee buyers. This is the kind that happens during harvest, and is slow, thorough in its observation, and ultimately focused on a better understanding of the cup itself and the almost infinite number of variables, both natural and deliberate, that go into determining its character. It is not the kind of touring in which a group hits three farms or coops per day and its all “we pick only ripe cherries and they go in here and come out there and our coffee is the greatest in the world, and we treat our workers well, and now let’s have a great lunch up at the house.” It’s a process of observing what actually happens during processing and drying, and talking a lot with the people who actually make it happen, and then following up with systematically cupping the results. And if at all possible continuing to cup the results through subsequent years and the changes those years bring. To me, newer roasters should have such an education, and as the money and time come available should spend time witnessing all of the major variations on processing method and drying. In other words, rather than four trips to Central America it might be better to make one trip to witness wet-hulling in Sumatra and another to some large hi-tech farm in Brazil where they do three different processing methods and another to some farm or coop that does both traditional wet process and small-scale dry process; in Ethiopia, for example.
We in the fine coffee industry need to make these investigations ourselves with an open mind, because the traditional lore of the traditional coffee industry is out-of-date and useless and the empirical work of the scientists is necessarily narrow in focus and, it would seem, oblivious to subtle sensory variation in coffee, which is precisely where we, as students and teachers of fine coffee, need to focus our attention.
For another perspective on this challenge, click here to see how Kevin Knox responds
Readers occasionally call Coffee Review to task for rating coffees too high. (On the other hand, others ask why we’ve never rated a coffee higher than 97. That latter question I’ll save for another time and another blog.)
But in response to those harboring the “too high” suspicion, the first thing I would point out is that in general we only publish reviews of coffees that exceed 87 or 88. That doesn’t mean we don’t rate many more coffees lower than 87, often considerably lower. We just don’t review these many lower-rated coffees. We only publish reviews of the good ones because we generally prefer to reward excellence, not punish failure. If we do identify weakness we try to do it in a more general context in the introductory articles to our reviews, rather than naming names in the reviews themselves. For example, we pointed out the overall deteriorating quality of many Hawaii and Caribbean coffees in our March 2010 article “Island Coffees: Hawaii and the Caribbean,” and gave some reasons for that trend. However, we stopped short of printing reviews of the disappointments that supported that generalization, focusing instead on reviews of those coffees and producers that bucked that trend.
The other exceptions to the we-only-review-87-or-above approach are situations where consumers are limited in their choices. When we review mass-market coffees rather than specialty coffees, for example, we cover the whole range from dismal to pretty good, on the assumption that readers who buy these inexpensive coffees are limited to what they find on the supermarket shelf. Similarly, when we review single-serve pods or capsules that fit only one kind of machine we tend to review a range of whatever is available for that machine, regardless of rating.
To sum up, for a typical review article we sample an average of about 25 to 40 coffees. These coffees have already gone through a selection process. They have been nominated by roasters (or in some cases by consumers) as outstanding coffees, so they presumably represent some of the best options for a given origin or category. Nevertheless, we typically find no more than about one-third of those 25 to 40 coffees worthy of review.
Better, More Distinctive Coffees Mean Higher Ratings
A second development to keep in mind is that the many of the best specialty coffees have gotten better – often much better – over the past two or three years. The leading edge of specialty coffee production, composed largely of smaller, younger coffee companies and a newer generation of more savvy, worldly coffee growers, has raised the bar for quality and distinction in specialty coffee. The historical dynamic of this change is too complex to go into here, but it starts with consumers who are willing to pay higher prices for small, one-time-only lots of exceptional coffees; roasting companies that are willing to spend time and money ferreting out the best small lots of exceptional coffees; coffee growers who understand this situation and are willing to meet or exceed the expectations of both demanding roasting companies and aficionados; and finally the growth of institutions that foster competitiveness in coffee, like the Cup of Excellence and the Barista Guild, and development institutions that fund improvements in coffee production at origin aimed at helping producers meet higher expectations and thus merit higher prices for their coffees.
In other words, the high end of specialty coffee is simply producing better and more distinctive coffees than ever before, coffees that, when they hit their mark, deserve the recognition of high ratings.
The Macro-Lot Challenge
We at Coffee Review find ourselves concerned, however, that we may not be sufficiently honoring the middle range of specialty, those coffees from larger specialty roasters or more traditional smaller roasting companies that are sturdy, pleasing, reasonably distinctive, but perhaps only occasionally exceptional, yet offer a good value for their often modest price and are widely available. For coffees of this kind and price, a rating of 88 may be something to celebrate. We are trying to find more ways to focus on such coffees, along the lines of the “best wines under $15” approach to wine reviewing. For example, this year we are planning a review of single-origin coffees from larger lots of green coffees (at least one hundred 150-pound sacks), which we are calling “macro-lots” rather than the tiny, precious (and often high-priced) “micro-lots” that rightfully yet perhaps dauntingly tend to dominate the highest ratings at Coffee Review.
Recently I was involved in a couple of tasting programs. One was a roasters’ competition for espresso and another was research for a rural industries organization evaluating coffee cherry maturity on taste quality. In both cases it was necessary to use tasting sheets.
