Maximal Distinctiveness: A Quality Standard For Roasting And Brewing Specialty Coffee

Discuss flavors, brew temperatures, blending, and cupping notes.
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another_jim
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#1: Post by another_jim »

The Irony Of Tasting Competition

In a tasting competition, the finest cuppers compete in distinguishing pairs of coffees from the same region, the winner being the one making the fewest mistakes. The irony is that specialty coffee is about the distinctiveness of different coffees. We pay large sums to get microlots, coffee from well run farms, and auction coffees because their meticulous selection and prep adds to the coffee's distinctiveness. So why does it take the world'd best tasters to actually tell these coffees apart consistently? Is it possible to improve our roasting and brewing practices to the point where they produce cups distinctive enough so that every coffee lover could ace every tasting competition?



What Factors Allow Us To More Easily Distinguish Two Coffees?

In a cupping class I attended with Coleen Anunu of Gimme, I got a first hand lesson in the differing degrees of tasting acumen. I also found out how experience can compensate for talent when I could keep up with her tasting the African coffees, since I know them well. Finally, I found that I was terrible the first few days because the sample roasts in the class were different from mine, and I had to first learn to ignore their generic roast tastes. So it might well be that tasting acumen, experience, and habituation with the roasting and brewing practices are more important than finding the inherently most distinctive roasting and brewing practices. This can be ascertained by having experienced cuppers do the distinctiveness test of two coffees using their roasts and prep versus those of another cupping lab. If habit beats best practices, cuppers will do best in their own labs. If best practices beats habit; the lab with the best practices will be best for all or most cuppers.

If best practices trump habit; then further testing can be done to find the most distinctive roast levels and profiles, as well as the most distinctive brewing methods, perhaps classified by extraction level and the manipulation of bitter/sour levels by brew temperature.

This is a series of tests I will undertake. I hope others try as well.



How To Measure The Distinctiveness Quotient Of A Roasting Or Brewing Practice

This is unfortunately a complicated test and one that has no obvious scale.

The test is based on triangle testing, where the taster is presented three unmarked cups, two with one brew, one with another, and the taster has to correctly pick the odd cup. This procedure can be adapted to measure how distinct two brews are by repeating the test with one coffee pure in one cup, and mixed with the other in staggered proportions in the other two cups. It would start with two cups at 50/50 A/B and one cup at a 100% A. If the choice is incorrect, one goes to two at 25/75 A/B and one at 100% A; alternatively, if the guess is correct, one goes to 75/25 A/B and 100 A. This procedure is called binary search. Two tastings gets a distinctiveness score running from of 0 to 3, three tastings gets 0 to 7, etc. etc. I'm inclined towards three tastings and a 0 to 7 score.

This test has to be done twice, one for each alternative roast or brewing method, using the same two coffees. The tests also need to be done at the same time, if one wants to eliminate the need for controls. Fortunately, coffee is at its most distinctive at just above room temperature, so large batches can brewed and tasted at leisure.

An example outcome would be that one brewing or roasting method yielded a distinctiveness score of 3, the other 6. If that result holds for several comparisons of the same two methods using different coffees and tasters, one can definitely say that the consistently higher scoring method is more distinctive, and therefore a better practice than the lower scoring method.

You can see that this will take a lot of work. I would argue that it is worthwhile, since distinctiveness is both at the heart of specialty coffee and an objectively measurable quality. This procedure can directly test the relative distinctiveness of two of different roasting or brewing methods. With experience, I'm sure the procedure can be both simplified and standardized.



How About A Two Way Tasting Competition?

Distinctiveness testing can be incorporated painlessly into tasting competitions by offering the same set of coffees done with different roasts or brewing methods and at different mix levels. The tasting winner is the one who gets the most right; while the methods winner is the one that most tasters got right. This would put the irony of taste competitions to good use.
Jim Schulman

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#2: Post by [creative nickname] »

This is a very interesting proposal, Jim, and I look forward to trying it out myself. But one concern is this: Surely there is more to coffee roasting quality than mere ability to identify the origin? A roast that brings out one unique flavor note in a very sharp and distinctive way might not be as pleasing as one that blends it in better proportion to other, more generic, flavors that the bean has to offer. I do tend to approach roasting with the goal of emphasizing origin flavors, but not at any and all costs. Ultimately, if the taste is too extreme in one direction, I might want to tone it down on subsequent roasts of the same green.

Or, stated as a general rule: If you try to maximize one value at all costs, you will get a lot of whatever you are trying to maximize, at a very high cost to your other values.
LMWDP #435

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another_jim
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#3: Post by another_jim »

That more distinct coffees taste better is make or break for specialty coffee. If that were not true, if there was a combination of prep, roasting and brewing tricks that made any and all coffee taste uniform and better than distinctly prepped coffees, then coffee becomes the raw material for a clever industrial process.

For instance, serious vintners in a given wine area do everything possible to vinify their wine so it's different from those down the road, and so the region's wines are different from all others regions'. This kind of process simply has not occurred in coffee, since there hasn't been a demand for distinctive coffees. Now that there is such a demand, the examination of methods in this light should begin.

This means it's high time for roasting and brewing methods to be examined for the degree to which they amplify or damp the distinctiveness of different coffees. The method I outlined is cumbersome; and I hope someone figures out something better; but until then, it's the only game in town as far as I'm concerned.

Until a few years ago, I thought the traditional roasting and brewing methods, especially those used in cupping, had converged on maximally amplifying distinctiveness. Since then, we have seen the rise of new techniques that claim scientific validity, but that are not based on systematic tasting research.

