By Spencer Turer
What defines quality in craft beer, ice cream, or cheese? In Vermont, we are fortunate to have products that define these categories: Heady Topper from the Alchemist, ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s, and cheeses from Vermont Creamery. These are products that are recognized as top quality. Do they have more flavor or just better flavor? Are these items more consistent than their competitors? Do their flavor attributes meet the promises made by their advertising?
These companies were able to achieve this distinction by word of mouth recommendations and winning awards. As specialty coffee professionals, we are proud of the coffee we buy, roast, and serve. We drink it ourselves, and promote specialty coffee to people that we know and to people that we meet.
Specialty coffee, from farm to cup, strives to identify and promote quality. Advancing coffee quality is a noble pursuit and serves the industry well, with the added benefit of making great-tasting coffee available to consumers. We understand that quality can be defined in two ways: adherence to specifications and having great flavor.
Collectively, we are passionate about quality and enthusiastic about our products. When questioned about the definition and production of quality coffee, here’s how we respond: quality coffee is coffee that tastes great! The SCAA’s tagline “Because great coffee doesn’t just happen” reaffirms that specialty coffee is a matter of choice, not a beverage of chance. Let’s explore three functional areas of creating quality: brewing, roasting, and sourcing.
Specialty coffee has exotic and complex flavor characteristics, tantalizing acidity from organic acids, intrinsic sweetness, smooth body, and a depth of flavor that very few other beverages possess. Consumers can recognize a specialty coffee product when it is “Q Certified” or by “Cup of Excellence” awards. On the flip side, consumers may become confused by marketing campaigns, business slogans, or unsubstantiated quality statements about products that are being promoted, which may not translate into a pleasing or enjoyable beverage. The promise of specialty quality is destroyed when a coffee’s flavor does not meet the expectation created by marketing.
Creating beverage quality starts with understanding and delivering the expectation of quality for yourself and your customers—what you want to sell and what they want to buy. Determining a beverage’s quality profile and its consumer acceptability should not be an activity relegated to a few experts sitting around cupping tables in a back room. You are better off testing coffee products with your consumers and using consumer panels from market research companies. Another method would be using your own employees to identify quality and having them provide feedback about their preferences. Product development samples are best tested by the people who will buy the coffee, not the people who will produce the coffee.
Once a beverage has been identified as having positive purchase intent, with high quality and likeability, the science of how to replicate the beverage begins. For espresso, it starts with determining the minimum and maximum parameters of grind-dose-tamp-extract to identify what must be controlled for a great tasting beverage. For filter-drip, the parameters include grind-dose-extract and hold time. Since there are several interdependent variables when creating quality beverages, these tests may become complicated. To fully understand the acceptable ranges for each variable and to produce the same quality beverage that meets or exceeds the consumers expectation for specialty coffee quality, each variable must be managed and tested independently. Once an acceptable quality profile is identified, further testing to replicate real-life situations by manipulating multiple variables will help one understand the customer’s experience and enable the barista to create a quality beverage.
Moving from beverage quality, after identifying all the attributes to be managed during drink production, we now begin to explore complexities of creating quality at manufacturing.
Quality roasting begins with the physical structure. It is important when creating a quality manufacturing location that the layout and plant operation follow Good Manufacturing Practices (CFR: Title 21, Chapter 1, Subchapter B, Part 110—Current Good Manufacturing Practices in Manufacturing, Packing, or Holding Human Food) and that the plant has a HACCP plan in place (FDA: Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points). More comprehensive information that provide greater operational details for quality manufacturing are AIB’s Consolidated Standards for Inspection, Prerequisites and Food Safety Programs, and Food Contract Packaging Manufacturing Facilities. AIB provides a step-by-step guide for operating a quality food manufacturing facility. Documents for these management systems are easily found online. Yes, these standards do apply to coffee roasters!
In specialty coffee, quality is in the cup. In manufacturing, quality is judged by plant appearance, process controls, and adherence to specifications.
What are the aspects of food and beverage manufacturing or restaurant operations that instill confidence in the customer? What do you like to see when you peer into a manufacturing plant, quality control lab, or even a restaurant kitchen? A clean, well-organized manufacturing operation, protection in place for food safety, documented process controls, and a recognizable scientific quality control program will build confidence for your customers. Your staff will be on a path towards creating excellence when a culture of quality is defined and actively led by management. Creating a culture of quality is critical to creating specialty coffee.
Many small roasting plants or new companies may view GMPs and process controls as expensive and inconvenient, or even an inefficient and an unproductive use of time and resources. Benjamin Franklin wrote, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We take this to heart—spending time and resources to establish quality operations, including documentation for process, and having a quality control system in place will help you avoid problems in the future that could take your attention away from growing sales. The goal is to prevent losing customers due to product inconsistency, losing new business opportunities when your operation is compared to your competitor’s, and to avoid failing FDA, OSHA, heath department inspections, and customer audits.
Controllable aspects in manufacturing that will lead to beverage quality include many of the same laboratory operations and quantitative testing protocols that the SCAA teaches in Skill Building Workshops. These measurements include; moisture, water activity, roast development, coffee color, whole bean defects, grind particle size, extraction percent, brew solids, package headspace measurements for oxygen and carbon dioxide, and net weight. Other published protocols for coffee testing are from the ISO (International Standards Organization) and AOAC (Association of Official Agricultural Chemists) who publishes standardized chemical analysis methods which are designed to increase confidence in results of chemical and physical analysis. Buying laboratory equipment is the first step. Hiring and training a quality control staff to operate independently of manufacturing is the second step. The last step in the process of creating quality is laboratory operational procedures that follow appropriate methods and protocols and ensures accuracy and credibility of results. All three steps are important to operate a quality manufacturing plant. These tests allow managers to understand product quality status and trends, and prevent quality issues, which could result in consumer complaints.
