The Concept of Quality


It's been a bit quiet on the newsletter front lately.

I have been busy writing a new book, and thought I would share a chapter with you for this newsletter. The book is based on the idea of understanding the coffee industry through the lens of business and I plan to release it later this year. This chapter is less business orientated in its focus and scope, and instead explores the idea of quality as a concept. Business in coffee is intrinsically linked to this concept.

“The standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind, the degree of excellence of something” - The Oxford Dictionary.

Debates about what speciality coffee encapsulates may abound, but perhaps saying it is based on pursuing, exploring and rewarding quality in coffee is the most accurate description. Then again if quality is about context, that lessens the simplicity of this definition.

The notion of quality is something we are all familiar with. It pops up in conversation on all manner of topics in our everyday lives. It can be easy when familiar with a certain idea of quality to forget what a philosophical and challenging topic quality can be.

This book is not the place to delve into debates regarding how to quantify quality or to explore the philosophical idea of whether quality can be something concrete, as the protagonist in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance strives to do. Quality Is highly contextual, the definition that starts this chapter alludes to this by mentioning “measuring against other things”. It may be easy to say something is excellent, but if excellence is surpassing expectation in a positive way in regards to a given topic, then the expectation itself defines the capacity for something to be seen as excellent.

I remember heading out to Brazil in 2015 along with other championship barista competitors to visit the Daterra farm in the Cerrado region. The top six competitors from the World Championship were lucky enough to be given the opportunity. It was a wonderful trip, one of the activities was to pick, sort and process our ownIn other words, it’s a matter of opinion, a subjective evaluation. Quality is not absolute. Although it can feel like it is when in the company of individuals or groups who all have an agreed consensus on a highly defined concept of quality in regards to a specific topic or thing. Consensus is really what defines a given quality.

Consensus is itself relative, though this depends on the group of people forming the consensus. By this I mean that just because one group draws a consensus, this doesn’t mean a matching opinion is held as consensus by another group.

It is easy to take this and simply state that coffee is simply subjective, and that there is no such thing as quality, simply different tastes. Although this has truth in it, there is also a surprisingly robust consensus to be found in scoring coffee. I have always thought that this demonstrates how a collection of subjective experiences can together create an objective framework regarding taste.

I have noticed however that the framework does become somewhat self affirming and self perpetuating, in so far as that the framework attracts those who naturally agree with it and also enjoy those taste attributes. coffee cherries. Each of us headed out and picked a variety and a row of coffee shrubs to select our cherries from. There was no time limit (we were all very slow), and as we are all highly competitive we sorted for only the ripest looking, perfect cherries.

We each took our cherries, re-sorted them, and began to apply a processing technique that we had each decided upon. We were not at the farm long enough to utilise the ideal things and processes, and it was all supposed to be just a bit of fun. Charlotte Malval, the French Barista Champion,, macerated her cherries beneath bare feet, inspired by rudimentary wine making techniques. Some of us partially de-pulped and fermented the cherries and all sorts in between. We took our lots all the way through to be mechanically dried, again we dried too quickly for optimal results. Although technical driers are often seen as inferior to natural drying, if used well a mechanical drier allows you to control the process more closely and avoid the coolness of night and the high heat of midday.

By the time we put our green processed coffee under UV light I was pretty confident I had a stellar lot. I was surprised to see the uv pick up a considerable amount of fungal growth that I couldn’t see with my eyes under normal light. We eventually cupped all our coffees blind after roasting. If I remember correctly Ben Put, the Canadian Barista champion, had the winning lot.

The whole experience was eye opening in many ways, but what really stuck with me was the qualitative benefits of the technology we used and saw utilised throughout different practices at the farm, used to separate the coffee into batches of different quality.

Visiting other origins and producers there are a wide variety of approaches, with Brazil being known as the most mechanised. At different stages in the process of harvesting coffee I was impressed by the clever technologies, to the point where I thought, blimey it must be hard without these!

As an industry we have a points scoring system which is technically out of 100 points, but nothing scores 100. The number you will hear most often is 80 points. This is the arbitrary threshold that has been chosen to denote speciality versus commodity. Anything under the 80 point threshold is typically referred to as commercial coffee and anything above is typically referred to as speciality coffee. There is then a continuing gradient as the score gets higher. 90 plus point scores are also seen as a very significant landmark score for a coffee, and is a score that is rarely achieved, depending on how generously scores are being awarded.

This cup score is tied directly to the commercials of all coffee. Coffee is sold on both physical specification and sensory attributes. This is where cupping comes in. Coffee value is reliant throughout the whole supply chain on peoples mouths (and noses) and their assessment of a sensory experience. There is a correlation between cup profile and physical attributes, and the sorting of coffee at dry mills and throughout the seed-to-cup journey is directly correlated with cup score. There is still much variation in flavour profile and exact cup scores around the world depending on cultivar, processing and terroir etc.

The scoring can be relatively effective across different stakeholders in the supply chain once it is put in place, to the point where it can feel like a robust system that works across all cases. The conversation then typically revolves around calibration and blind assessment.

There is inherent variation and bias in coffee tasting as there is in all interpretative human assessment tasks and sensory science regularly displays the limits of human capacity to act as a robust analytical tasting tool. There is not only the fact that humans are not robots and can have their experience swayed by a number of external and internal factors, but also that scoring pertains to commercial value. It is for these reasons that blind tasting is utilised in many instances in the supply chain. It is advisable for everyone to blind taste where a score is to be taken seriously.