However, the claims of the new methods can't simply be dismissed, since there is no real evidence that the traditional methods best amplify distinctiveness either. Traditional cupping methods are designed to best amplify defects, not distinctiveness. Traditional commercial roasting and brewing methods develop within the context of regional and traditional coffee preferences. Neither may have much of anything to do with amplifying distinctiveness.

Clearly, there will be trade offs and fashion cycles involved in distinctiveness versus other qualities. In wine, the "Parkerized" taste profile has been leveling the distinctiveness of Bordeaux style reds for years. This profile, in turn has become a jumping off point for a new set of very distinctive wines. But before you can do these kind of trade offs and responses, you need to know what you are doing. Do we?
Jim Schulman

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#4: Post by [creative nickname] »

I'm pretty sure there is a middle ground between homogenized, industrial-scale coffee and "blast you in the face" origin flavors, in which coffees taste both pleasant and sufficiently distinct. Terroir isn't an end in itself, is all I was trying to say. But with that being said, pleasure and distinctiveness are closely aligned for me, and for many others on these boards, I suspect.

I bet if you suggest a particular roast comparison, more than a few around here (including me) would find the time to do some comparative cupping and report their results.
LMWDP #435

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another_jim
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#5: Post by another_jim »

[creative nickname] wrote:I bet if you suggest a particular roast comparison, more than a few around here (including me) would find the time to do some comparative cupping and report their results.
Others doing tests would be wonderful. If I may suggest one: Are roast tastes distinctive or generic? It's received wisdom that roast tastes are generic; but is it true? I don't think anyone has actually checked.

So for the home roasters out there, do four roasts, two each of two similar beans, so you have a medium and light roast of each bean. Do the triangle testing with the light roasted pair; and then again with the dark roasted pair, and find out which roast level makes the two coffees more easily distinguishable.
Jim Schulman

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endlesscycles

#6: Post by endlesscycles »

Is it possible that over time this objective has been met and is generally described as a "cupping roast"?
-Marshall Hance
Asheville, NC

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#7: Post by [creative nickname] »

Others doing tests would be wonderful. If I may suggest one: Are roast tastes distinctive or generic? It's received wisdom that roast tastes are generic; but is it true? I don't think anyone has actually checked.

So for the home roasters out there, do four roasts, two each of two similar beans, so you have a medium and light roast of each bean. Do the triangle testing with the light roasted pair; and then again with the dark roasted pair, and find out which roast level makes the two coffees more easily distinguishable.
I'll give this a shot sometime soon. One thing I fear, however, is that the learning effect may complicate these tests. I cup and brew most coffees with city roasts, so my palate is probably trained to distinguish coffee best in that context. Even if turned out to be the case that city+ roasts provide an equal or greater level of distinctiveness for someone who is used to them, it may be that I just lack the experience level to detect subtle differences in coffees that present more caramels and distillates.

Of course, if the test shows otherwise, that will make the result all the more striking. All I'm saying is that, even if my testing shows that city roasts usually dominate, I'm not sure that would prove (to my satisfaction at least) that such roasts are uniquely capable of discriminating among origin flavors. What we would really need is a proponent of both roast styles to do the testing, and to compare notes afterwards.

Another complicating factor is that I have far more experience doing city roasts than city+.

[Edited to add this thought:] It is also possible that some origins are best picked out at different roast levels than other origins. Perhaps the subtle differences among indonesian coffees are best tasted in the darker tones, while the differences among sidamos are best seen in the high notes and florals? I'm not sure why we would assume that the maximally distinctive roast level is one-sized-fits-all.

None of which is to say that trying this doesn't give us more info than not. I just find it helpful to think about what the gold standard test would be, as a way of remembering the limitations of whatever I'm about to do.
LMWDP #435

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#8: Post by [creative nickname] »

endlesscycles wrote:Is it possible that over time this objective has been met and is generally described as a "cupping roast"?
Marshall, obviously that is possible, and if I had to bet I'd agree that it is likely. But the point is, there aren't a lot of publicly available tests that confirm that this is true. Sometimes standard practices turn out to be suboptimal on closer examination.
LMWDP #435

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grog

#9: Post by grog »

The comparison to the wine world is interesting. I would argue that most vintners would tell you their goal is to 'maximize the expression of the terroir they have to work with' and very few would say their priority is to make a wine that is distinct rom others, again with the proviso of 'only distinct insofar as what the terroir provides'. Of course, that sounds good but it's also true that the market is full of wines that clearly were made to stand out in blind tastings and please critics, which makes it easy to claim 'I must have a very unique terroir and my winemaker is highly gifted at maintaining transparency of that terroir in their winemaking'.

So the question becomes, is the goal to roast such that the terroir is expressed with the maximum transparency and minimum of perceived intervention, or such that certain aspects of the bean are maximized, which would indicate more human intervention? It's difficult to see people reaching agreement on philosophy around that.
LMWDP #514

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Marshall

#10: Post by Marshall »

Tim Castle had some interesting observations in his report on last year's Roasters Guild Retreat in the current Roast magazine (July/Aug. 2014).

The team competitions, which have been a learning feature of the retreats for many years, had their rules tweaked in a direction that Jim might like:
The 13th retreat brought with it a new rule that may have been instituted for commercial reasons, but still made the competition more relevant: Competitors were asked to provide brewing instructions with their final blend. Adding this last step allowed competitors to have some control over the final taste of their coffee.

Entries are now submitted as a complete experience in a way that normal cupping or lock-step French presses (something few civilian coffee drinkers experience) cannot achieve. This new addition to the rules allowed for discussion about what the average coffee drinker likes in a cup of coffee, and how that differs from what those of us who spend our lives slurping over a cupping table enjoy (although one could certainly do worse)!
After many years of promoting greater focus on the farmer, Tim also applauded a trend toward giving greater recognition to each roaster's distinctive contribution to the cup.
Marshall
Los Angeles