Leaving a Bad Taste in Their Mouths?

By Christopher Schooley

I always thought that one of the most important pieces of information that you could put on a bag of coffee was the roast date. It can identify the contents as something special and it can also be the product’s greatest selling point. Thus, I thought of the roast date as a sort of sacred oath, as a way to tell a potential customer that what was in the bag was both fresh and remarkable. Part of that oath was that the coffee itself was some of the finest coffee available before I even got my hands on it. My customers trusted me that the coffee I was roasting for them was already special, and that my job as a roaster was to actualize the potential of that coffee without leaving too much of an imprint of my influence on it.

As a roaster, I’ve thought for a long time about added value. Because of my own approach to roasting—my job is simply to actualize the potential of the coffee itself—I’ve often struggled with the idea of added value. But that is what we are doing as coffee roasters. We are adding tangible value to the agricultural product of the coffee seed just like the mill is adding tangible value to the coffee cherry. The Spanish word for wet mill, beneficio, comes specifically from this whole concept, that you’re adding a benefit to the coffee.

Can you add a benefit to the coffee with information? A tastable benefit? In many cases, we can provide farm information like growing region, altitude and coffee varietal. The little bit that we’ve learned as specialty coffee professionals about these elements can make this information slightly useful in the proper context, and certainly sharing this nuts-and-bolts type of information with consumers can help paint the broader picture of coffee production for them.

On the other hand, is there information that we’ve maybe over-hyped or even taken completely out of context and applied strange and inappropriate terminology to in an attempt to add a tastable value to a coffee? How about when we talk about coffee seasonality?

As some folks might be familiar, I’ve made plenty of noise about my distaste for the use of the term “seasonality” in regards to green coffee. I do hold the strong opinion that green coffee does have a life span, and I am always delighted when new coffees arrive. It’s just that the concept of seasonality does not really apply appropriately to green coffee; I fear that casually throwing it around can be damaging to the way that professionals involved in the production of other craft goods and also consumers view the specialty coffee industry. If a coffee has lost what’s really special about it and no longer produces a sweet and lovely cup of coffee, shouldn’t our customers trust that we’re not going to sell it to them without having to say whether or not it’s in season? Isn’t this part of the oath?

Are we too caught up in trying to convince consumers what good and great coffee should taste like? We’ve done a pretty bang-up job of educating ourselves about coffee, and our current preferences in coffee characteristics reflect that. I feel like we have not done as good of a job educating consumers—and their preferences are reflecting that. The prospects of teaching a consumer everything that you know about coffee quality can certainly be daunting (and be fun too, depending on your perspective). Since the consumer is not professionally engaged in the industry, they really just might not be able to find the time to learn about in what context does altitude affect a coffee’s quality, or even why a bright coffee with loads of citric acidity is actually a welcome thing.

Perhaps the more direct way to educate consumers about coffee quality and to truly show a tastable difference between different levels of quality is to familiarize them with why a coffee is BAD and how to identify those tastes and characteristics. Speaking for myself, having become familiar with the tastes and characteristics associated with coffee that has lost a significant amount of organic material and would be considered old or past crop, it is nearly impossible to look past it when found in the cup. Would teaching consumers how to identify these bad characteristics totally sidestep the need to label coffee as seasonal or not? And, wouldn’t doing this also lead back to holding the roaster accountable for these things and accountable for building trust with their customers by providing coffees devoid of these characteristics?

The frontier for specialty coffee is in looking closely at the shelf life of both green coffee and roasted coffee, and in being the leader in identifying what the acceptable parameters of this are. I strongly feel that the tastable differences between good quality green coffee and green that has significant organic material loss—as well as the differences between fresh roasted coffee and stale coffee—is the linchpin to making a strong case for what’s so special about specialty coffee.

We can again make the roast date the most important piece of information that we put on a bag that can help buyers determine the quality of their coffee. That’s real value that I can add.

Schooley believes that essential to acquiring a craft, and the surest path towards a deeper understanding of it, is the sharing of knowledge and experience gained. Schooley is a coffee roaster who works for Coffee Shrub and is currently Chair of the Roasters Guild Executive Council.