For the cherry maturity tasting, we used the Cup of Excellence® Tasting sheets devised by George Howell. These sheets were a huge leap forward in comparison to the old SCAA cupping sheets which automatically gave the coffees 50% and evaluated only five characteristics. George based this sheet on wine tasting sheets to try and introduce some more sophistication to coffee tasting. There is no doubt he succeeded with this as the SCAA proceeded to modify its very basic form to its current form which is largely based on the COE one.
For the World Barista Championships the tasting forms were originally based around the Italian Espresso Tasters wheel, which I had a hand in adapting for the judges of these competitions.
The trouble with tasting sheets is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (HUP). It was Tim Castle who pointed out to me in a rather philosophical conversation we were having some years ago about the best coffee tasting sheet being a blank sheet of paper. Although at first it sounds unrealistic, there is actually a lot of sense in this statement.
The reason for this is that in very laymen’s terms, HUP basically means that the very act of measuring something interferes and alters the very thing you are trying to measure and so it is impossible to be accurate. In other words by having prompts on a tasting sheet this will pre-dispose us to think about a coffee in a certain (biased) way. If for instance acidity is not mentioned on a sheet then you can’t evaluate it. The COE tasting sheets introduced sweetness for instance, whereas previously it wasn’t on the SCAA sheet. So suddenly sweetness becomes more important. It could be body or any other characteristic that is affected in a similar way.
For the research project I was responsible for placing a range of coffees from a particular terroir within an international benchmarking configuration: i.e. exactly how the coffees would fit in internationally in relation to all levels: NY Exchange, >70% Specialty Coffee Association >80% or Cup of Excellence >84% whether for drip, plunger or espresso.
These simple bench-marks make it a bit easier for a context without bending your perception too much and most professional cuppers are somewhat familiar with them. Keeping in mind that acidity still tends to be the most defining single characteristic for both Specialty and COE coffees.
While tasting the roasters’ competition I came under fire for not filling out all the boxes. I was aiming to be as consistent as possible but also trying to place the coffees in this international context with more of an emphasis on body rather than acidity. As a result I put a final score of where I believed the coffee sat in an international configuration.
I always insist on no collusion between judges during scoring unlike some barista competitions where there is considerable discussion by judges about their scores behind closed doors. Consequently these barista judges tend to be very uniform and I might add timid, rather than expressive. In COE competitions, new and inexperienced judges tend to be very conservative as they don’t want to stand out on their own in comparison to everyone else. Having all the judges within a narrow range is not necessarily good judging.
I would rather a judge is confident and expresses their view of a coffee, honestly openly and without inhibition as long as they are consistent. If one judge consistently scores low and another consistently scores high it will not make the competition unfair as long as they are consistent. But in the end I tend to agree with Mr Heisenberg: the less interference in the scoring process the better, so to speak anyway.
This year’s World Barista Championship and Specialty Coffee (SCAA) conference in Atlanta America was outstanding. I have attended most SCAA conferences since New Orleans in the mid 1990’s. I have attended all WBC finals with the sole exception of Japan and the combination of the SCAA and WBC is always an invigorating alignment of the planets.
I really enjoyed the new Symposium which was introduced this year. It was very stimulating, particularly the talk by Tony Marsh on Sumatra, wet hulling and how there is so much more research that needs to be done in regard to the influences defining coffee taste. An irony here is that even though I had heard about Tony Marsh a fellow Australian, I had to travel to Atlanta Georgia to meet him for the first time.
I think 2009 was probably a record for the number of Australians attending the SCAA conference. This was partly because, of course the WBC always attracts contingents of supporters from each country represented. But there wasalso an unprecedented crowd of newly aspiring, up and coming baristas, roasters and green importers who wanted to learn more about coffee and cupping.
I remember for years when attending SCAA conferences I felt like Burke without Wills in the outback. For non-Australians you’ll have to ask your Aussie mates about Burke and Wills, but the reality was I was often on my own!There was the occasional compatriot who attended, and then increasingly more, every time the WBC co-incided with the SCAA conference.
As I said, there are a lots of Australians who now want to learn more about cupping. There is a real irony in this. When I first attended the 2002 Guatemala Cup of Excellence, I found instinctively that I cupped completely the opposite to some very good cuppers who were there like George Howell, Mane Alves, Steve Hurst and Danny ONeill to name but a few.
Because I was so programmed to search for espresso coffees with big body, lots of sweetness and low acidity I would rate the coffees completely opposite to all the other cuppers. Acidity in coffee is accentuated by espresso extraction so you don’t need too much to start with. With drip coffee you can really have as much acidity as you like, and for manycuppers, the more acidity the better.
After I had been doing this a for while, someone said I was evaluating the coffees exactly like the Lavazza cupper fromItaly who had been there the year before. He too was evaluating the coffees as if for espresso. He never came back, but I did. There were too many great coffees being unearthed through the Cup of Excellence program for me to stop paying attention.
