Starting a career in coffee is often seen as becoming either a cafe owner, a roaster, or a barista. But there are other paths: coffee organisations offer many roles. In this chat with John, the Head of Coffee at Artisan Roast, I talk about careers in coffee, training, building flavour references, and Robusta. John is a certified R grader (Robusta grader) so he was able to give some great insights on Robusta coffee and what needs to happen for Robusta to be more appreciated in the speciality market.
Our interview is below. I hope you enjoy it. This interview is longer than my normal interviews but I certainly learned a lot from what John shared in our chat.
Could you tell me a bit about yourself and Artisan Roast?
In terms of Artisan Roast, I am involved in the procurement of single origins and blend coffees as well. Other elements of the role involve product development, designing roast profiles, writing the product copy and liaising with the roastery team to put this into place.I work from my lab through my consultancy Coffee Nexus, which is an industry consultancy working in value stream development work (import, export, etc.) Coffee Nexus is a certified SCA training campus as well, running green coffee, sensory and roasting courses when life is a little more normal.
My lab is in a different part to the roastery itself. A lot of product development does not happen in the roastery itself. We have got mechanisms to translate what happens on my one-kilo profile roaster and scale this onto the other roasters.
It’s interesting that you do product development away from the roastery itself.
In an ideal world, my lab would be in the same place as the roastery. There is just not enough space to do that. But in a normal world, because I run training courses in central Edinburgh, people can get off the train and have a ten minute walk to where it is. The roastery is in a less accessible industrial estate in the south of Edinburgh.
In terms of my background working in previous roasteries, the lab and buying and quality assurance would always generally happen in the same physical space as the roastery.
Your title is Head of Coffee at Artisan Roast. I am curious as to whether you are on the ground floor helping directly influence product or are you in a more managerial role?
A bit of both. What I like about my job is that it always has a practical element. Generally in society, talking about career paths, one of the things I like about coffee is that you can maintain technical skills and have some managerial function with it. I am tasting every day and that is a really important part of who I am and what I want to do in terms of my career path.
And I think that smaller speciality businesses allow for that in a much easier way. I have some test roasts for some products that are going to launch next week. I am drinking a test roast of a product that is going to go on the website next Monday probably.
I am hands-on with the product development process. I am invested in the product development process and make sure the products are ones I am happy with. In terms of management, I am looking at a forward purchasing strategy and trying to set the company off in a direction in terms of cup quality and the message we are trying to put across. I also look at areas around coffee sustainability.
In small speciality businesses, the two job functions – managerial and technical – do not sit in isolation.
The three main categories of careers in coffee are being a roaster, a barista, or a cafe owner. As I have spoken with people, it has become clear there are other roles. What other roles are there available in the coffee industry?
Sometimes it depends on the size of the business. My first job was a taster, working in a big roastery down in England. My first job was to taste 30 roasts of coffee and make sure they were not under or over roasted, as well as checking there were no defects. I also did the same for about 30 or 40 blends of tea and would do various quality checks on finished products as well.
I had this unusual machine where I had to put these tiny dumbbells on tea bags to make sure that when you put them into hot water the strength of the seal on the tea bag held. This was so people’s tea did not fall into their mug. It was a sort of unusual career path in that I went straight into the tasting and then I progressed from there to being a green coffee buyer.
That whole buying side is sometimes an area people want to pursue. There is a particular skill set to it. I would say that there are other skills that have real value as well. I have worked in cafes when I was younger before the second wave of coffee. We did not have proper espresso machines and it was a world away from the cafe scene today. What we don’t always recognise is that there is huge value in that consumer-facing job and a real skill set in listening to customers, making sure the customers are happy and that they are getting the product that they want. There is real value there. It is alright for people to feel really happy in that role and progress their career here without the pressure to switch to other sectors of coffee.
As a green buyer you have a different skill set, as a roaster you have a different skill set. The cafe side is very consumer-facing and the green buying side involves a lot of numbers. Excel is my friend and has been for a long time. To be a good green buyer you need to have a really good command of numbers, you need to be able to work with currency conversions, you need to understand the cost of production. Language is a bit of a help.
With a roaster as well there is a unique skill set there. Roasting has become a much more technical job than it was in the past. The marketing of coffee is a really interesting path as well, often unrecognised as a possible option.
You said that you did tasting at the start of your career. What should one be thinking about if they want to do coffee tasting or quality assurance? Do certifications matter?
It’s a good question. With tasting, there are different elements to it of which Q grading is one. Q grading is a license to work with a particular standard and says that you can assess and grade green coffees to a standard that the industry likes. There are a huge number of sensory forms outside of there.