Businesses may not be able to quantify sales or profits that are protected by strong quality programs; however, it is easy to account for lost business when quality is not created.
Quality control is the science aspect of specialty coffee; product development remains in the realm of craft and artistry. Sourcing green coffee is the juxtaposition of science and art. Coffee buyers must strictly manage quality and adhere to established specifications while remaining flexible enough to consider substitutions, new sources, and other supply options for acceptability based on price, availability, and relationship.
To consistently deliver distinctive specialty coffee, standards must be set and maintained. Establishing green coffee specifications for physical and sensory attributes is the start of the process and is critical to determining what quality is acceptable and what is unacceptable, before sourcing or product testing begins. Product specification documents are tools used to address quality standards both internally and externally. Communicating your green coffee specifications helps suppliers provide you with the desired product. Consistently providing test results as to sensory profile and physical attributes for both approval and rejections will help your suppliers align to your quality requirements.
Establishing minimum and maximum allowable attributes and acceptable and unacceptable characteristics will help in maintaining product uniformity and consistency. When coffee looks, smells and tastes the way it was designed to by product developers, product quality is achieved. Consumers expect each product, whether it is a direct-trade, award winning micro-lot coffee, or nationally-distributed retail product to look, smell, and taste the same with each purchase. Variations in specialty coffee can be expected when changing origin sources, supply partners, harvest years, or when introducing a new product.
Green coffee specifications are relatively easy to write. “SCAA Specialty Quality” is universally understood as zero primary defects and up to five secondary defects in a 350-gram sample. 10 percent-12 percent moisture with zero quakers in a 100-gram roasted sample, and a sensory score over 80. Since preparation must not effect the sensory test, the SCAA has established protocols for sample roasting and cupping. Sample roasting should be completed in 8-12 minutes, the coffee should rest for 8-24 hours prior to cupping, and the ground coffee should be 63 Agtron (Gourmet Scale) / 48 (Commercial Scale). Cupping should be performed by individually measuring 8.25 grams of coffee per cup for five cups, grinding each cup to pass 70 percent-75 percent through a #20 screen, and then steeping with 150 mL of 200°F water for three-five minutes before breaking the crust. If you prefer independent verification of quality, you may purchase Q Certified coffees, since Q standards are identical to SCAA Specialty Grade. As specialty coffee professionals, we understand that coffee is purchased based on a matrix of price, quality, availability, and relationship decisions. There will be slight price reductions for SCAA Premium quality, which allows up to eight secondary defects and up to three quakers, but the product still must be above an 80 on the sensory score.
Green coffee specifications should be flexible enough to enable sourcing the quality that is required at a price that will enable profitability. This applies to coffees that are readily available or a product that can be contracted for future deliveries. The craft aspect of coffee sourcing is the product development function: testing various coffees to determine which sensory quality is right for your business produces a cup quality that is consistent with your enterprise and your customer’s expectations. Yes, this is a process of trial and error. Knowing how coffees will react to different roast profiles is a skill that only comes with experience. Capturing all the quantitative measurements and then testing the finished products to ensure consistent quality is time-consuming and requires great patience and attention to detail; however, it is essential to creating quality.
Consistency in applying product specifications helps your supplier understand the relationship between the quality of green coffee and your business needs. Always approving acceptable green coffee and always rejecting unacceptable coffee, using measurable specifications, will help the efficiency and effectiveness of your supply chain. It will also eliminate confusion and reduce costs. For small micro-roasters and local roaster/retailers who are not buying green coffee SAS (subject to approval of sample), communicating your specifications and regularly cupping side-by-side with your suppliers is critical to ensuring you get what you want.
Other green coffee attributes that can be controlled by the use of written product specifications during the sourcing process include: origin regions, cooperative or farm identification, crop year, certification, altitude of growth, cultivar, defect count, and screen size. Other terms may be added to green coffee specifications and contracts to include statements like, “clean, sweet, free of contamination and sensory defects,” “high acidity,” “full body,” or any other sensory attribute that is critical to your product’s quality description. Stating product specifications on your purchase documents is an important communication tool used to avoid confusion and eliminate arguments of acceptably and quality.
Creating a culture of quality by establishing quality standards, testing products, and communicating your results to your suppliers and staff members will greatly benefit your customers. Creating quality is a process: consistency builds confidence, confidence develops trust, and trust creates loyalty. Customer loyalty is critical to business success.
We don’t read and write about quality because it is interesting. We embrace quality because we are specialty coffee professionals. And specialty coffee is filled with passion. Exotic flavors, enticing aromatics, intoxicating sweetness, luxurious body – these are what we stay alive for. In your business you may contribute to quality; what will be your quality? Will you invest in marketing programs, add taglines, and redesign your logos to capture new sales, install motivational posters for your staff, or create a culture of quality in your operation? Where will you start? What will your quality be?
Spencer Turer is vice president of Coffee Analysts in Burlington, Vermont. He has dedicated his career to creating coffee quality, and is recognized throughout the coffee industry as a passionate and enthusiastic specialty coffee professional. He is a pioneer for roaster certification and an advocate for coffee industry education. Spencer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org