Descriptive Analysis Tools for Coffee
Alexis Rodriguez, green coffee quality and development manager, Nestlé Nespresso.
Tools for sensory evaluation of coffee have evolved rapidly since the second half of the 20th century. Some contemporary tactics for defining coffee quality date back to the 1920s. Grades, as most of these classifications are known,
focused primarily on identifying defects until well after World War II. Some buyers, mostly those operating within the commodity market, still accept coffee “on description” when purchasing commercial grade.
In the second half of the 20th century, many producers concerned themselves with finding new ways to differentiate quality based on positive attributes. This led to a proliferation of classifications as well as significant changes to coffee contracts and standard processes for accepting green beans upon delivery. Advances in food science during this period meant the development of instant coffee and soluble products was changing rapidly too.
A bit of coffee cupping history
By the 1960s, the global market had been through major ups and downs due to changes in public perception of the safety of drinking coffee. Also, a rapid expansion of production resulting from Brazilian shortfalls due to the 1953 frost impacted commodity prices worldwide. Coffee boards at the country or regional level formed in order to put export control mechanisms into place that would guarantee premiums based on a green coffee meeting higher, albeit not universal, grading standards.
The creation of such standards was the beginning of establishing the specialty category for coffee. With each agency or organization setting its own classification systems, these moves resulted in introducing even more complexity into an already complicated market. A new era in how the quality of coffee would be judged began with the publication of Ted Lingle’s book Coffee Cuppers’ Handbook in 1985.
Mario Fernandez, presently a graduate student nearing the completion of a doctorate in food science at the University of Otago, New Zealand, started cupping shortly after Lingle’s book became required reading for specialty coffee buyers. Fernandez said, “I witnessed the transition from primitive traditional cupping to the modern cupping we have nowadays.”
About buying coffee using traditional means, he said, “It was a complete chaos because each country had its own grading systems, and you can still see that.” He went on to add that before the Coffee Cuppers’ Handbook, “There was not a way to compare two coffees once they reached their highest grade.”
The late 1990s were an exciting time for specialty coffee. New tools became available and industry institutions organized themselves around understanding better how to tie quality to flavor and market demand. Founded in 1996, the Specialty Coffee Institute, now known as the Coffee Quality Institute, began the work of establishing training and certification programs based on what have become the de facto international standard for specialty coffee. The first Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel posters were produced and became available in 1997.
Le Nez du Café kits, a “book-object” that included aroma references, was launched the same year as part of the 70th anniversary of the National Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers.
Fernandez said, of combining SCAA cupping protocols with Le Nez du Café as a study reference, “It’s really [a] robust system but actually the best advantage of it is that it’s used everywhere and any person can get a reference for those organic acids or for those olfactory terms very easily.”
Descriptive Analysis Tools for Coffee
Empaneled to describe flavor
During the period following World War II, large companies began to increasingly apply scientific methodologies to how they developed new flavors for consumer goods. New techniques using experts and consumers to identify and validate consumer goods meant to be ingested as a snack, meal, or beverage matured. Members recruited to tasting panels today can vary in what level of product naiveté or experience they possess. Consumer panels, like expert panels, go through rigorous training and testing for sensory acuity.
In general, three kinds of entities use tasting panels: research centers which may be public or belong to universities like the Sensory Research Center at the University of Otago where Fernandez is studying; specialized consulting companies that get hired by larger corporations for product development projects; or global companies which choose to invest in creating and maintaining internal teams.
Chris Hallien, a professional who has worked with specialty micro-roasters and large multinational brands, got his start in coffee as an average consumer in a tasting panel. Today, Hallien is a licensed C and Q Coffee Grader, a jury member for the Cup of Excellence, and a board member of the SCAA Technical Standards Committee.
Hallien shared his explanation of how panels work: “The panelists are typically well trained in very specific attributes (those that one would expect to find in a coffee product). They’re calibrated to identify and quantify a specific attribute, and almost always have a reference sample to study and refer back to.”
Nestlé Nespresso, for example, assigns employees from various business units to tasting panels. The cross functional team consists of staff who fulfill a range of functions for the company. Panels may include individuals from procurement, product development, or industrialization and production teams.
Alexis Rodriguez, green coffee quality and development manager at Nestlé Nespresso, said “Panelists are required to follow a strict training process which takes 6-9 months in order to become certified panelists. They are then monitored monthly to ensure their performance.”
One of the main differences between panelists and cuppers is that a panelist could just as easily be trained to describe the flavors of chocolate for a new candy or the aroma of various fruits for a new household cleaning product. The other, of course, is the green buyer’s concern for quality of the lot purchased upon delivery.
