Quality: What is it and how do we deliver it?

Reflections on the year’s SCAA Symposium

By Kevin Knox

At this year’s SCAA Symposium one presenter asked whether quality alone was enough to equal sustainability. Another suggested jettisoning the carefully crafted SCAA and Cup of Excellence cupping forms in favor of a more “objective” form that simply measured intensity of flavor, acidity, aroma and body. While I found these discussions interesting, I also felt them to be overly focused on the subjective process of cupping, rather than dealing with an integrated “whole systems” approach to delivering quality from soil and nurture to the finished cup.

Quality Has to be Measured to be Meaningful

It’s one of the lasting ironies of the specialty coffee trade that smaller players passionate about quality often struggle to actually deliver said quality, while those big enough to afford the “quality-making” tools typically use them to deliver a standardized level of mediocrity, one that is utterly antithetical to the quest for excellence which forms the heart of authentic specialty coffee.

Once when I was working at a small Seattle roasting company with big plans, we brought in a scientist and process control expert to audit our green coffee sourcing, roasting, grinding and packaging operations. “Where’s the moisture meter, the oxygen headspace analyzer, the gas chromatograph?” the expert wanted to know. “What are your specifications for grinder temperature, particle size, permissible residual oxygen content, shelf life?” While it’s understood within the industry that the measurement of these and many other factors are required for quality to be a reality rather than a vague “passion,” the necessary tools often require significant capital investment and trained personnel.

That’s changing, thankfully. Today many of these tools are within the reach of small-to-medium sized roasters, if they understand the tools’ importance and make a priority of acquiring and using them. On several occasions I’ve been hired to help improve quality for modest sized roaster-retailers and typically their first questions have to do with buying better green coffee or improving blends. When I suggest creating a flow chart that includes every step of their coffee’s journey from seed to cup and prioritizing their quality control dollars according to greatest bang for the buck, it invariably turns out that changes in packaging, grinding or delivery make an exponentially greater contribution to quality in the cup.

The Big Picture: Defining Specialty and Quality for Craft and Our Customers

As a trade association and as an industry, the problem we have is that basic quality standards for specialty coffee have never been defined or implemented. As a result, the phrase “specialty coffee” has long become meaningless. This was abundantly clear when demonstrated by a hilarious man-on-the-street video played at the recent Symposium. For those who weren’t present, a number of quite savvy San Francisco coffee drinkers were asked what “specialty coffee” meant and, other than a few guesses about higher prices and milk drinks, they had no idea. And of course within the trade about all we can say regarding the meaning of the phrase is that it probably doesn’t apply to brick-packs or cans of regular (unflavored) Folger’s or Maxwell House.

Since “specialty” as a descriptor for coffee is probably beyond redemption, perhaps we need a new approach. In the beer trade microbrewers are now often called “craft” brewers, to distinguish them from the multinational conglomerates. “Craft Coffee” has a nice ring to it (except that the “C” does sound an awful lot like a hard “K”), but we could just say “good” coffee and be done with it. If we were to erase three decades of history and try to recreate specialty/craft/good coffee as the mission of a trade organization that could translate into something meaningful to consumers, the lay of the land might look something like this:

1. Green Coffee: Apply the current SCAA standard for washed coffees. Coffees are to be sold within nine months of harvest except in the case of aged Indonesians and proprietary green coffee freezing programs that extend shelf life.

Develop another standard and cupping form for semi-washed and naturals, still focused on the all-important qualities of clean cup and sweetness, with strong strictures against (and training in detecting) serious defects such as hardness, dirtiness and ferment. In all cases, the standard of 80 or above would apply.

2. Roasting: Freedom of expression, but a reasonable definition of “specialty” would clearly exclude both cinnamon and French roasts, both of which are process rather than coffee flavors. An Agtron range could easily be defined.

3. Roast Coffee Freshness: The gold standard is whole beans at room temperature within seven days of roast. There’s a strong argument to be made that anything other than this is not worthy of the designation “specialty” coffee, but at the very least shelf-life standards (like all others in specialty) need to be based on whether a panel of trained tasters can detect any difference between the packaged product and a just-roasted control sample. In other words, the standard is excellence, not “consumer acceptance.”

For packaged coffee a minimum standard might be: whole beans placed within 12 hours of roasting into oxygen-impermeable packaging with degassing valves or pressurized containers capable of safely withstanding and releasing the accumulated pressure. Residual oxygen content of one percent or less when packaged (through vacuum and/or inert gas), maximum shelf life claim approximately eight weeks.

Ground coffees would not be allowed since vacuum packaging removes most of their aroma, while shelf-life for nitrogen-back-flushed pillow packs is too brief to be meaningful.

4. Drip Brewing: We already have SCAA water standards. Grind size, brew temperature and contact time should be regulated per current Nordic Coffee Association standards. Association members commit as a condition of membership to observing the grind and dosage standards and only using or selling certified coffee brewers which meet standards.

5. Holding Times: Not to exceed 20 minutes at 185 degrees F.

Of course there’s much more missing than present from this short list. What about espresso and espresso-based beverages, the commercial mainstay of what we call specialty? Yes they need definitions, but the reality in the U.S. is that these beverages as actually consumed (huge quantities of steamed milk and flavorings, with coffee being one such flavoring) have little to do with advancing the cause of increased appreciation of the actual taste of coffee. Then there are standards for grinders (critically important), for drip-strength brewing methods such as vacuum pot, plunger pot and so on, and much more.

Setting these matters aside for a moment, let’s imagine what a trade organization whose members committed to observing such standards might look like. Would the standards be policed? Only through dissemination to consumers who—because they’re the ones paying the bills—have a serious vested interest in receiving consistent quality. If you don’t believe that’ll work, I’ll tell you that the first time we printed our espresso standard on paper cups at Starbucks (1–1.25 fluid ounces including crema in 18–24 seconds from seven grams of fresh coffee), we had legions of customers with their stopwatches going at the bar within days.

How large would an association that seriously took on these standards be? Quite small and elite, but only in contrast to the world we’ve gotten accustomed to, where “specialty” and “quality” have become meaningless and craft roaster-retailers living standards like these sit under the same tent as corporate giants purveying coffees that have nothing to do with the quest for excellence that is the heart of the specialty coffee movement. Annual get-togethers would be small and intimate—more like the current adjunct guilds than today’s main event.

Ultimately I believe there’s no avoiding these issues. The whole point of having quality standards, of defining quality, is to exclude what doesn’t measure up. We need to embrace such limitations if we’re to have any pride in what we do. Until and unless there are basic standards for green coffee, roasting, roast coffee freshness and drip brewing, any “certifications”—for cupping, barista skills, roasting skills—will remain meaningless, since there is no there there at the heart of the certifying organization.

I’m confident there’s more than enough passion in our industry to address these long-standing issues, and we know from the example of our friends in Scandinavia, who enjoy the world’s highest per capita coffee consumption as well as highest quality green coffee, that an industry which guarantees cup quality to consumers has the brightest possible future. Let’s build it.

Specialty coffee and tea industry veteran Kevin Knox has worked in the specialty coffee industry since 1980 as a hands-on roaster, buyer, taster, trainer, writer and educator for Starbucks Coffee during its first decade of rapid growth, as well as for organic and small farm oriented Allegro Coffee Company (now owned by Whole Foods). Long known as one of the most articulate speakers and writers in the coffee industry, Knox wrote publishing the highly regarded book Coffee Basics (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997).

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