Why Investing in a Lab is Essential
Gastrograph online application: Sensory attributes taken to a new level.
By Anne-Marie Hardie
The business of tea is much more than a product: it is an investment in an entire sensory experience. From the aroma to the appeal of the liquor, consumers anticipate their choice in tea will look and taste exactly as expected.
Laboratory testing plays a vital role in ensuring that the tea consistently reflects the standard of the brand. Whether the laboratory is an internal quality assurance department or an independent lab, the methods and practices need to be based on a set of standards that can be easily replicated.
Coffee Analysts, Burlington Ver., is deeply invested in the sensory analysis of tea. The independent laboratory, widely known for its coffee testing, has been testing tea since 1994. Recently, they expanded both their level of sophistication and their capabilities with refined equipment and specialized training.
In developing their internal set of standards, Coffee Analysts researched, and compared tea standards from the ISO, World Tea Academy, and industry experts. “When we work with our tea clients, we share both the methods and protocols we use to evaluate the tea,” said Spencer Turer, vice president, Coffee Analysts. “It is essential that we agree on the way we are going to test the product at the onset,” he said. Standards were established for every aspect including appearance charts, particle size analysis, visual evaluation, and the preparation of tea from single serve to iced.
Tea quality is ultimately determined by the end user. Successful investments in sourcing and blending occur when businesses learn to objectively evaluate their tea based on customer preference. Objective evaluations can be challenging, when there is an emotional and financial connection to the product. “If you just negotiated the purchase, built a relationship with the growers, and know how hard it was to get it. You now have not only the emotional burden but the financial burden of what happens if it’s not good,” said Turer.
This is where an independent laboratory can help. The lab is not encumbered by either a financial or emotional connection to the product. This enables an authentic evaluation. “We have the time, capabilities, and the luxury of slowing down the whole process,” said Turer, whose firm evaluates the chemical, physical, and sensory attributes of the tea making comparisons to either an industry standard or against a product specification, and then issuing a report.”
A refined palate
When it comes to choosing an independent laboratory, there are several considerations to weigh. The lab should be able to evaluate dry leaf, the infused leaf, liquor, appearance, aroma, flavor, and finish of the tea against set standards. The sensory qualities of tea are impacted by a variety of factors including terroir, age, subspecies and varietals. “These factors will create different flavor signatures that are then perceived by the individuals who taste the product,” said Jason Cohen, c.e.o. and founder, Gastrograph.
To avoid subjectivity, Coffee Analysts uses a review panel to quickly identify and disregard subjective anomalies that may be in the evaluations. “If you restrict yourself to one person, when that person has a bad day, a cold or when their emotions cloud their judgement, there may be a concern with the results,” said Turer.
Taste and detecting defects is critical, but the laboratory also needs to take into consideration the consumer experience. If the standards used do not reflect your consumer preferences the data will be useless. Before beginning analysis, Coffee Analysts invests the time necessary to determine both the needs of the business and the criteria for comparison. “We could have two potential clients call us with the same question on the same day, and the answer may be different based on the needs of their business,” said Turer. “It’s not about selling a test, it’s about providing the tools to make your business more successful.” The lab has established protocols that take into consideration how the consumer will prepare and consume the tea. These include dosage, water temperature and steep time.
Understanding customers’ expectations of the brand are critical to ensure that the tea meets expectations. Results can then be used to approve or reject a lot of tea for purchase, to qualify or disqualify a supplier, or to approve or reject product that fails to meet quality standards before it is shipped to a customer. A big challenge, according to Cohen is ensuring that these results are consistent over time. Precipitation, temperature changes, and production methods all impact the sensory experience.
Cohen used his knowledge of sensory science, data science, and analytical chemistry to develop an algorithm used to anticipate future trends of the sensory profile of the tea. “Tea importers can use the data to look at where inconsistencies are formed, why are they formed, and discover what they can do about it,” says Cohen. He has codified the knowledge of industry professionals in an artificial intelligence algorithm that can be used to evaluate and predict the sensory qualities of tea outside of the laboratory. The user records, including all of their cupping notes are recorded in a central database. The Android and iOS application use this data to predict the future taste pattern of the tea, including possible impacts of global temperature shifts and weather patterns.
Responding to niche needs
Testing should match the needs of the supply chain and the needs of the clients.
“If we test too often, then we end up providing our clients with all kinds of data, that won’t be actionable and will pile up, and probably sit in a notebook and get dusty,” says Turer. “If we don’t test often enough, then the supply chain, equity or consumer experience at risk,” he said.
Clients with established laboratories may still engage an independent laboratory simply to verify that their equipment is calibrated correctly.
“For a lot of our clients, we contact them on an annual basis to do calibrations, not just for their team to calibrate with us,” said Turer. This also enables our team to make sure that we are issuing reports and reaching the same sensory judgements described within the scope of their requirements
Independent laboratories may be asked to perform quality audits as often as quarterly or just once a year.
As the client becomes more engaged in the tea industry, they will reach a point where they are able to do the majority of the testing on their own. In these situations, the resources and expertise of independent lab can be used to calibrate equipment, train staff, and establish operating standards. This self-sufficiency, said Turer, is evidence that the independent laboratory has provided the tools and training need to ensure a successful business.
Tools and tricks for a successful lab
An onsite quality assurance laboratory is the best way is to ensure that the end user is receiving a quality product. This begins with purchasing the equipment and ensuring that the staff is well trained. “If you really want to have repeatable, verifiable, credible results, you need to make sure you are using the appropriate equipment and have a defined set of standards,” said Turer.
Time and money can outfit the laboratory, but it is the trained and qualified staff that will affirm the laboratory’s credibility. This includes independent areas for physical and sensory analysis so that the results are not influenced by external factors.
All the variables need to be controlled including water temperature, brewing time, and the amount of tea used. The goal is to eliminate discrepancies based on user error.
Equipment should include a water activity meter, water treatment system, thermometers, highly sensitive gram scales, and water heaters. Additional must haves include a calibrated scale for gradients, moisture meter and a head space analyser for clients that are doing packaged tea.
Consistency in the laboratory is key for valid and reliable results. This includes ensuring that there is enough equipment on hand to account for breakage and a clear set of standards that each product will be evaluated against.