Many years ago, when I worked part time at Veneziano Coffee roastery's "First Pour" cafe, one of the baristas on the competition team was the wonderful Craig Simon. Flash forward ten or fifteen years and Craig has won the Australian barista championships multiple times, become a Q-grader instructor and has even spent time organising processing of some very high end green coffee.
The market has also changed dramatically. Twenty years ago, having any sort of coffee roastery with a roaster smaller than about 50kg seemed absurd. Fifteen years ago, we really started to see the cafe/roastery model take off, with 5-12kg roasters. In the last five years or so, we have now started to see people set up collective roasteries, where cafes can hire time on a coffee roaster without having to commit to the capital costs of their own roasting space and their own roasting equipment. Against this background, Craig has now started his own business, Criteria Coffee, which is a mix of collective roasting space, his own micro roastery with wholesale and retail sales and training room.
Intro to scoring defects
Last week, Criteria Coffee hosted a tasting of three samples that CQI uses to teach Q graders to recognise mould, ferment and phenolic defects. It was only a $15 event, so it jammed out and attracted a few home baristas as well as industry types who are just getting started. The event ran as follows. First, Craig did a refresher/intro to the CQI Q grader score sheet. An important difference between that score sheet and the ACE Cup of Excellence score sheet is the three sets of "yes/no" scores, which the ACE sheet doesn't use. Whilst in both the Cup of Excellence and the CQI grading systems, five bowls of the same coffee are evaluated to try to give scorers a good chance to pick up variations, the Q grading sheet asks you to evaluate uniformity, sweetness and cleanliness as tick boxes. There are two points per cup and they are yes/nos. If a cup isn't clean, isn't sweet, or isn't uniform, then it doesn't get the two points. (The CQI doesn't give higher points for more sweetness.) If one cup is defective, it probably won't be the same as the other four, so the coffee will lose 2 points for uniformity as well as losing 2 points for cleanliness. If it is at "fault" level, the coffee loses another 2 points and if it is at "taint" level, the coffee loses 4 points instead. So, even though a "taint" might only subtract 2 points, the coffee will probably lose a minimum of 6 points. In practical terms, the vast majority of coffees that lose that many points will not be good enough for the other attributes to drag them up into specialty coffee classification. The consequence may be that the lot is rejected, which may be a significant financial hit for the producer and/or importer/distributor. Equally, if roasters and importers don't do their own QC properly, the consequence may be that customers end up drinking it. So this is an exercise that needs to be conducted carefully, fairly and with respect for everyone in the supply chain. Here's a snap of Craig giving the intro:
In the cup
In the second part, we cupped four bowls; one being a control and the other three demoing each defect. They tasted as follows:
- Phenolic: Dirty/band-aid/iodine/chemical/rough/bitter/astringent.
- Ferment: White vinegar.
- Mould: Vegetal, musty, earthy.
To wrap up, we moved on to cupping six different coffees, which is to say five cups of each of six coffees. We didn't take the session all that seriously, just focussing on identifying the defects rather than fully scoring. We went over the 30 cups several times over about an hour and, as is usually the case in blind cuppings, even the most opinionated people in the room all of a sudden became timid when asked to identify things. Craig only hid four defects on the table - one phenolic, one ferment and two mouldy. The phenolic and the first mouldy cup were pretty easy to identify. Actually, you didn't even have to taste the cups to work out which one was the first mouldy cup - people couldn't help themselves from saying "ugh" after tasting it. The second mouldy cup was hidden immediately after the first and in speeding over it, I think I just assumed that the aftertaste from the first mouldy cup was continuing! Craig hid the ferment defect in the first cup of a natural processed coffee that was close to being over fermented anyway, and he further made it difficult by placing that coffee right after a rather smart tasting and clean honey processed Kenyan, so it was particularly difficult to find. Over three passes, one of my friends and I probably spent about 20 minutes going back and forward over that particular set of five cups, so we were mightily relieved to find that we got it right. At the end, Craig also asked us to identify if any of the coffees were repeated, which the room was able to do pretty easily.
With the hard work over, we knocked off with some beer and an airpot of of filter coffee made from Craig's leftover filter roasts. Whilst I personally don't really like the natural processed coffees that Craig had on offer, I was delighted to taste that all of the roasts were vibrant, expressive and well-developed light/filter roasts, with no grassiness in sight. Craig mentioned that he isn't taking his espresso roasts that much further than that, but I didn't get to taste any.
But what does this mean for us?
If you ask your local roastery about their QC program, you're pretty likely to get some waffle about them only sourcing the highest quality. Some roasteries may also rely on their green suppliers doing the work for them. So what the industry would like you to think is that if you're buying from somewhere that holds itself out as selling "specialty coffee", you never need to worry about green coffee defects. Just looking at this year and at the coffee that I have tasted, that's probably mainly true, but cupping retail coffee with H-B members this year, we have come across phenolics, mould, ferment and also another earthy defect that probably wasn't mould, nor was it potato defect, but was definitely something wrong. The roast defects that we have tasted this year (ie. grassy, charred or baked) have probably outnumbered the green defects at least 4:1. We haven't had many natural processed coffees on the table, but it may well be that if I bought more of them, I would have tasted still more green defects this year. So I suppose that the take home message is that they are out there and they are a possibility.
What to do if you buy a defective bag of coffee is a good question, and one that I'm not going to tackle in this post!