I am a Q Grader and an R Grader as well so I am licensed to grade Robustas as well. I always think that 40 percent of the world’s coffee is Robusta and it has often been neglected in terms of the quality put in to making sure that the crop and harvest is really well managed. I think Robusta does have a path in speciality coffee. People do need to get used to the flavour but that is something we can come back to.
The Q grading element is really useful because it gives you a dialogue through which you can talk with different people through the value stream. I can say to an exporter and I can talk to a producer about a particular profile. It helps to have a good relationship so that people can send you the coffees that they think are going to end up in a sale. We can identify the issues in terms of processing and harvesting if they exist. Then we can get coffees coming through to the roastery that deliver the right quality.
Outside of the Q and R certificates, the product development aspect of tasting has huge value as well because ultimately, you have an end consumer. The goal of making products is making products that people enjoy and that people can access flavour profiles and flavour notes and say “oh, I get that.” This type of work has very different methodologies but underneath it all tasters need to maintain calibration as a sensory instrument.
That’s kind of what people are. Making sure you are able to accurately record what flavour is coming out in a roast. And then work with roast profiles to bring certain aspects of the coffee out. Looking at developing products that people can look on to and enjoy and relate to the sensory profile on the bag of coffee.
I do not think I have spoken with an R grader before. I am curious about what steps need to be taken in the industry for Robusta to become more appreciated in the community.
The sensory profile of Robusta is very different. Some people like that coffee. It does have a raised bitterness and it has half of the sugars of arabica coffee. Robusta is much more bitter due to the higher chlorogenic acids count within the green coffee. Those acids get converted into bitter compounds through the process of roasting.
Remembering as well that the sweetness in Arabica is a perceived sweetness. It’s not a physical sweetness because you convert around 95% of the carbohydrates during roasting.
I think an acceptance of a different sensory profile is a starting point. Some people really like that. You have to roast it in a different way. You cannot give it a super light roast. You have to develop it a bit more in the roast to bring out some of the flavours and nuance. Understanding how to work with it as a product is a starting point and maybe accepting that you have to get that message across to people that they may or may not like it.
About 15 years ago really high-fruit naturals first started to come on the market, lots of people said this was just fermented and this is off coffee. Now there is an acceptance of that type of flavour profile in the market. There is an acceptance that you can develop these really high fruity, floral coffees in a way that we did not think about 15 years ago.
The coffees available in the market are always evolving and people’s understanding of what is coffee is always changing. In time there will be an acceptance of what is a fine Robusta. As soon as people accept that fine Robusta is a quality product in itself and will re-enumerate the producer for their extra effort, that’s a really important part of any jigsaw in making Robusta a recognised drink in itself.
What is the best way to prepare oneself for a role in the coffee industry? What is important for people to think about to pursue a role as a barista or an apprentice roaster, for instance.
There are more pathways than there used to be. There is an easier mechanism of getting skills.
Back when SCAE existed, they developed a training program which was then called the Coffee Diploma System which has since evolved into SCA’s Coffee Skills Program. I wanted to start teaching some green coffee skills to try and get that out into the marketplace and give people the opportunity to learn some of the things that are important to be a buyer.
Because there was not a mechanism for teaching, I got in contact with SCAE asking why they had a training program for baristas and a training program for brewing, but no training program for roasters, tasters, or green coffee buyers. I got involved with the education committee and what was called a group of education creators. I spent about ten years working with SCAE and SCA to help them develop their education program.
Now there is a program out there where people could say that they want to go off and do a course and learn some skills in terms of what it is to be a barista or a brewer or a roaster. And have a first try without necessarily getting a job. You could go on a one-day course and have a go on a roaster and ask “is this something I want to do?” rather than having to spend money on a roaster and deciding that you do not like it.
Having an education program where people can try a skill and have a go and see if that is something they really want to do increases access to the industry for the wider population. We do that in all other things. If you are interested in sports, you will go off and do some lessons. If you are interested in cooking you can do a course in baking or cooking skills. Why should you not have that in coffee? Now as an industry we have mechanisms for people and courses where people can go off and get a trade body certified course. That’s been a game changer over the last 10 years.
I guess having standardised courses is a lower-risk way of pursuing a role in terms of finding whether one’s existing skills are compatible with what the actual role looks like as well. For instance, you can learn roasting without the capital commitment of buying a roaster.
Yes, you never know. Sometimes courses can point you in the right direction. Sometimes when you start roasting and you do not know how to roast you can do all sorts of strange things. As a consultant with my other business, I have seen everything you can possibly do wrong with a coffee roaster over the last few years. With training courses a lot of these mistakes can be avoided early on. An education program is always science-led: what is the basis of good coffee roasting? In terms of flavour development, how do certain roasts manipulate the sensory profile of coffee in a certain way.
