23 Jul 2017

What is a Coffee Professional?

The Difference Between a Cupper and Other Coffee Professionals, and the Need for a Common Language

In December of 2015 I went to one of the Odorama events of Mediamatic. It was an evening dedicated to the vocabulary of fragrance. The whole evening was structured around the question of our sense of smell and why it is so difficult to find the words to capture what we experience. 

One of the most interesting talks was given by Ilja Croijmans, a linguist researching this very thing. Apparently Western languages are one aspect of making the act of aroma descriptors difficult. Just think about it, how many words to you know that are only dedicated to a smell?
In other languages around the globe, and specifically in some parts in Asia, there are words dedicated only to olfactory experiences; there are specific words to specific smells, and so constructs such as: 'smells like ...', are not necessary.
Ilja wanted to know if in Western society the fact that we find it difficult to describe smells is due to this lack of specific defining words, or if there is an other layer of explanation: do we simply not get enough practise?

To test this
he conducted a study where he compared flavour experts to 'flavour-laypeople', where he hoped to find out if experienced tasters are better at describing and recognising smells. He asked wine experts, coffee experts and laypeople to describe the aroma and taste of different wines and coffees, he also asked them to identify some 'simple' aromas (such as cinnamon), and tastes (sweet, salt, bitter, sour). And then he checked how consistent they were. 

Super interesting! Especially when you know that one of the results was, that coffee experts more or less performed on the same level as laypeople.
This led me into a discussion with him on his definition of coffee experts, which did not go anywhere really. And I kind of forgot about this discussion, until recently, when an interview with Ilya ended up on Sprudge.

Ilja used 22 wine WSET level 3 experts, 20 coffee professionals who had SCAE coffee diploma's and 21 laypeople. You could question if wine WSET level 3 is equal to the SCAE diploma, but there are other, related, issues that pop up for me. Below I try to address these issues, based on quotes from the Sprudge interview.
And how do coffee experts compare to wine experts?
Interestingly, coffee experts did not agree on coffee smells and flavors the way wine experts agreed on wine smells and flavors. In terms of this agreement, coffee experts were more comparable to laypeople. What we did find is that coffee experts use significantly more concrete source terms, like “fruit” or “peanut,” than laypeople, and fewer evaluative terms like “nice” or “disgusting.” 


Well, no...Of course wine experts agreed on wine smells and aroma's, of course coffee professionals did not. In the wine industry one is taught specific bottles and taste profiles. A lot of wines are produced with specific yeasts that give wines of specific vineyards and regions their taste profile. This is not the case for coffee. Yes, of course certain coffee farmers or certain regions have specific flavour profiles, but on a very different level. And generally speaking, other than Kenya is more fruity and Brazil is more chocolate-nutty, the coffee education system is not based on learning specific taste profiles. 
If you want people to recognise certain aromas, smells, flavours, tastes, and use the same words, calibration is key. Only just in 2016 did the coffee industry produce a lexicon. 

What accounts for the differences?
One hypothesis is that wine language is much more incorporated in our culture. You find wine descriptions everywhere, but not coffee descriptions. It could be that wine experts get more opportunities to talk about wine. With current developments in the coffee industry, with more and more coffee descriptions everywhere, it’s interesting to keep track of the developments. Perhaps once coffee language is more engrained in our culture, like wine language, we can repeat the experiment to see if the coffee experts have “caught up!” 

In my opinion, this does not account for the differences. This could be an explanation for laypeople, but not coffee professionals. The only thing coffee professionals talk about is flavour descriptors. The fact that not all coffee professionals agree on descriptors in a coffee is, in my opinion, two-fold. 

One, as mentioned above, we have no lexicon. At least, we did not have one until last year. And that one is very specifically USA-driven. 
Two, and this is what led me into a discussion with Ilya at his presentation two years ago; define a coffee professional. Is that a barista? A farmer? A roaster? An importer? Is it even a cupper? What if you had tested with Q graders, in stead of SCAE diploma-holders? Did the SCAE diploma-holders have any strong sensory course background? Or did they only participate in non-sensory courses for the diploma? And even if they did pass the highest sensory performance course, how often do they do a sensory evaluation? How often do they need to describe flavour? And how big is their memory database of different coffees and their flavours?

Would the results have been the same if you had used people who taste and evaluate coffees every single day from a wide variety of coffee origins? 

Evaluating the flavour and aroma of one coffee every couple of days, for the purpose of creating a roast-profile or a better recipe, is not the same as evaluating 20 coffees every day from different origins, for the purpose of selecting which fits into the portfolio and to see if the arrival is similar to the offer sample. Both require, and result in, a different skill set. 
What implications does your research have for coffee professionals?
It is extremely hard to improve your sense of smell or taste in terms of sensitivity, but it seems possible to become more sensitive to particular smells if you train enough. For example, think of a specific coffee fault that you could train your sensitivity for by smelling over and over again. The research isn’t very conclusive, but it seems you can become more sensitive through training, though this is restricted to that specific smell. I can offer a wine example because this is what most research has been done on: Wine experts seem to be able to become more sensitive to this thing called “ladybug taint,” the smell that wine gets when ladybugs contaminate the grape juice during fermentation. Wine experts are more sensitive to that smell—they actually seem to smell it better than laypeople.
In terms of language, we show a somewhat similar picture. It is important to practice your language by talking to other people about the smell and the flavor of coffee. Take every opportunity to talk about what you smell and taste. If our hypothesis is true, this will improve your ability to describe coffee, and that would make the entire expert community agree more on the language of coffee.

Which is my point. It would be interesting to conduct this research with coffee professionals that cup every day, that cup a wide variety of coffees and who have to describe and discuss these coffees as part of their job, instead of just deciding if they like them or not, and your result could be very different. And their consistency will likely be up a lot from laypeople.
But even then, you will need to calibrate them, if you want them to agree on certain words and terms. Because, and this is just a fact, the coffee industry does not have a set standard of descriptors in the same way that the wine industry does. In that sense, there is a long way to go in the coffee industry, but I would like to venture that we, coffee quality professionals, are a lot further in analysing and recognising taste and aroma and being consistent in that, than a layperson.

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