A Question of Quality

Defining specialty coffee: Perspective from the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe

By Mick Wheeler

I am delighted to give a brief and hopefully succinct update on developments and initiatives being undertaken by the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE). As many of you are aware, the different specialty or speciality (as we in Europe like to call the sector) coffee associations have been struggling with the whole idea of coming up with a common definition of the product we represent. The SCAE’s and the Specialty Coffee Association of Japan’s definitions, although different, both relate to the quality of the brew in the cup, whereas the SCAA’s refers to the quality of the green bean. To some, this might sound as if we are worlds apart, but in truth we are in fact very close, just choosing to look at the question of definition at different points in the market chain.

I could, of course, easily argue that the SCAE definition quite rightly defines speciality coffee at the last point in the marketing chain and clearly identifies the fact that it is the consumer rather than the trade who is the ultimate judge. However, many see this definition as unsatisfactory, arguing that it is too loose and raises more questions than answers. Many see it as a cop-out, deliberately pushing the point of definition to a place where it becomes impossible to measure.

By contrast, the SCAA definition makes measurement far easier and there is no doubt that a great cup of coffee depends upon good quality green bean, but using great quality green beans does not and cannot guarantee the quality of coffee in the cup to the consumer. This is important for we all know that every other point in the marketing chain, (i.e. roasting, packing, storage, grinding, brewing and serving) can all have a profound impact on the experience that the consumer will have when drinking the product.

So we have a serious dilemma and one which seemingly seems impossible to resolve, especially as in Europe there are so many different coffee cultures and traditions, that what is considered specialty varies from country to country and, indeed, sometimes from region to region.

However, at the World Coffee Conference recently, a new concept was suggested from which the seeds of unity will, I hope, grow. And this is the concept of actual and perceived added value. I am not exactly sure how we would phrase any definition that we could all agree upon, but I suspect that better wordsmiths than I will be able to craft a definition based on such a concept, which retains links to both the consumer and to a measurable point in the marketing chain.

Even so, the SCAE have always pointed out that its definition of specialty is more that just an attempt to distinguish specialty from mainstream, but rather a call to arms that defines the whole movement towards better quality coffee. It is not how we define specialty coffee that matters but that we see what we do in the association as a constant process of continually improving the quality of coffee consumed in Europe and indeed elsewhere, for that matter.

The whole question of quality is of course central to what the SCAE stands for and, as a result, we have decided to undertake a massive research project—well, massive for us—by revisiting and re-evaluating the quality standards established by the Coffee Brewing Institute, an entity of the Pan American Coffee Bureau, founded by Dr. E. E. Lockhart, who led the CBI from 1952 to 1964. The CBI established a scientific basis for understanding the complex inter-relationships between coffee cupping, roasting and brewing. This work remains the foundation of today’s SCAE Gold Cup Standard and the SCAA’s Golden Cup Award program. We are not questioning the validity of the works undertaken over 50 years ago, but given the greater range of coffees available today and the improvements in brewing and measuring technology, not to mention the more sophisticated approach we all take to cupping, we just feel that a re-examination is warranted and indeed overdue.

We see this as a project which might well extend over the next five years, but initially we are starting off with a basic parameter: extraction. We intend to compare different profiles from 16 percent to 24 percent extraction, and from 1.2 percent to 1.45 percent strength using six different typical coffees from around the world. We will measure the taste profile using qualified cuppers in blind trials and chart their findings. We will then measure the scientific extraction of each coffee and chart their position on the Coffee Brewing chart. In addition, we will scientifically analyze the chosen coffee from green to cup and compare all these findings with the current standard.

Believe me; this initial phase is a massive task, but we are well underway and all I can say is this: Watch this space for the results, which we intend to make widely and freely available to all. For more information, please visit www.scae.com.

Thank you for the opportunity to update you on just some of the things we are doing at the SCAE. Of course, I cannot pass up this opportunity to invite you all to London for this year’s SCAE event, June 23 – 25, where we’ll host all five world championships, a great conference and workshop program, a truly impressive exhibition, plus a not-to-be-missed social program, which will be light hearted and definitely informal. You will have a great time.

Mick Wheeler is the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe executive director.