Purchasing green coffee is one of the most exciting experiences for every coffee roaster and roasting business. For most of us, looking through a selection of green coffee offerings is like being the proverbial kid in a candy shop. Home roasters have the luxury of selecting coffees based on their names, origins, and descriptors, since there is no need for extensive evaluation when you buy in tiny quantities. Every lot is an experience, good or bad, and when a bad experience only costs $5, it’s a lesson you can afford. But this is not true for professional roasters, who are looking to buy at least 60 kilos of green beans and for whom a mistake doesn’t just leave a bad taste in their mouths, it’s a $300 dent in the cash flow and a blow to their reputation.
First, let’s confess. How many of you are still buying green coffee without testing it, solely based on its name? If you do, it is time to stop.
Coffee consumption in the past years has skyrocketed. That is a great news for us, since the growth of coffee roasting businesses has skyrocketed as well, along with a focus on specialty grade lots. Whether you are looking for the unique aromatic properties of specialty grade coffee or you are selecting solid commercial grade lots, testing coffee before purchase is nowadays a must. You have to understand what you sell, and you have to understand how to purchase the right coffee for your customers.
The first, most basic way to test coffee is cupping. Cupping is a methodology of testing coffee developed in beginning of the 20th. century by Hills Brothers in San Francisco. The main goal was to eliminate defective lots and find the best tasting coffee at certain price points. For a long time cupping differed from company to company, country to country and it was practiced only by the biggest coffee enterprises, importers and exporters. All this this changed with the specialty coffee movement. The SCAA set cupping as one of two main methodologies to qualify coffee as specialty grade.
SCAA standardized the methodology of cupping from roast color to cupping protocol so all the parties involved in bringing coffee to consumers: from growers to exporters/importers to roasters to baristas will speak the same language when it comes to evaluating the coffees’ aromatic and flavor properties. Personally I consider this one of the biggest achievements in the coffee industry.
In practice, this means that if I ask for flavor profiles or cupping results of certain coffee lots, I will get a very good idea of how that coffee performs and if it is worth investigating further. In my coffee business, I love to work with importers who can give me cupping results for their coffees. Be aware that coffee cupping is always subjective, and therefore cupping results should be always taken as indicators for you, not determinants whether you buy that lot or not. You have to cup it yourself too, but you save a lot of your time by asking only for samples with winning potential.
When we first started, some of the companies we approached refused to send us samples. We were “too small”. I made the mistake and bought our first pallet of coffee from them. Out of 8 bags, 6 were great, 1 was ok but one was full of brocca damage (tiny holes made by a coffee borer beetle). I never bought from this specialty coffee importer again and now I always ask for samples. ALWAYS! There were a few importers who were happy to send us samples even when we were tiny. Those importers are now our partners. I prefer 200 gram+ / lot because this is where the sweet spot on my sample roaster is and because I like to do multiple tests. Do not waste time now and in the future with importers who will tell you “you are too small for samples”. Develop relations with importers who will help you to grow.
To help you to navigate in the world of importers I have created the list of green coffee importers. It is free so you have no excuse not to use it.
I do plan a more detailed article on cupping techniques, but we also have a complete course on Cupping Coffee with Willem Boot, Jody Wieser and Graciano Cruz that you should check out.
Why to Cup Coffee?
Plenty of roasters will cup their coffee and buy their lots based on the cupping results. I was the same until a fellow coffee professional, Daniel Humphries (trainer at: Brewing for Quality), opened my eyes. In an everyday setting your customers will not cup their coffee, they will drink it. It makes sense to test the winners from cupping with most popular brewing methods your customers use. You do have to know how your customers drink your coffee. In my case I always test via Hario v60, Chemex and french press. When I see that some of our brewing equipment sells better than others, I might test on different brewers too. On our packaging and marketing materials I like to use aromatic and flavor descriptors from these brew tests rather than from the cupping test; while they should be similar they might be slightly different.
Analyzing Quality with Brewing
AGING TEST – ROASTED COFFEE
Different coffees perform differently over time. Nothing is stopping you from repeating the cupping or making a Hario v60 3 or 4 weeks after roasting to test the coffee again. Does it keep its flavor properties? Does it already taste flat and boring? This test can give you an idea of how fast you have to sell or remove certain lots from the shelves.
Be aware: If you liked the coffee via cupping and brewing, make sure you buy it or at least reserve it. Good lots disappear very fast. A time test is helpful to determine the shelf life rather than to make your decision about the purchase itself.
AGING TEST – GREEN COFFEE
Once you purchase your green coffee, you have to keep testing it (via cupping). Green coffee also ages and once vibrant and fruity coffees turn cardboardy and woody. This doesn’t happen overnight so you have to keep an eye on this. If you are in the specialty grade business and you start to taste hints of paperiness in the coffee, it is time for a sale
I never had luck testing coffee samples for espresso, because of the size of the sample. I would need to roast espresso differently than the cupping/brewing sample and I would need plenty of it in order to set up the grinder and experiment with different shots. For us the experimentation with espresso starts after we have already purchased the coffee.
Let us know how do you test your coffee before and after you buy it in the comments below.