The quality of coffee in general is assessed at many points throughout the journey of the beans from the ground to the cup. After the beans are exported, they arrive at their destinations in many foreign countries. There, they are usually roasted and sold whole or ground, flavored or unflavored, caffeinated or decaffeinated. Throughout the manufacturing process, according to regional laws and 84 coffee standard business practices, the coffee quality is assessed many times.
For example, before roasting, coffee beans which do not meet standards for color or size are removed. This helps ensure an even distribution of beans. After roasting, the color of the beans indicates the degree of roast and type of roast desired. The roasting facility may have special equipment such as a colorimeter, which measures the color of the bean. Or, perhaps, the staff includes experienced human coffee experts who can standardize by visual comparisons. For example, beans which are over or under roasted are rejected. For flavored coffee, the quality of the flavoring oil is carefully checked because too much or too little oil changes the taste. Excessive or insufficient oil will not deliver a specific flavored coffee if it does not meet the exact requirements needed for that flavor.
Flavorists on staff can and do use various analytical techniques. A flavorist is a food chemist with an undergraduate degree from an accredited college or university. Most study biology or chemistry at the undergraduate level and go on to specialize in food-specific studies at the graduate level. For example, they use gas chromatography or spectrophotometry equipment to check flavor quality. Recall, coffee that has no added flavoring still has flavor (sometimes called “taste”); it is one of the main coffee characteristics along with acidity, aroma and body. The flavorists apply techniques using this specialized equipment to identify flavor compounds by analyzing their molecular structure. The reason that natural and synthetic components are analyzed carefully is to ensure the coffee consumer will taste the same quality of flavor from batch to batch. This same analysis applies to flavored and non-flavored coffees.
However, one technique that is also used to check the quality of the final flavored product is almost as old and traditional as coffee itself. This is the sensory-rich evaluation technique known as “cupping,” a procedure performed for most coffees after harvesting and processing, before commercial roasting and before flavoring, if any, is added. Cupping involves placing 2.5 ounces of ground coffee in a cup and adding 3.4 ounces of boiling water. Coffee aroma and flavor can be evaluated in this manner. During coffee cupping, boiling water is poured into a small cup over freshly ground coffee. After a “crust” is formed at the top, the taster breaks through with one of the spoons and inhales the nose, or aroma, of the coffee. Grounds are then scraped off the top and a second break is made using a deep spoon so the taster can get a good, strong sip. That first sip is then spit out, just like wine tasters or juice tasters do. Learning how to distinguish coffees through cupping takes much practice and a love for coffee. It also requires following certain standards and habits to ensure objectivity and the ability to cup many times throughout the day as a professional cupper. Cupping is a very important step in the coffee evaluation process because it helps grade the coffee in terms of fragrance, aroma and flavor.
It is interesting to know that, to communicate differences in flavor, the coffee trade uses about 50 specialized terms to describe subjective flavor qualities. These words include, for example: winey, nutty, bitter, berry, citrus, acidity, body, aroma, finish, bright, buttery, floral, fruity, harsh, smooth, sour, spicy, balance, clean, complexity, musty, dirty, rough, natural, sweet, baked, bready, burnt and others that make up a very detailed glossary worth studying.