Leaving a Bad Taste in Their Mouths?

By Christopher Schooley

I always thought that one of the most important pieces of information that you could put on a bag of coffee was the roast date. It can identify the contents as something special and it can also be the product’s greatest selling point. Thus, I thought of the roast date as a sort of sacred oath, as a way to tell a potential customer that what was in the bag was both fresh and remarkable. Part of that oath was that the coffee itself was some of the finest coffee available before I even got my hands on it. My customers trusted me that the coffee I was roasting for them was already special, and that my job as a roaster was to actualize the potential of that coffee without leaving too much of an imprint of my influence on it.

As a roaster, I’ve thought for a long time about added value. Because of my own approach to roasting—my job is simply to actualize the potential of the coffee itself—I’ve often struggled with the idea of added value. But that is what we are doing as coffee roasters. We are adding tangible value to the agricultural product of the coffee seed just like the mill is adding tangible value to the coffee cherry. The Spanish word for wet mill, beneficio, comes specifically from this whole concept, that you’re adding a benefit to the coffee.

Can you add a benefit to the coffee with information? A tastable benefit? In many cases, we can provide farm information like growing region, altitude and coffee varietal. The little bit that we’ve learned as specialty coffee professionals about these elements can make this information slightly useful in the proper context, and certainly sharing this nuts-and-bolts type of information with consumers can help paint the broader picture of coffee production for them.

On the other hand, is there information that we’ve maybe over-hyped or even taken completely out of context and applied strange and inappropriate terminology to in an attempt to add a tastable value to a coffee? How about when we talk about coffee seasonality?

As some folks might be familiar, I’ve made plenty of noise about my distaste for the use of the term “seasonality” in regards to green coffee. I do hold the strong opinion that green coffee does have a life span, and I am always delighted when new coffees arrive. It’s just that the concept of seasonality does not really apply appropriately to green coffee; I fear that casually throwing it around can be damaging to the way that professionals involved in the production of other craft goods and also consumers view the specialty coffee industry. If a coffee has lost what’s really special about it and no longer produces a sweet and lovely cup of coffee, shouldn’t our customers trust that we’re not going to sell it to them without having to say whether or not it’s in season? Isn’t this part of the oath?

Are we too caught up in trying to convince consumers what good and great coffee should taste like? We’ve done a pretty bang-up job of educating ourselves about coffee, and our current preferences in coffee characteristics reflect that. I feel like we have not done as good of a job educating consumers—and their preferences are reflecting that. The prospects of teaching a consumer everything that you know about coffee quality can certainly be daunting (and be fun too, depending on your perspective). Since the consumer is not professionally engaged in the industry, they really just might not be able to find the time to learn about in what context does altitude affect a coffee’s quality, or even why a bright coffee with loads of citric acidity is actually a welcome thing.

Perhaps the more direct way to educate consumers about coffee quality and to truly show a tastable difference between different levels of quality is to familiarize them with why a coffee is BAD and how to identify those tastes and characteristics. Speaking for myself, having become familiar with the tastes and characteristics associated with coffee that has lost a significant amount of organic material and would be considered old or past crop, it is nearly impossible to look past it when found in the cup. Would teaching consumers how to identify these bad characteristics totally sidestep the need to label coffee as seasonal or not? And, wouldn’t doing this also lead back to holding the roaster accountable for these things and accountable for building trust with their customers by providing coffees devoid of these characteristics?

The frontier for specialty coffee is in looking closely at the shelf life of both green coffee and roasted coffee, and in being the leader in identifying what the acceptable parameters of this are. I strongly feel that the tastable differences between good quality green coffee and green that has significant organic material loss—as well as the differences between fresh roasted coffee and stale coffee—is the linchpin to making a strong case for what’s so special about specialty coffee.

We can again make the roast date the most important piece of information that we put on a bag that can help buyers determine the quality of their coffee. That’s real value that I can add.

Schooley believes that essential to acquiring a craft, and the surest path towards a deeper understanding of it, is the sharing of knowledge and experience gained. Schooley is a coffee roaster who works for Coffee Shrub and is currently Chair of the Roasters Guild Executive Council.

3 Responses to Leaving a Bad Taste in Their Mouths?

  1. Dan Kennedy says:

    Great article Chris!

    I think the best way to avoid the ‘seasonality’ term is to use a two pronged approach.

    First, give the harvest date next to the roast date. Then the knowledgeable consumer can see for themselves what later harvested beans taste like vs current/new crop. This will also help consumers that are ignorant of the difference to learn this for themselves.

    Second, roasters/shops should show consumers the difference between good quality green coffee and green that has significant organic material loss (as you so perfectly put it) as well as the difference between freshly roasted, fully de-gassed AND oxidized/stale coffee. I think the difference between de-gassed and freshly roasted coffee is missed as coffee that is not stale but has lost the majority of it’s CO2 doesn’t taste bad per se, but has no real flavor profile anymore. This is why I can’t stand seeing an expiration date on vacuum sealed coffee, which I see all too often, as opposed to the actual roast date.

    We have a lot of consumer teaching to do, most importantly being how to brew a great cup of coffee for themselves, but I see it as job security for myself and everyone in the specialty coffee industry as well.

    • Christopher Elliott Schooley says:

      Thanks so much Dan. I agree with you on the packaging comments as well. This is one of the questions that we’re asking in our product quality stability study that we’re working on for the 2012 Roasters Guild Retreat in August.

      Colleen Anunu from Gimme! deserves the credit for promoting the use of “Loss of Organic Material”, or LOOMy as she calls it. It’s actually on the flavor wheel as well.

  2. Christopher Elliott Schooley says:

    So, one thing that I didn’t go over in too much detail was educating consumers on identifying stale coffees. This is an easy tasting to set up if you just hold some coffee for a couple weeks to a month, and then taste them next to freshly roasted beans of the same variety/source. We are also preparing a project for the retreat this year that will look at different types of packaging and what the shelf life of coffees are in that packaging, as well as perhaps looking at the impact on roast levels on shelf life too. Anyway, I don’t want this to come off as just a cheap shot at seasonality, i just really feel like great coffee can be great for so many reasons and in so many ways, and bad coffee is bad for some very particular reasons. If we focus on teaching consumers to identify bad coffee, we can maybe get them to better appreciate the wide openess of what makes coffees amazing.

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