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  • 12.9-QUALITY CONTROL ISSUES-COFFEE TASTING (LIQUORING)

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  • Coffee tasting (liquoring)

     
     

    Before entering into this subject it is appropriate to look at some aspects of 'quality' that aspiring tasters or 'cuppers' should understand.

    Blending

    Most roasted coffee sold is blended - usually only specialty coffee roasters offer straight coffees, i.e. exclusively from individual origins and mostly at very high prices. However, the Guide authors do not share the belief held by some that blended coffees are necessarily always inferior to straight origin coffees: it all depends on what the blend consists of, and at which market segment it is aimed. There are blended coffees that easily outclass some of the 'straight origin coffees' one finds on the average retail shelf…

    To clarify the practice of blending the following…

    The global market for coffee consists of three broad quality segments:

    Exemplary quality: Coffees with a high intrinsic value because of their fine or unique cup quality (taste). Usually of quite limited availability and mostly retailed under straight origin or estate names. Because by their nature exemplary coffees are of limited availability their adherents usually know this and accept that their favourite coffee may not always be available, and may not taste exactly the same from year to year. Limited availability translates into high prices, i.e. a marketing advantage.

    High quality or premium brands: Good tasting coffees, well presented but not necessarily visually perfect. Retailed both as straight origins and as blends. This quality band is much broader and includes a good number of today's specialty coffees. Also produced by leading multinational coffee companies and marketed through supermarkets. High quality or premium brands are expected to be available always, and to taste the same, also always. Therefore, for such a coffee to be marketed as a straight origin, the supply must be large enough to be offered throughout the year. If not then the only option is to create the required quality from the mixing, the blending of a number of compatible coffees that, between them, can offer year-round availability.

    Mainstream quality: Coffees of average quality, reasonably well presented but certainly not imperfect. Offers an average taste experience. Probably accounts for over 90% of the world market. Mainstream coffees are produced, traded, and roasted in large quantities. Most are blends for two main reasons: large roasters cannot rely on just one or two origins for security of supply and, more often than not, consumer tastes in different markets cannot be satisfied by just a single origin in any case.

    To summarise:

    • Blending a number of compatible coffees creates a taste or flavour profile that can be maintained, also when individual origin availability changes. If subsequently a particular coffee is not available then it is replaced by another (or others), always maintaining an unchanged taste profile.
    • Blending broadens the roaster's choice of raw material and so enhances supply security: availability does not depend on a single origin only. Also, coffee is available when needed.
    • Blending aims to maintain the preferred taste or flavour profile at the lowest possible cost. This means that coffees are inter-changed, not only on the basis of quality but also on the basis of their cost. The more flexible the blend the greater the money saving possibilities, a fact that unfortunately at times clashes with the quality requirements, especially in the lower end of the market…

     

    The relationship between blending, and taste or flavour profiles.

    Flavour profiles are a description of the taste sensation the average coffee drinker will encounter from a particular coffee. The art of blending is the means by which a roaster strives to maintain the same taste. Throughout the year or indeed throughout the life of a particular brand. Recording a specification of the required end result, i.e. the taste or flavour profile, helps achieve this.

    Basic profiles standardize certain objectives. For example

    • For a fresh, clean cup with some acidity: use washed or mild arabicas.
    • For a more full-bodied cup: add natural arabicas.
    • For higher cup yield and lower prices: add robustas.

    The blending action combines any or all of these three basic taste groups in different proportions to achieve a certain taste sensation. But, within each base group there are of course many potential supply options. For mainstream blends the number of potential supply options usually is quite large whereas for higher quality and specialty blends the number of potential candidate coffees shrinks fairly rapidly. And for top quality blends the number will be quite small indeed. Water quality in the target market may also play a role, sometimes necessitating the production of slightly different versions of the same brand for different markets.

    The blend master will profile the taste of each component of his blend by recording acidity, body, flavour, after taste etc. He will record the proportion of each component used in the final blend and he will of course record the flavour profile of that final blend.

    The objective is three-fold

    • Stability: maintain the blend taste profile vis-à-vis the end user, batch after batch.
    • Security: select different coffees when availability changes or when the delivered quality of a purchase disappoints, by matching other coffees against the required profile.
    • Profit: produce each batch at the lowest possible price by juggling components.

    The blend master of course has the choice to blend the green coffee components first and then roast the mixture. Or, he can roast the individual components separately and blend them afterwards. This choice will depend on his personal preference and his appreciation of the blend components that are to be used.

    Profiling incidentally also enables the blend master not to bother with coffees or origins for which he knows the flavour profile to be unsuitable… This is why so many samples that exporters send are never acknowledged or reported upon - the buyer knows they are unlikely to fit the required profile.

    Finally, some specialty coffee flavour profiles have become incredibly complex, to the point where the average coffee consumer probably becomes completely lost and simply accepts that what is claimed is true. At the other hand of the scale we find the erosion of blend quality, for example when quality is sacrificed because of higher prices or lack of availability…

    Whatever the market, for an exporter the most important point to bear in mind is that having established a profile that a particular buyer accepts and uses, each and every subsequent delivery should be a full match. If at some stage this proves to be impossible then advise the buyer of the problem, openly and honestly…. Never simply ship such a coffee and hope to get away with it…