Quality Control: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at our Cupping Lab

By Christelle Debeuf

You open up that fresh bag of Wonder Brew – a coffee that you’ve been serving your customers for years (maybe decades!) – and smell that familiar aroma. You brew up a cup and it tastes just the same as it always has, a perfect mix of rich chocolate notes paired with a nice syrupy body. But how do we get it to taste amazing time after time? The secret is in our cupping lab!

Green Coffee
Before any green (unroasted) coffee even leaves its country of origin, we’re able to get a sample to analyze and make sure it’s up to our standards. Jim and I receive less than a pound of a coffee to our lab in Wareham, MA, where we start our quality control process. We take steps to make sure it’s EXACTLY what we want before we commit to purchasing it and having it brought to our facility. We’re able to check the coffee again once it has arrived in a port here in the USA – plenty can change during a coffee’s journey, so we want to check that it still tastes exactly how it should.

Once we receive a sample in our lab, we begin our quality checklist. This starts with an analysis of the green coffee. Does it smell clean? What color is it? Does it have any defects? We look at every single bean to check that the coffee is perfect. A few broken or misshapen beans is okay by us, but if we find anything out of the ordinary that will affect taste, we may decide not to purchase the coffee, or look for a different batch that may be better. If coffee passes the physical test, we move to on roasting!

Sample Roasting
Now you may have seen our new Probat roaster “Stella” – she does an amazing job roasting our daily batches of coffee. When we sample roast, we only use ¼ pound of coffee. Stella can’t help us here.>When it’s time to roast a small amount of coffee we use our San Franciscan sample roaster. It looks EXACTLY like our production roasters, but the “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” version – it can fit right on top of a table! We roast about 150g of coffee to a light roast, just enough to develop the beans so we can taste a good version of its flavor. After our small batch is roasted, it’s now time to cup!

Cupping
Cupping is one of the most fun parts of my job at Jim’s. We weigh our freshly roasted beans into 5 bowls, grind them fresh, and add hot water to brew. As we smell, slurp, and taste the bowls, we’re able to get a clear picture of the coffee’s character.

We’ll record notes about the flavor – these are descriptors like “bittersweet chocolate” “orange blossom” or “grapefruit” that you sometimes see on coffee bags.

Jim and I will also analyze the acidity and body of the coffee to see how it feels to drink. With some coffees, we’re looking for heavy body, while others we want to be light and bright.

One of the most important things we’re tasting for is consistency – it’s why we use 5 cups! We want them all to taste the same so that we know there’s consistency from cup to cup. We give each coffee a numerical score and if it passes the test, then we’re ready to buy the coffee!

The whole process is complex and is happening constantly. Almost every week we’re receiving samples to analyze. Many of them are coffees we’ve been buying from the same farms year after year. We still have to check the coffees because sometimes flavor profiles can shift or quality can change.

We like to stay on top of things so we can react as we need to. Sometimes coffees taste pretty similar from year to year, but we may need to adjust our roasting to make them taste EXACT so you always get the same cup. Or we get samples of new coffees that we are thinking of adding to the lineup. These samples are the most fun! We get to try something new and see if it’s a flavor profile that our customers might like or appreciate.

Feedback for Farmers
While the sampling process helps Jim’s Organic Coffee make decisions about purchasing coffee, it can also help producers by giving them feedback on the product. If we see lots of chipped beans or uneven sizes during our physical checks, we may tell the producer about it so they can make some adjustments at the milling process. We also like to give information about flavor profiles, so farmers know how their coffee is performing once it arrives in this country. We’re able to give feedback about how coffee has changed over time or how certain elevations on one specific farm may bring about different flavors.

Consistency, Cup after Cup
In addition to our process for coffee samples, we have a full production cupping protocol we follow too. Cupping our daily batches of coffee helps us to be constantly improving. I taste over half of the batches that we roast every day! We’re always working hard to get the best possible coffee for our customers – year after year, cup after cup.

— Christelle Debeuf, Coffee Technician/Trainer
at Jim’s Organic Coffee