QC Cuppings - que?

May 20, 2018 | Coffee

I’ve made it a personal goal today to remain in my pajamas on principle even though a) it’s about 23 degrees outside b) I’ve had to go to the supermarket and c) these are badly in need of a wash. Sunday mornings were made for lived-in pajamas and coffee.

By way of morning coffee I finally got to crack open a bag of Thuti AA, from Kenya, roasted by the lovely lady roasters from Attendant (thanks Mai and Bren!) in collaboration with Tom from the Tate Roastery. “A strong citric body, with a pleasant grapefruit bitterness in the finish overlaid with toffee notes” was probably how I would’ve sold it on the bar. But up till about three weeks ago I wouldn’t have been able to fully appreciate what it was that Tom and Mai were looking for when they asked about feedback as roasters.

How do I mean?

As a (relatively young and inexperienced) barista, sometimes I find myself tasting a coffee and thinking “there’s something not quite right with it - I’ll make it finer/coarser, or up/lower the dose, or maybe agitate a bit less/more,” etc… It’s at times like these that it’s useful to remember that coffee is every bit a collaborative effort, down to the sourcing of excellent beans, to a roastery determining the roast profile that will coax the best qualities from a bean that is in line with their style, to a brew recipe and all its different components executed perfectly to yield a good brew. Recently, however, my tunnel vision was challenged by a former colleague, Ed, who posited that perhaps we as baristas have less of an impact on the final brew than we think.

“Essentially,” he said, “you could really actively try to fuck up a great brew within reason, and you’d still have a decent cup at the end of it all - if it’s been roasted brilliantly. It’s difficult to obscure the qualities of a well-roasted coffee. Do you really think it makes that much of a difference in a brew if we went two small notches up or down on an EK?”

This is very much still fucking with me - because it makes my skills as a barista perhaps slightly more redundant than I’m altogether comfortable with. But it makes for a lively debate nonetheless. But then surely the issue lies with being able to detect faults in the final brew through taste - and being able to identify if they’re brew-related or roast-related, or even green-related?

It’s a great privilege that the beans that come through PF are pretty much all the higher-end of specialty-grade beans (<83, dare I say?). It’s also wonderful to be working so closely with our now-parent roastery SqM, an established roasters based in Hackney for the last 10 years. After the SqM takeover of PF, we got to know and interact more with the fantastic team that provided us with our retail and filter coffees and our San Jeronimo Miramar house espresso by attending their weekly company cuppings. For the last couple of months or so it’s been a series of pretty intensive blind cuppings of company coffees (I’ll cover those in more detail as they happen in the following weeks to come), with only the last three weeks being devoted to the wild and wacky world of quality-control (QC) cuppings.

Whenever I’ve arrived early to the SqM cuppings, I’ve been welcome to sit in on the QC cuppings prior to the company cuppings, but all I did was just to taste and calibrate myself for what was to come after. I’d never even really looked at the QC score sheet (which looks completely different to the blind cupping sheets at SqM), and I can also imagine that QC cuppings differ from roastery to roastery, so I was simply there to offer some feedback and tasting notes and trying my best to learn from the roasters and their perspective on the structure of a coffee. As baristas on the bar, you’re usually selling a finished product, but for roasters the coffee is a living thing that responds and corresponds to certain parameters and direction that a roaster provides during the roasting process, which then becomes evident in the cupping bowl. (More on this once I’ve actually roasted some and learnt more about it - I don’t want to simply copy-paste information from a book or a website.) For many roasters it’s an elusive game of cat-and-mouse with perfection, or at the very least trying to stick to a roast profile you’ve determined works for the coffee you’re roasting whilst the entire universe conspires against you (from physical conditions in the roastery, the weather, the humidity, the fiddly interaction between airflow and temperature that might differ from batch to batch of the same beans. Copy-paste would be a godsend in this situation, but no one’s invented that yet.)

It takes an incredibly sensitive palate to discern the structural differences caused by such fluctuations, more so than I’ve ever possessed! I remember when I first sat in on one of these QCs I was made to taste a series of coffees, all of which were very good and which I would’ve happily drunk or recommended. BUT the roasters were talking about how the “cool structure” of a particular batch of a given coffee had “tailed off” or that another batch of the same coffee was “baggy” or that another had some “roastedness and chaff” in the finish. All of which I’d completely missed. I’m still learning to pick up the differences but it takes loads of sensory training, especially in green or roast defects, to be able to pick up such flaws.

Furthermore, the whole situation was made trickier still once we learned that certain coffees cupped and brewed differently on the table: a roaster’s responsibility is to, in a sense, figure out the behavioural traits of a coffee they’ve purchased, and ensure that its quality is as consistent as possible regardless of brew context.

In the last three weeks QC has been in full swing! The roasting team had decided to switch up the formats of cuppings a little to integrate foundational roasting knowledge within the company - and it’s always useful as an industry worker to be able to see how cuppings are approached by different personnel along the supply chain, depending on what they’re looking out for. Essentially what you’re trying to do is to absolutely pick holes in a coffee, to be incredibly severe about how you would qualitatively rate a specific batch - since the differences in the roast profiles from batch to batch could differ literally by seconds or mere degrees. (As someone who’s pretty laid back about what constitutes a good and drinkable coffee this was pretty challenging since I would’ve happily chugged the lot.) However, I do feel like I’ve improved week on week at calibrating my tastebuds to the SqM benchmark; at least for me it’s increasingly reassuring to hear that more people agree with what you tasted in a coffee, so you weren’t the only strange one going off on a tangent or being completely incapable of tasting a really obvious flaw! We were also asked to select favourites from different batches of the same coffee, which is always super interesting for me. It’s funny to watch people band into groups based on what positives/negatives they tasted in a given coffee, which implies similarities in their preferences for an actual cuppa!

It was really nice, then, to be able to tell Tom and Mai that the finish was super clean on the cup - not baggy, and with no hint of roastedness. It was nice to know what they as roasters were looking out for, rather than giving them too much airy-fairy detail that taster notes tend to encourage! PF’s got an IKAWA sample roaster in the basement, so perhaps I’ll bully one of the lads into teaching me the basics of roasting. Keep your eyes peeled for a post about that in the very near future, once I get my work schedule sorted. Maybe my roasting ambitions aren’t so far out of reach after all!

Sierra Burgess-Yeo - amateur coffee-maker, professional cat-lover and Olympic kimchi-eater. Lives in London. Freelance barista, coffee writer and project pursuer.