Dynamics of flavor description
Sensory scientists often prefer not to use industry experts on panels because many assume there is a bias towards judging quality rather than simply describing flavor. Given that food scientists and green buyers are not describing flavor from the same context or with the same vocabulary, how do product development teams communicate with green coffee buyers?
On this point, Fernandez said, “What scientists need in order to do research about flavor is to describe flavor in the most objective possible way even though it’s still a sensory method and it’s still using human beings as assessors.”
According to Fernandez, some scientists are exploring ways to work with cuppers. He said, “[Cupping] has a number of advantages over [the other] scientific sensory methods, namely it’s quick and it can be done by fewer people as long as they’re experts.”
When this approach is taken, researchers also measure the behavior of experts as experts and to relate their outcome to the description of the sample. Such strategies seem to work well for some transnational consumer product companies.
Of teams at Nespresso, Rodriguez said: “[For] many years, we have [had] a close relation with our coffee buyers and we participate in most of our crucial activities as a team: Trip visits to origin to identify and select new coffees, quality audits to coffee warehouses, suppliers’ reviews, tasting sessions in origins, tasting sessions for release in production [centers] and so on.”
SCAA Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel posters and open-to-the-public cuppings have become familiar sights in settings where curious consumers mingle with their favorite roasters or baristas. For many such businesses, inviting the general public to join in is just smart strategy: When you can help someone put words to a new and pleasurable sensation, you connect your brand and your product to that experience.
Still, to engage with consumers about flavor can backfire. As Gail Vance Civille, president of Sensory Spectrum, Inc., described in her presentation at the 2014 SCAA Symposium, when a customer learns flavor descriptors, they may make statements that misuse those terms.
“Baristas are probably in the most challenging position due to their knowledge of coffee quality and product attributes but are interacting with consumers who vary greatly in their coffee knowledge,” Hallien said.
At Counter Culture Coffee training centers, a cupping is held every Friday at 10 a.m. As Counter Culture’s coffee buyer and quality manager, Timothy Hill has plenty of practice talking about flavor with colleagues and consumers. Whether training someone new to cupping protocols or a member of the public, he stresses how important it is to keep description on a level that is easy to understand.
“We’re not super flowery [with flavor language],” said Hill. “We try to focus on things that are most perceptible to people who are new to more nuanced coffees.”
Felicia Tiller, manager of Rising Star Coffee’s newest location in Cleveland, Ohio, explained a less formal approach: “On any given day, an interested coffee lover could walk in to find us hovered over a series of cupping bowls, clipboards in hand, or squinting at a refractometer. In those situations, any interested parties are encouraged to join in.
Usually one of us will notice the curious look on their faces and just hand them a spoon.”
The SCAA wheel can be confusing or intimidating for those who do not understand the analysis and design approach that went into creating it.
“[Consumers don’t] understand what enzymatic smells like,” said Hill. “I don’t know what enzymatic smells like, but it’s a descriptor on the SCAA flavor wheel.”
This confusion is why Hill spearheaded the creation of the Counter Culture Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel, though he admitted some mistakes were made with the first edition produced.
“Somehow, we left off blackberry, which is a descriptor we use very often, and cardamom, which I don’t use very often but I know a lot of cuppers who do,” said Hill.
Updates to the Counter Culture wheel are already in the works to address those omissions.
Descriptive Analysis Tools for Coffee
The future of flavor
Fixing what was not quite right in the first edition of the Counter Culture Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel is just part of what the company is doing. Hill is working with a small group of people to translate it into other languages and to redraw it based on descriptors in other languages.
Hill said, “Spice will probably be a bigger category in Amharic than it is in English, just because culturally [in Ethiopia] they use a lot more spices.” SCAA has teamed up with World Coffee Research (WCR) and Kansas State University to create a scientific sensory lexicon for coffee. Part of the drive behind this effort is to develop a coffee flavor lexicon that can be used by both trained descriptive sensory panels and professional coffee tasters.
In addition, project collaborators hope to follow the lead of other industries such as beer, wine, and whiskey to extend its use to consumers. In a retail or café setting, of course, the ultimate goal would be to enable someone to choose a new coffee to try based on comparing fl notes to the description of a product she already knows she likes.
About the WCR project, Hallien said, “I think this is very important and much needed work. The majority of research reports and findings that I’ve read within the coffee science community have lacked sound sensory evaluation protocols and results. I’m very excited about WCR and its potential.”
Hill mentioned new versions of the Counter Culture Coffee flavor wheel should be available next year. WCR expects to release the first results of its coffee variety intelligence project in 2015 as well. There is little doubt more news about these projects will be announced in time for the annual SCAA event in early April next year.