A sensory assessment is of course only a specific experience documented at a moment in time by one or a group of individuals. The nature of the raw ingredient is, even with strenuous efforts to stop it happening, one of a changing, perishable product. Coffees scored pre-shipment (still at the country of origin) and landed (in the country where it has been sold) always differ to some degree. This is also particularly pertinent as coffee “ages” and it gets further from harvest, sitting in warehouses or on a roastery’s racking. Then of course there is the question as to whether the roast style itself would achieve the same score, and this goes for the brewing and water and so on. It can feel like a dizzying array of variables that impact quality, creating intrigue and frustration, elation and disappointment.

When using scores week to week in practical ways across the industry it's easy to start thinking of them as robust.

This is rarely the case, as there will always be some variation across stakeholders on scores, some being more generous and others more critical. It goes further than this though. There will be variation in context, and there is a running debate about how much one should ”adjust” scoring per origin and style. Perhaps the bigger challenge comes with coffee that sits outside of the agreed framework.

The success of Eugenioides has been fascinating. This is an entirely different species to Arabica (the species upon which speciality is based) and it tastes very different indeed. As you may expect, it is judged on the Arabica framework, but that’s hard, as when people taste it they are often confused and you will hear honest professional cuppers say “I don't know how to score it”. Another ongoing debate would be around the level of fermented flavours in the coffee. How much ferment is too fermented? There is some structure in place here around taints and acetic acid etc, but it isn’t a clearly agreed area. In recent times more wild experiments using highly controlled bacteria and yeast ferment procedures created flavour profiles that also push the boundaries of the framework.

I was recently speaking to a cup of excellence judge who noted that maybe intensity was starting to be rewarded more than complexity.

Of course the relentless pursuit of not just quality but unique experiences in coffee means there will always be trends and an evolving target. New profiles will enter the sphere of speciality coffee and the existing popularity of profiles may change.

I hope this chapter has been able to indicate that quality is intrinsically related to value in coffee, but that it is also not concrete or simple. For any professional cupper in the supply chain the goal is to build both a high ability to assess coffees sensorily, and to be aware of the frameworks for quality. I think in all cases this is an ongoing conversation.

From a commercial point of view, the larger companies often come at it from a different angle. What do their customers want? The more boutique businesses come at it from the opposite angle - let’s present what we think is exceptional. It becomes quickly apparent when working in coffee that quality is not at all simple and the highest scoring coffees don’t necessarily resonate with all consumers. This in turn demonstrates that speciality boutique customers are a segment by themselves. The highest scoring coffees that display incredibly unique characteristics, say, extremely floral clean coffee, may actually not be what most consumers are after.

I think the high-end world of auction coffees and very unique flavour profiles are niche not just because they are rare, but also because the engagement with them often requires, or results from, highly engaged individuals who are really dedicated to exploring coffee. Yes, there are clients who wouldn’t identify as this and you could put a high scoring Gesha in front of them and they would enjoy it, but it's also clear that this is not a given. From a wider commercial point of view this further questions the potential for speciality coffee’s true size.

There are so many variables to dig into when doing consumer research to really understand preference. Preference depending on the beverage's concentration will vary wildly. By this I mean espresso strength to filter strength and those drinks in-between. The addition of milk is of course key to understanding preference and enjoyment for coffee drinkers. It does beg the question of how overarching the context of the scores are to begin with.

Although I have pointed out a significant difference between traditional and commercial coffees and the most unusual high scoring speciality lots, Spencer Hyman, founder of Cocoa Runners points out that, for the most part, the “upgrade” to a higher quality coffee is not overly jarring. He explains that to move someone from commercial chocolate products to a bean-to-bar chocolate product is really about asking the customer to look at chocolate in a completely different way. Craft chocolate is consumed at a different time, in a different way for a different reason. Coffee on the other hand is typically less divided in terms of the switch.

This is definitely true with things like flat whites, and less so with tea-like filter coffee. The point stands though that the majority of qualities found in coffees that define the business of speciality coffee, lie in the low to mid 80 point mark, brewed in a way that is not a mile away from non specialist brews.

Paul Arnehpy, Roasting Consultant, was part of the global team who worked on the fourth edition of “The Coffee Guide” by the International Trade Centre. He mentioned the ensuing debates around this elusive topic and how it pertains to the day to day business of coffee. They questioned whether the 80-85 points could really be called speciality.

Speaking to Stephen Morrissey, Chief Commercial Officer at the SCA, he outlined how the organisation has been completing rethinking the scoring system. They will shortly be releasing a new scoring framework that prioritises attributes and context of coffees and addresses many of the failings of the current scoring system. It will be interesting to see the framework in its entirety and to see how well it is adopted as the current system is so deeply ingrained.

Regardless of the challenges to absolutely define quality in a field like coffee, quality will always remain and it will continue to be connected directly to value.

For those in the supply chain, they are asking themselves what they are trying to do with coffee in terms of quality. The concept of quality is intrinsically baked into the business of coffee, and as we will see throughout the book, quality is a key part of the commercial considerations of all businesses throughout the supply chain.