Technology of Our Own: Developing Information and Communication Technology for the Coffee Industry

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By Stephanie Ratanas, Dogwood Coffee

In every sector of the specialty coffee industry, growth and progress now demand more information and precision than ever before. Producers, exporters, importers, and roasters want greater detail about a coffee—they require cupping for quality down to the day of harvest and geographic area of a farm. Exactly measured data about moisture content and water activity are essential. Roasters, quality managers and retailers expect information about the roast down to the specific batch; and there is even a growing group of consumers who ask more questions about the story behind what they drink, including the details of how it was prepared.

The coffee industry is not alone in facing these demands. The prevalence of communication technology has increased in our sector of business, just like any other, incorporating the use of digital teamwork tools like Dropbox, Skype, and Slack. But the information our industry collects demands specific tools to communicate coffee-industry-specific information. Technological development in our own trade now allows us to go beyond the basics of “craft” and theory, to the ability to record and utilize empirical data. How has our industry responded to meet our needs for analyzing and communicating new data, and how can it do better?

Though it is not the only profiling software, Cropster has arguably become the industry standard for gathering and analyzing information about roasting. Roasters can record roast information in precise detail, pair it with cupping results, and use the combined data to achieve and maintain desired outcomes. Quality analysis paired with the inventory management aspects of the software makes it a no-brainer for roasters with multiple employees or production facilities that need to share information. No technology developed outside the coffee industry has been put into widespread use to record this type of data, as it is necessary to develop specific software to facilitate the coffee roaster’s unique ways of analyzing information.

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“The whole system is based on what we get from the industry,” says Norbert Niederhauser, CEO of Cropster. “We made an industry tool not because we invented it—the industry invented it. We take these ideas and build them into products.”

Cropster began as an initiative for gathering and organizing information at origin, but the roasting software was the element that took off with the most success. With the traction gained from the roasting sector, Cropster is now returning to a focus on origin, providing a digital information-sharing platform to help organize information more effectively at the producer level. With more roasters, exporters, and importers investing intimately in the coffee process at origin, the quality demands are high and the information expected extends beyond the scores at the cupping table.

Niederhauser says that in the current state of the technological world, the biggest challenge of implementing the hardware at origin is not necessarily the access to the technology, but the cultural ideas around gathering information. Communication and information-sharing technology has certainly increased the possibility of interaction between cultures and across distance, but that alone cannot create the shift into prioritizing data collection and analysis. Niederhauser emphasizes that the disconnect that exists between the seeming excess of information collected and the quality is not immutable, and producers who want to sell in the specialty market do develop an understanding of the importance of long-term data collection about farming.

“They realize they will really get more money for better information, which leads to better quality. After this circle is understood, it’s of no issue.”

The use of technology for data analysis becomes imperative as the data pool gets larger and more complicated. In Costa Rica, boutique exporter Exclusive Coffees implemented an internal cloud-based system in the last year to organize and share sample and cupping score information with the coffee producers they work with. Producers enter the samples with all relevant lot information, and on the other end, cuppers enter scoring information immediately after a flight, so that the producers can easily and instantly access the information and apply the findings to their current practices. Co-founder Francisco Mena says about 80 percent of the producers working with Exclusive Coffees use the system fully. There hasn’t been much pushback to the idea, it has simply required a process reminding producers to use it and educating them on how to make use of its efficiencies. From its inception, Exclusive Coffees has required a strict level of information gathering about the coffee farming process, as well as creating a connection between that information and quality by cupping with producers and training in sensory analysis. With massive growth over the past few years, the volume of information has simply become too much to effectively communicate without more efficient information-sharing technology.

12318045804_bec3fc7633_zOn the retail level, not only are consumers asking for more information about the coffees they drink, and demonstrating a heightened level of expertise in the nuances of preparation, but also baristas are more concerned with the precision of coffee making than ever before. The industry has risen to meet the demands with advancements in machine technology allowing baristas more control over the finished product. Espresso machines and brewers have more capabilities with regards to pre-infusion, consistency in water temperature and volume, and the ability to fine-tune each of those elements. With each new recordable parameter available, retailers have been able to develop a deeper understanding of the extraction process and in turn, produce better results. Manual brewing methods are widely popular in the coffee retail setting, and allow customers to get the freshest coffee possible, but they are also arguably the least consistent brewing method as the technique varies from barista to barista, even with the same level of training and experience.

Possibly amusing for those who don’t remember, it was not so long ago that we “measured” the coffee dose in our portafilters by pushing a forefinger across the top of a heaping pile of grounds, when we eyeballed pour overs and the thought of weighing water seemed a little funny. Today, one would be hard-pressed to find a specialty cafe using manual brew methods without scales and without studying the results down to the finest detail available. We can now incorporate into our brewing methodology information about the results from tasting and scoring, recording ratios and brew time, as well as with physical data from refractometers–most notably the coffee-specific tool from VST. The ability to scientifically measure extraction as a component to the overall understanding of the finished product creates value in our methods and theories. Although no technology yet can replace sensory analysis across the board (and what fun would that be anyway?) more physical information to pair with that analysis helps shape our understanding of the process.

Acaia is a company producing coffee-centric scales and corresponding apps, which launched from a well-supported Kickstarter campaign near the end of 2013. The scale addresses many of the basic frustrations with scales on the market that inhibit effective brewing in the retail environment, like auto-off and the risk of water damage, but arguably the most interesting feature is the way the scales collect brewing data by Bluetooth communication with a smartphone. Rex Tseng, co-founder of Acaia, explains that when the scales were in development, the idea was to bring the consumer a scale and accompanying app that would help them brew a better cup of coffee at home. Along the way, they realized the scales could be helpful in the coffee retail setting as well. The coffee industry responded greatly to the concept since their launch, and as result, most of the usage has been in commercial retail settings. In 2014, Acaia won both the SCAA Product of the Year and People’s Choice Awards. The current apps that accompany the scales are formatted as a social media platform, meant to record and share individual brew profiles with other users. In response to industry interest, Acaia is working to develop apps with a commercial retail setting in mind, and for those who wish to build a sort of database of brew information.

12318217894_e517d76c47_zInformation collected about a single brew includes ratio, water temp, tasting notes and more, but the piece of data that really introduces a new level of understanding about manual brew is the flow-rate “blueprint” recording the speed by weight throughout the process. Pouring styles have been discussed mostly in theory since manual-brewing devices have come into common use, but with Acaia that information can be accurately recorded and provide physical data to be analyzed. Like the rate of rise recorded during a roast profile in Cropster, this measurement of flow rate allows us a new data set to study and communicate for more consistency and better quality.

It is unlikely, and frankly undesirable, that we will ever remove the element of human error from coffee growing, roasting, and preparation, but the more data we collect to better understand each process, we can turn that “error” into an intention. The more information we discover we want to collect, the more essential it becomes to develop and use technology to organize, make sense of, and share that information which will undoubtedly permit better and more sustainable quality progress.

stephanie scaa bio 2Stephanie Ratanas is the Coffee Buyer and oversees roasting and quality control for Dogwood Coffee, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Winnipeg, Manitoba. She enjoys coffee travel and international dog petting, and has only been bitten a few times.

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