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As an artisanal industry, specialty coffee’s complex supply chain and specialized production create and collect a considerable amount of data. Understanding what data can be collected, and how it can help coffee businesses improve, change, and deliver quality is the first step toward gaining real benefits from all that data. There are still a lot of unknowns in the supply chain and the roasting process. But, collecting data, analyzing it and creating information we can all act on is revealing more and more quality and business insights every year.
Remember the SCAA heritage tagline Because great coffee doesn’t just happen? Considering all we still have to learn, this should probably say, “Great coffee might happen, but not again and again and again”. That is why the SCA has created cupping standards, roast protocols, brewing standards and best practices to build repeatable processes and common understanding. This movement started by collecting data. It was initially on paper and had limits. But, it was an attempt to use data to shed light on those hidden processes and work toward this shared goal of great coffee. We now know that some flavors are desirable and others are not. We also know that flavors can be brought out using certain techniques. To do that we need to measure and record data to make sure we are on the right track.
How do we achieve great coffee?
There are processes in roasting that we know and can measure, e.g. correct moisture of green coffee, making great coffee an easier goal to reach. However, these processes are not solely responsible for great coffee. There are some things that are well hidden; for example, the Maillard reaction and other deeper chemical processes. We know that these are taking place, but measuring them in a reliable or satisfying way is elusive. For most of us they occur in the proverbial black box. All these processes, whether known or unknown, are interconnected and affect each other. And there are a lot of things we still don’t know but, we are learning more every time we collect data.
At a high level, the roastery remains a black box with only a few windows cut into it. What’s the solution to shed more light into this black box? The answer: cut more windows into the black box. How? By collecting more data from processes and effects we know and can measure. This removes guesswork for beginners and delivers insights for experts. Roasters and many other coffee professionals at every level of the supply chain already do these things. Collecting data in a systematic way is how we create business intelligence and helps us improve and automate processes. And it usually means things get easier along the way.
As the graphic above shows, there are many different processes and workflows in a roastery. All of them are connected and all of them create data that can be captured. Complexity increases as more people are involved. For example, the production manager determines what is being roasted as well as what needs to be restocked, ordered or sourced. The farmer grows coffee at a specific altitude and then processes it a particular way. Both people affect the beans and the roast process.
At every step, data can be collected on factors that influence quality and are responsible for great (or not so great) coffee, starting from green coffee grading (e.g. density, water activity, screen size, etc.), to temperatures, gas and rotation during roasting, to cupping results, color of roasted beans and much more. All of these data points have little meaning alone. But combined they can reveal a lot. For example, a cupping score does not have a lot of value until it is tied to a particular coffee. The value of the score increases when we identify what we want to use it for (to adjust a roast for example). Having a way to aggregate all that data over time speeds up the process of creating new information out of data – it also creates business intelligence.
Advocating the collection of data raises the question: What is the best approach to get something back from the time invested collecting this data? Which leads to another question: How can you make a good decision and gain even more knowledge from that decision?
The answer: Create meaning out of your data by using the wisdom pyramid.
The Wisdom Pyramid is a hierarchy of how we turn all data and insights into a learning experience that guides our actions and decisions. It’s a process that is going on all around us, all the time. At the base of the pyramid lies data. Everything from a cupping score to roast temperature, to moisture is data. Data without its context has little to no meaning. The second level of the Wisdom Pyramid is information. This is where data is connected and gets structured. By connecting two pieces of data, e.g. a roast curve over time or a roast curve with cupping information, we can start to see relationships and meaning is created. The next level of the Wisdom Pyramid, knowledge, comes over time as we see patterns within the data and start to understand the connections. All our learning experiences, both successful and unsuccessful, add to our knowledge base. Finally, there is wisdom. This is when you start acting because you have enough knowledge to make an informed decision. With wisdom you’re able to look at a new coffee, for example, and estimate what you can do with it based on everything you have learned.
Business intelligence systems are here to help with that process and critically, to speed things up! People require a lot of time to get through the pyramid because unlike computers they don’t remember everything. Computers are really good at remembering and data collection. People are much better at finding connections, seeing relevant patterns, and ultimately combining those to make creative decisions. All of which are necessary in delivering a great cup of coffee.
It is simple to create a solution for a problem using data. For example, you can use a spreadsheet for your inventory or cupping but often this singular solution only serves one particular need. If instead you aggregate your data using a business intelligence system, you have the opportunity to use all this data to explore relationships as efficiently as possible. Using and connecting the same data multiple times increases your Return on Investment (ROI) and enriches the information you already gather. This brings more information to each decision you make. It’s a true network effect when every time you add to your data, the benefits increase. Ultimately, it will help you create an easier path to your goal: great coffee!