Can we define specialty coffee?

How do you define specialty coffee? It’s one of those questions that results in stumped faces, puzzled looks, and stuttered responses.

While it seems everyone has an opinion, it took five brave individuals, one moderator, and an opinion survey to tackle the broad topic at Seven Miles Coffee Roasters’ first industry forum in November 2016.

Hundreds of people intrigued by the hard-hitting topic gathered for the event, with speakers and external video screens to cater to the audience spilling out of the training room facility in Manly Vale.

St Ali and Sensory Lab’s Emily Oak, Cofi-Com’s John Russell Storey, Mecca Coffee Roasters’ Tuli Keidar, Neighbourhood’s Sean McManus, and Ona Coffee’s Sasa Sestic sat on a panel with broad perspective on how specialty coffee is measured.

Numerical standards
Most green bean traders and roasters rely on an official grading system that suggests specialty coffee is a blind cupping score of 80+. For some companies that extends to 84 or 85, and in some instances even 88+. For others, the quality of coffee can only be assessed on taste and intuition.

“Q graders exists with two main facets. As a quality stamp on an end product (having been assessed by Q graders a coffee can be sold as ‘Q assessed’), and as an industry qualification that recognises that the person who is a Q grader has passed a set of knowledge and sensory tests. It was originally designed as a system of common language between farmers and buyers so that they could attribute quality and value in the same way in different places,” Emily says.

“It’s not perfect. Depending on how everyone is calibrated and trained they may still have different perceptions of what is good and what is not, and attribute a numerical score accordingly. Bias of ‘tasting good’ and ‘satisfying’ can also come into play where in an objective system it really shouldn’t.”

On an exporter level, Tuli says a numerical system is required in order to give objective feedback to farmers.

“If we cup a coffee at 83, the farmer can hopefully invest in his production and get a better price. It’s not a perfect system but it’s fundamentally important if we want to be providing farmers with a means of assessing their production quality,” he says. “It’s early days in the specialty coffee industry, however I do think more open discussion is needed as to how much SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) points lead to pricing decisions and affect consumer demand for a coffee.”

John cups between 20 to 50 coffees a day, five days a week at Cofi-Com. He says uniformity is necessary to identify seasonal changes in a coffee, but that quality really comes down to taste.

“Your palate is the number one tool to identifying what your coffee is,” John says. “It’s tempting to score coffee high. It’s about getting to know what coffee tastes like, so you trust your tastebuds when buying green coffee.”

As for Dan Jackson of Edition Coffee Roasters says there’s always a level of subjectivity when it comes to measuring specialty coffee, but his rules are fundamentally flavour-driven.

“If it’s delicious and we can sell it, then that’s good enough for us,” he says.

When it comes to assessing the traceability of specialty coffee, Sasa says its purpose is about getting coffee as consistent as possible.

“For me, the most important thing about the specialty coffee industry is the farmer, and having that personal relationship with them. Sometimes that relationship isn’t all about the coffee, it’s about respecting the fact that most farmers have a family to support and they need to know how they can feed their family and send their kids to school. They need to know someone will buy their coffee year on year,” Sasa says. “The more energy we can put into the farms the more we’ll be able to produce and buy better coffee.”

Twenty to 30 years ago, Tuli says pioneering work was done when traceability was first used to determine equal distribution of coffee income. Today, however, he says traceability has taken on a different meaning and is being used as marketing tool.

“If you don’t know the farmers are fairly paid or where the coffee has come from, then you’re using the terminology of ‘traceability’ unethically. This is less ethical than selling commercial coffee without traceability,” he says. “We have to be careful with how people perceive what traceability really is.”

While a portion of the world’s farmers are producing specialty coffee, Sasa says it’s not solely a sustainable practice.

“It’s a hard to thing to assess as coffee is subject to NY coffee prices, but in Brazil, where farms are big and year per hectare is approximately 40 to 50 bags, absolutely it’s sustainable to be a 83-point specialty farmer. In countries like Panama, El Salvador and Honduras where farms are small and they produce just eight to 15 bags per hectare, absolutely not, as production cost is higher than current NYC prices,” Sasa says.

From John’s experience, 6 to 10 per cent of a farmer’s crop is specialty, with others managing dedicated micro farms for specialty produce.

“The Burundi government, for example, is making a concerted effort to say that it wants to be a supporter of specialty coffee to encourage new generations of farmers to get involved in the practice. The next 10 years of farming in this country will be really exciting,” he says.

The full article features in the December 2016 edition of BeanScene Magazine.

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