If you have those foundational principles from an education then you can create products that you and your customers are happy with. You can understand what customers like in terms of the approach you are doing. And then you know on your education basis how to manipulate the roast in order to repeat that.
I know I am not my company’s demographic in terms of consumer and not everyone likes the same flavour profile. So I try to roast in a different way for different products to try and bring out unique sensory aspects of a coffee. That all comes from the learning process of reading books and reading scientific papers on how to roast. I think that people can make some expensive mistakes. If you have an education program in place that can help push you in that direction then yes you can go off and do what you want and be really happy with. But you have some broad principles on which to operate.
There is a wide spectrum of types of coffee drinkers, from people who drink caffeine mainly for sustenance all the way to enthusiasts and professionals. As a business and a consultant, how do you go about identifying your target demographic and catering to that customer base?
If I look at consumer habits, there are people interested in very rare and expensive coffees and who are willing to pay for those coffees. Those coffees are a bit more expensive because they are rare and unique or they have a back story to them and yes we are really lucky in that we have a group of customers who buy from Artisan Roast who are interested in those coffees. It is great to be able to showcase them and to be able to pay money in auctions and see producers get rewarded for their extra efforts.
At the same time we always have to remember that there is a process of getting interested in coffee and that people have different preferences. Some people just love a very smooth, rounded, chocolatey, slightly nutty Brazilian coffee and are really happy to buy that. All they want is a sweet, chocolatey coffee. That’s a great entry point for a lot of people and there are times when I also want exactly this type of coffee. Some of the flavours you get in speciality coffee can be wild or unique and the first time you try them you go “what on Earth is that.” Having an accessible super-drinkable coffee is always great to have.
Then you can move on to different flavour profiles. Some people like fruity coffees. Some people like chocolatey coffees. Some people like high-acid citrusy coffees. I did some of my training in Kenya so I am a sucker for a high-acid light-roasted Kenya. Also, there is a large group of coffee drinkers in the wider population who will mistake acidity for bitterness. People will say they do not like a coffee because it is bitter but actually what they are drinking is an acidic coffee.
In terms of our menu, we try to have a range of coffees with different sensory profiles - from the moreish chocolatey options to the bright acidic ones. Considering different brew methods is also important. High-acid coffees do not always work very well in espresso but they work well as filter. So, trying to have a choice for people both in preference and home brewer is important. At the minute, we have a fruity natural from La Palma in Peru which has had an extended fermentation and a cherry note. We have just launched a natural from Tanzania which is more strawberry and vanilla. We have a washed Columbian and a washed Peruvian coffee. One is chocolatey and the other tastes like caramel. It’s trying to hit different brew methods and different flavour profiles so people can pick and choose one.
It’s interesting to explore these flavour categories. When I had a floral coffee for the first time, I thought it was odd to describe a coffee as floral. So it really comes down to catering to different markets. If someone wants a more floral coffee, they can have that. Or if they want a chocolatey blend which is made of Brazils, that makes sense.
That point about floral is interesting. The first time I tried a Yirgacheffe I was like “what is that?” At the time I was working for a big roastery down in England and we were looking around at different types of coffee. My boss at the time said “I had one of these coffees from Yirgacheffe a few years ago and it was full of apricot flavour”. He went to try and get some in.
Back then, this was 20 years ago, it was really hard to get interesting, unique coffees through to the UK. Instead of working with a single farm in Columbia you might buy Columbian Excelso which was a bulk of coffee from Columbia. And then eventually we managed to drill into regions. That was pretty hard to get to that point. To get to individual farms was the next stage.
Going back, I had no reference for floral. My brain could not compute what was going on. Nobody told me it was going to be the experience it was. Do I like it? Or do I not? At the time, my response was to go back to a consumer-led approach rather than an analytical approach. The analytical sensory bit of me went this is floral but that was overridden by “do I like that?” It’s really hard to keep that objectiveness in tasting because we are subjective animals.
I felt the same way when I had a floral coffee for the first time. How does one develop baseline sensory reference points for these key characteristics in coffee? How does one do this for more abstract qualities like florality or more specific notes like “cashew nuts”?
We have some tools in coffee that we can use. I have a couple. I have one which is Le Nez du Cafe which is a box of 36 aromas. I also have a sensory kit at home because I am interested in food and beverages generally. I have Le Nez du Vin which is slightly larger with 54 aromas. For speciality coffee, I think Le Nez du Vin is a better kit, but it is pretty expensive.
The more you practice smelling something and going “this is jasmine, this is jasmine, this is jasmine,” you are teaching yourself what is jasmine. Aromatic assessment is part of the Q grade test – a duo-trio test where you have two aromas and another one to match. You get aromas blind and you have to say this is the same as this one and this one is jasmine or this one is lemon or this one is rubber.
