Updated: Sep 19, 2018
One of the biggest frustrations I hear from roasters, distributors, retailers and end consumer is: "Why does my coffee taste different? I've roasted the same beans with the same profile, or I've ordered the same blend, yet it tastes different."
I am sure everyone reading this will empathise with me, but are we striving for the impossible? Is consistency achievable or are we fighting an unwanted battle?
In order to answer this question, firstly we need to take a close look at coffee as a commodity and then the history of how it has been marketed and sold. Green coffee beans are basically the processed seed from the coffee cherry, a type of fruit.
What we know about fruits is that they are seasonal. This is the case with coffee, where you generally see one crop harvested per year. One of the best ways to harvest coffee is still by handpicking, as this ensures the ripe cherries are only harvested, leaving the unripe cherries on the tree to ripen. This ensures minimal wastage and maximum yield from the crop.
In many countries where coffee is grown, the labour is cheap, so this method of harvesting is preferred over mechanical means. So what you essentially achieve from this method of harvesting is a number of picks throughout a season, as the cherries ripen a different times. This results in varying levels of quality from the same crop throughout the season.
The easiest way to explain this is to draw comparisons from what we see from other fresh fruit products within the market. The first batch of fruit you generally see appear on the shelves at the beginning of the season is not usually as good as the fruit in the middle of the season -- and subsequently falls off in quality towards the end of the season. This is because as these fruits are picked, more nutrients are delivered to the still ripening fruits. Toward the end of the season, fewer nutrients are available, so you see a varying level of quality throughout a season. This goes a long way to explaining why you can purchase coffee from the same origin and crop, but with varying levels of cup quality throughout the season. Those maintaining a close relationship with the origin will not just rely on the coffee grading, but will want to secure the best pickings from the season based on cup quality. These are just changes within the season itself.
If you then take a look from season to season, there are many factors that can contribute to the quality of that crop. Weather patterns particularly play a big role in determining the quality from season to season. Weather affects temperatures, humidity, rainfall, and soil conditions. When dealing with a raw commodity like coffee, you have good and bad crops. Any farmer will tell you that nothing is guaranteed in terms of quality from season to season, as Mother Nature is a massive variable.
It is a well-documented fact that weather conditions have become more erratic from season to season due to global warming. This is having a substantial impact on crop consistency throughout the world. High quality Arabica coffee is growing in demand; however, it is a much more difficult variety to cultivate than the Robusta variety. Most companies are advertising Robusta free coffee. Even big companies like Nestle, who buy a large percentage of the world coffee production, are marketing 100% Arabica in their instant coffee products. The increase in demand for quality Arabica is putting a strain on the world's production, as ideal growing areas are actually declining with adverse climate change, amongst other factors.
If a roaster if using a blend with a base origin where the season's crop quality or yield has been decimated by weather, disease, or pest damage, then they are forced to substitute another origin into that blend -- which can result in a change to character profile of that blend. No two coffees are exactly the same. The chemical structure of coffee is extremely complex so the chances of being able to get exactly the same character profile are almost impossible. So if we're not getting consistency at the origin, then why should we expect it with the finished product?
I would like to draw on similarities between the wine and coffee industry. When comparing coffee to wine, what we know is that coffee is much more complex, with over three times of the flavour compounds detected so far. Both are the by-products of fruits and both are processed to produce beverages. The wine industry, however, embraces the changes from season to season and will clearly label the origin and season on the bottle. The consumer expects a difference from vintage to vintage, even though they know they are the grapes from the same vine.
Yes, there is a clear difference in the aging and storage of wine when compared to coffee, but the consumer expectations are the root cause of headaches for the coffee market. The coffee consumer has been educated to expect product consistency of taste, where the wine consumer hasn't.
We can trace the origins of this education and behaviour back to a market that has grown up with highly processed instant coffee, where it is a lot easier to achieve this. Having said this though, don't underestimate how much the big instant coffee manufactures invest on product quality and consistency. They have highly sophisticated labs and quality assurance procedures.
The specialty coffee revolution is only just starting to make some inroads into changing consumers' perception of coffee. The average consumer though, still doesn't appreciate and understand the complexity of coffee. The average cafe and end consumer identifies with the brand, not the origin, and this is where there is a big difference between wine and coffee.
The secret coffee blend recipe has been a great marketing tool for coffee companies. This has allowed coffee companies to build brands, much like KFC with its secret herbs and spices.
What wine companies have that most coffee companies don't, is exclusivity over the raw product. Wine is generally produced where it is grown and harvested, allowing wine companies to label the origins without risk of competitors having the same. Green Coffee is mostly traded on an open market, with limited exclusivity leaving many roasters using the same origins. The coffee blend is the last line of defense for brand individualism.
So where do we go from here as an industry? Unfortunately, unless we educate the market to expect and enjoy the nuances of coffee, the consumers' expectations will not change in a hurry. If you are marketing a blend to a customer without educating them on the difficulties of achieving consistency, then you are, in effect, making a promise you can't keep.
The cupping room is there to monitor consistency and quality, but don't underestimate the consumers' ability to detect changes. A change for the better in the roaster's view can be perceives as negative to a customer who is expecting the same. I haven't even gone into the challenges of maintaining consistency in processing, transport, storage, roasting, grinding and extraction, that all affects the result in the cup.
It would be a brave roaster to reveal the finer details of his blend to the market, unless they had complete exclusivity on the green beans; however, we need to collectively provide further education and transparency to the consumer.
Establishments selling and serving single origins are growing. These specialty roasteries and cafes are doing their part to educate the consumer. Largely, the coffee consumer is a creature of habit, consuming the same beverage day in, day out. It is amazing to see what happens once they are aware of the options available.
Give the consumer choice, and they will embrace it. I have seen many cafes open up their coffee menu boards, with almost instant positive impacts to their turnover. Sure, there is production, logistical and labour challenges to face with many segments to the market; however, specialty coffee has a story that originates from the coffee farm. The story is interesting, while complex, and without understanding can generate confusion and disappointment in the market.
I am a strong believer that the primary focus in specialty coffee production and supply should be consistency of quality, not consistency of taste. Maintaining a consistent character profile to your blends is important if you market it that way,, but don't expect to be able to achieve an exact replication of that blend. The variation is what makes the industry so dynamic and interesting.