At Trade and in the coffee industry at large, quality control is serious business — but what does that mean for you?
Quality control is sometimes understood as simply making sure that products are good. And while that's one of the more important functions of QC, it also oversimplifies the process quite a lot. Quality control is not just about learning whether a thing is good or bad (for example, we don't work with roasters who we expect are going to send us bad coffees), it's about learning exactly what that thing is and comparing it against a set of standards to deliver an end product that isn't just good, but one you can accurately predict and describe.
As a member of the Trade Quality Control Team I'm obviously a little biased, but I think our QC process is one of the things that really makes Trade special. But it also sits on the shoulders of many other such processes throughout the coffee supply chain. As you know if you've been reading along at The Counter for a while now, the coffee you drink is the dried and roasted seed of a fruit. Because coffee, unlike most other fruits, has to go through so many processes before we can consume it (you can't just go coffee picking and drink it straight off the tree), many farmers throughout the world never end up drinking their own coffee. Still, even many of those farmers can install QC practices of their own, such as checking the coffee cherries picked off their trees to make sure they're a uniformly ripe color.
More farmers now than ever are getting a chance to taste their own coffee, with some farmers going so far as to build labs with tiny sample-sized roasters and brewing equipment. For the large majority of small farmers without these possibilities, companies such as mills (where coffee beans are separated from the coffee cherry and dried) and exporters (who move coffees out of their origin country) are providing more opportunities. When I visited Molinos de Honduras, a coffee exporter in — you guessed it — Honduras a few years ago, I witnessed farmers who had driven in from their farms lined up to get feedback on their coffees from the experienced cuppers there (cupping is the most common way of tasting coffee for purposes of QC; more details on that later). Those cuppers literally spend their whole work day tasting coffee to make decisions about which coffees to buy and how best to sell them.
For roasters, quality control of their roasts is a way of life, and tasting different roasts is, for many, a daily activity. Roasting coffee is a complex process, with many different variables to figure out for roasting different offerings. That includes environmental factors and aging as two of the many reasons that a seemingly identical roast might not taste the same from day to day. So tasting the coffee both in a cupping and often in the way it'll end up being brewed in a shop or at home is crucial to delivering a tasty end product.
QC doesn't stop once a coffee is roasted. In my former role as the director of coffee for a retail chain with 30 locations, it was my job to (with some careful delegation) make sure all of the coffee brewing machines at our retail shops were calibrated to brew coffee the way we wanted. I also visited all the shops from time to time and tasted every offering at each shop. And baristas serve a QC function all the time, tasting espresso throughout the day to make sure that particularly finicky brewing method does what it needs to be doing.
So, why after all of the quality control steps by the hard-working people up and down the supply chain, do we add another QC step at Trade? Because we're not just trying to sell delicious coffee, we're trying to connect people with coffees that they specifically will love. We do that through a process that I've already mentioned a few times: cupping.
There are many ways to brew a coffee and the choices you make, whether large scale ones like "French press or pour over?" or smaller ones like "Do I use 25 or 28 grams of coffee?" influence the result. The idea of cupping is that everyone cupping coffee is going to brew it in the exact same way, taking all those brewing variables out of the equation and focusing just on the inherent qualities of the coffee. We do this by measuring a set amount of coffee, grinding it on the coarser side of medium, and putting those coffee grounds into ceramic cupping bowls. We then pour hot water onto those grounds and let them sit for four minutes. After four minutes, we break the crust of grinds that has formed on the coffee by moving a spoon across it front to back three times. That number is significant, because how much we agitate the grinds can affect how the coffee tastes — doing it exactly the same way each time is important. When the crusts are broken, we skim the remaining floating grinds and foam from the top of the bowls (leaving most of the grinds to sink to the bottom of the cup) and wait. After ten minutes or so, the coffee has cooled enough to taste, so we do so by slurping it with spoons. That method of tasting allows us to cool the coffee even more, hit as many of our taste buds as possible, and get all of the aromatics that are so important to how we perceive flavor into the air so we can smell them.
For most cuppers looking to make decisions such as how to improve the quality of what they're growing or importers and roasters figuring out what they want to buy, there is a standard cupping sheet that is used to describe and score coffees on such attributes as aroma, acidity, flavor, and body. Cuppers worldwide can be trained to calibrate so their scores are similar no matter where they're cupping. Coffees for regular cupping are also usually roasted as close as possible to the same light roast level. At Trade, we're working with coffees that each roaster has already figured out how to roast at production scale and with the characteristics of each coffee in mind. And we're cupping not to make purchase decisions, but to figure out how to best pair each coffee with each drinker. So we're still tasting for similar qualities and following the same preparation protocol, but we're translating those results a little differently. We're putting scores on each coffee's levels of roast, acidity, and body — characteristics we think are extra important to choosing the right coffee for each consumer. We're placing each coffee into one of our Trade Taste Types. Finally, we're determining what exactly we think it tastes like so we can describe it to you as accurately as possible.
And really, when you're brewing coffee at home, you are performing a QC function whether you know it or not. We hope that with our Taste Types and brewing guides we're giving you everything you need to enjoy your coffee without thinking too much about it, if you're so inclined. But every time you drink coffee, you have the opportunity to consider what you do and don't like about it and make adjustments in your brewing process. Remember, quality control isn't necessarily about whether something is objectively good or bad, it's about standards. And when you're brewing coffee at home, whether you like it or not is the most important standard of all!