I subsequently bought the winning Cup of Excellence Guatemala coffee from that year because it was so outstanding. It was so powerful that I ended up using it discreetly in Paul Bassett’s World Championship winning blend. I think this may have been the first time a Cup of Excellence coffee was used in a WBC competition, whereas now it is pretty common place.
One of the great new initiatives the WBC introduced this year was the bank of Nuova Simonelli espresso machines to serve coffee continuously throughout the competition. This line of machines however exposed a great divide in the coffee world. The same divide I experienced in Guatemala. The divide between cuppers and baristas. It is a clash of cultures. It can be a healthy clash but it can also be painful and full of conflict and it is definitely real.
I witnessed a little barista from Australia, Anya who is extremely passionate about coffee and the WBC and who was really looking forward to the experience of getting behind these machines and using all her barista skills to showcase some great coffees. And she is a really good barista. She is in fact a really good barista trainer. She knows her stuff because she tastes espresso all the time.
Behind her, hovering over her were a couple of demi-gods from the coffee world who we shall call Priam and Hecuba, from ancient Greek mythology, the Illiad. One is a legendary cupper and another is a seriously successful coffee business owner. And I have enormous respect for both of them as coffee professionals and as cuppers.
But they interfered with the way Anya was setting up her grind and dictated to her how she should extract the coffee.First of all she wasn’t allowed to set the grinder and then she was ordered to use 7 grams per cup and a certain volume for the shot. Anya was dismayed as she knew the coffee could taste so much better if she was just left to tweak the grinder and the dose herself.
The barista moderator became involved as one after another the demi-god cuppers became increasingly strident and belligerent insisting that their way was the only way to extract the coffee. The moderator, brave mortal barista that he was, dared to disagree with the demi-god cuppers who then became even more outraged that a young barista would dare to question their authority and coffee credibility. This in fact wasn’t the case. The barista moderator just happened to agree with cute barista Anya about the best way to showcase this espresso coffee.
This conflict became quite heated to the point that the baristas became very upset and the demi-god cuppers became very upset. This was a real conflict. It is a clash of cultures within the specialty coffee world. After all what is specialtycoffee? In the past it has been defined by drip coffee. That is where specialty coffee began. But it is changing and fast. Espresso-based coffee is taking over America as it is the rest of the world and increasingly the old school specialty cuppers are having to come to grips with espresso.
I remember some time ago there was a light hearted thread about this perceived clash of cultures on coffeed.com but I have seen it growing in America for some time. In Australia ironically this conflict has largely been avoided because we never had the same strong cupping culture that America has developed. This is largely because espresso based coffee completely replaced drip coffee so long ago, (when I was a boy)!
Someone asked me at the conference how I tasted my espresso blends, whether I cupped them initially and then tasted them as espresso. I replied, unless I go to a farm and have to do a lot of pre-screening, I only ever develop and evaluate espresso coffees as espresso in my factory. It is harder to do because it takes so much more effort to pull a good shot for every coffee. But it doesn’t make sense to evaluate all the components of an espresso blend by cupping and thenonly taste it as espresso once you have put the final blend together. If the final blend doesn’t work you have to work backwards and taste each component individually anyway, to sort out the best coffees to go into it. So why not cut to the chase and taste every coffee as espresso in the first place. There is no real point in cupping in my factory for production blends when I do 100% espresso coffee every day. So we taste as espresso for production and cup for fun.
Good baristas taste their espresso coffee every day as they dial in their blend. As a result they end up tasting more espresso coffees than most cuppers. Herein lies the problem. Many young and seemingly ignorant ‘freshman’ baristas actually have a lot more experience tasting espresso coffees than many cuppers do. This is apart from the fact that experienced baristas probably pull a better shot than most cuppers as well. But many professional cuppers often don’treally have time to taste all the coffees they must evaluate as espresso anyway.
As Specialty coffee increasingly becomes defined by espresso this clash may evolve into a happy mix. Lots of baristas who want to become coffee professionals are diving into cupping and will develop into true professionals as long as they stay open to the different place required for cupping.
I heard the ludicrous comment recently from a barista that Australia doesn’t have good coffees like other leading cupping nations do. As a result international demi-god cuppers were shipped in to make their pronouncements from on high about what coffees should be used. Funnily enough one of the coffees they offered was already on offer at about half the price from a local green broker, HA Bennett (who incidentally have an espresso machine in their cupping room which they use regularly)!
By the same token when I set up 49th Parallel coffee factory a few years ago in Vancouver, we ended up shipping in a whole lot of green coffees that traditional cuppers weren’t offering in North America at that time and that I could only get by usng HA Bennetts. I had to do a similar thing for Paul Bassett in Japan.
This is a classic example of baristas falling prey to the cupping propaganda: “as baristas you don’t cup as much as I dotherefore I as a cupper must know more about espresso than you”! I don’t think this is necessarily the case at all.
The ultimate irony for the demi-god cupper Priam in Atlanta, was when he went to a booth where a barista he had worked with previously, (a former US champion) proceeded to make the espresso almost exactly how Anya wanted to: i.e. with a higher dose and different grind and tamp, only he wasn’t aware that she made it this way. Priam pronounced from on high that his barista had got it exactly right without even realizing he himself had got it way wrong.