Toby’s Estate redefines coffee tasting with new grid tool

tobys estate grid tool

Toby’s Estate Coffee Roasters has developed a new grid tool to focus on aligning expectations and making coffee tasting more accessible.

Tasting coffee can be intimidating to people new to the industry, especially if what they taste is different to what someone more experienced is describing.

This can cause problems if the barista, café owner, and roaster are not aligned on what to expect from a coffee. Realising this, Toby’s Estate Coffee Roasters looked into what it could do to simplify the process. Head of Coffee Nich Rae says while flavour is subjective, most people can agree on its intensity.

“If I say I’m tasting florals and strawberries, but you taste chocolate and apples, we can’t say the other is wrong. What we can agree on is whether the intensity of acidity and flavour is high or low, and that goes for finish and mouthfeel as well,” Nich says.

“In the coffee industry, one of the hardest things to achieve is delivering on expectations – not only to customers and consumers, but also to your café partners. Even with other roasters, there’s expectations of certain coffees or blends. Taste is very subjective, so we need to align what we expect and experience without telling other people they’re wrong.”

Focusing on intensity instead of flavour descriptors, Toby’s Estate has developed a tasting grid ranking acidity, flavour, finish, and mouthfeel on a scale of one to eight. Filling out the grid creates a shape that can be compared to others.

tobys estate grid tool
The grid is used in Toby’s Estate’s training of new staff so they can easily express what they’re experiencing.

“You don’t need to be a skilled barista to understand those four characteristics. People feel more comfortable talking about the coffee if they can just pick a number out of eight to rank the intensity. Then we can start having better conversations about how we got there, what we’re tasting, and help each other align,” Nich says.

“Rather than getting stuck on things like ‘why aren’t I tasting strawberry?’, people start asking better questions about how to understand what they’re tasting and then change the extraction or the roasting for better results.”

Toby’s Estate has used the grid system behind the scenes for more than a year, testing its efficacy before sharing it with the wider community. A grid shape has been made for each of Toby’s Estate’s blends and individual coffees in each blend to ensure each roast is fulfilling its role. This has helped align Toby’s Estate’s roasteries – in New South Wales, Western Australia, and the Philippines – on what to expect from their coffees week in, week out.

“When I was travelling around Indonesia and the Philippines, I noticed they wanted to improve their coffee. We had to figure out how we were going to do that without going back and forth every week,” Nich says.

“We had an intensive session with the Philippines team around the grid. Then, they would taste their coffee, fill out the grid, and send their coffee with the grid attached to us. We compared it to our grid and talked through it afterwards. Their coffee drastically improved almost overnight. It was just understanding what to look for out of the coffee and adjusting their roasting to achieve it.”

Following the grid’s success in Asia, Toby’s Estate began using the tool in conjunction with its recipe cards at its Chippendale café in Sydney. Nich says it has helped the roasting and green bean buying teams share their experience with the baristas and café staff.

“We’re running three single origins and a blend every day. One of the things we realised is, if we give you a natural Colombian and you’ve never had one before, how do you know what to look for with only three tasting notes?” Nich asks.

“If we’re saying the finish should be a three but they’re getting higher than that, then it’s pretty obvious that’s not what we want from that coffee. The grid provides a bullseye to shoot for and the recipe shows how to reach it.”

Grids are produced for the components of a blend as well as the end product.

The grid has also proved useful in the training of new staff. For instance, a trainer can share a coffee that is a four in acidity to align students with what a mid-strength acidity is like. Nich says it also helps with complex ideas like blending coffees.

“Within our training, we look at the blend and the coffees that go into it, each with their own grid, and overlay those grids to project what we want from the blend. This helps people understand what’s in the blend and why it’s in there,” Nich says.

“It highlights how things happening in the background deliver certain expectations from the blend. A lot of people might think a blend is just a blend, but for us, each coffee has a purpose, and it helps us deliver and explain that to people when they’re training.”

Toby’s Estate plans to expand the use of this tool, sharing target grids with its single origin coffees. Nich says this will help its café partners make sure staff and baristas are on the same page, like it has done for Toby’s Estate’s roasteries.

“You can’t have one barista working all day seven days a week. When someone else steps onto the machine, having that target means they can adjust as needed and still make consistently great coffee,” he says.

“When it comes to less experienced baristas, it helps them understand the expectations, adjustments, and see the results for themselves. It’s easy for me to say ‘if you make the grind coarser you’ll have more acidity’, but doing it yourself and seeing that change has a real impact.”

Information for the grid is also easily conveyed to the end consumer by floor and service staff. Customers can use it themselves to identify characteristics they enjoy in a coffee and broaden their horizons by trying others with similar qualities.

“If they enjoy a coffee from Brazil, they might not know they liked it because it’s a natural processed coffee with low acidity. But they can see the shape of the grid and start to understand why they like to drink coffee from Brazil,” Nich says.

He adds Toby’s Estate hopes this will help the consumer approach different coffees with an understanding of what characteristics matter to them, so they can explore a range of coffees with a similar grid. That way, the roasters, its partners, and their baristas can be confident the customer will be happy with their choice.

“The purpose of the grid is to help people understand what they’re achieving when they make the coffee so they can set clear expectations with their staff and customers,” Nich says.

“Once your team is aligned, baristas will produce coffee with similar grids day to day even if they prefer different settings. Those standards are going to provide an extra level of consistency to the café. At Toby’s Estate, we call it complex simplicity.”

This article appears in the June 2020 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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