Without having to go down the path of spending 300 pounds on a box of aromas, you can utilise things at home. A more mindful approach to what is food is a great way of building sensory reference points, or so some comparative testing. Buy yourself some white chocolate, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate and then eat them and try and think of what the flavour is. Try and separate the taste and flavour. You can go “that is the flavour of milk chocolate.”
Then do the same with citrus fruits. All coffee contains acid and all coffee is bitter and a lot of speciality coffee, particularly washed coffee, has a lot of citrus flavours in it.
Squeeze some lemon juice into a cup, some orange juice into a cup, and some lime juice into the cup – maybe dilute the lime and lemon a little bit – and try them comparatively. That’s a cheap and easy way to try and learn certain sensory aspects of coffee. Working with citrus fruits, caramels, chocolates, and stone fruits which is a really good one. Coffee is a stone fruit itself. Botanically, it is a droop and you roast the seed of a cherry. Working within those like apricots and cherries and plums and peaches is another good way to build sensory reference points. The supermarket or greengrocer is your friend.
I do not think many people would complain about a caramel or a chocolate tasting.
Even apples are interesting. I love apples. I have a page that’s always open on my web browser that is apple varieties. It is super interesting the difference in levels of acidity or flavour you get with different fruits.
On your product packaging, you have the spider diagram which visually represents certain characteristics in coffee (i.e. mouthfeel, balance, caramel). How do you quantify in that graph the kind of taste notes you have identified in your taste tests?
As cuppers, we have the flavour wheel and that has 108 individual descriptors on it which is quite hard to navigate even as a taster. We also have the SCA form which is a scoring form, and other types of sensory forms that exist in all sensory science and product development. Not all of these translate to home coffee drinkers. One form is a qualitative ranking mechanism where you can say how much is there in something from not present to very present. This forms the basis of the spider charts we use.
We do have some internal forms that use a combination of what you see in terms of the spider chart that we use and another mechanism called CATA (check all that apply). When we have our test roasts, we will work through them and come up with honest sensory profiles. I do not want to write it’s a floral coffee if there is no florality to a coffee.
We will work through our test roasts and decide which one we think is the best representation of that coffee. We will put the coffee in different brew methods and we use our internal forms to rank the intensity of different attributes and then we will have a discussion session afterwards. Then we will try and represent an attribute in terms of the intensity of that attribute, so if a coffee has a high caramel or low caramel or a high berry fruit or a low berry fruit.
We will try and accurately portray what we feel we got from all of the different brew methods. We will overlay our impression of Aeropress and filter and cupping and do an amalgam of brews.
Then we try to frame tastes so that the coffee is a bit more enjoyable. We might have three descriptors on the bag of coffee but then in terms of the information we give we try and describe the coffee more in a way that you might see in other beverages, by explaining the texture of the mouthfeel and so on.
The main thing is from our point of view we are trying to be as honest as possible in terms of the nature of the coffee.
Through my research I learned how many proprietary methods of evaluating coffee there are which are not for quantitative aspects like Q grading but rather identifying attributes more abstract like the intensity of flavour. I find it really interesting that there are these individual processes for guiding the process of identifying “is X like X” and if so “how intense is X”.
With anything, you always need a calibration sample. I have just been doing a project for a client and working with a group. I have been sending some product out to Q graders down in Yorkshire, London, and my assistant who lives in Kirkcaldy Because we are all working disparately, we have to say what is the calibration reference for caramel. We had to say “this is a low intensity caramel” and “this is a high intensity caramel.”
We had a discussion session before we did the sensory work on what a low intensity or a high intensity was for all of the attributes and then calibrate. We took one example from the assessment and had another calibration to make sure we were all heading in the right direction. And then we did the assessment. That calibration within the intensity scale is important for any sensory panel.
I read that the Sensory Lexicon is based on benchmarks of certain products that describe what is a particular flavour. If you are reading the lexicon and want to know what blackcurrant tastes like there is a specific point of reference.
The Flavour Wheel itself is a really interesting – and beautiful – chart. The spacing between and placement of the attributes within the flavour wheel is interesting.
UC Davis did a lot of the work. They brought together about 100 or 150 tasters around the world. I was part of this assessment group and it was great: so much fun to do as well as being part of an important bit of scientific research. You had an unsorted list of these 108 descriptors and you could move the attributes around on the screen and say “in terms of citrus fruit, I would put lemon next to orange, and then I would put lime in a different place.”
You had all of these descriptors and you had to free sort them into an order that your brain recognised them as being similar and dissimilar in terms of where they exist in terms of your sensory landscape as a coffee taster. Then you had to submit your information. UC Davis used all of that information to create the Flavour Wheel. How close or how far apart the attributes is all based on the work of 100-150 tasters around the world.
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