Quality control starts at the farm but it finishes with the barista or roaster. And checking for green bean defects is an important part of that. But how does an exporter or roaster check for them? And, if they find them, how do they prevent them from happening in the future?
We spoke to Ricky Balzac and Danner Friedman, Q graders and green bean analysts from Balzac Brothers, to find out. Balzac Brothers is a 4th-generation coffee importer based in South Carolina, USA and sourcing beans from over 20 different countries. Here’s what they had to say.
A woman grades green beans while on a CQI course at Balzac Brothers. Credit: Gather Coffee Company
Checking for Defects
Ricky and Danner explain that they always get three samples to analyse for quality, including defects. They will then analyse more samples when the coffee has arrived, to ensure quality has remained high throughout the harvesting and transporting of the coffee.
Balzac Brothers have their own SCA and CQI-certified lab, which they tell me is one of only 18 in the US. They can use it for teaching hold classes as well as evaluating the samples.
“So before we roast it, we green grade it for any outstanding defects,” Ricky says. First, they sort the beans by screen size. This means they use a series of metal screens with different-sized holes to determine the size of the beans. The size correlates with density and quality, although many coffees don’t fit into this pattern. What’s more, certain varietals are always larger than others.
Then after that, they’ll start looking for green bean defects. There are many kinds of defects, and some are worse than others.
Green beans samples ready for cupping. Credit: Balzac Brothers
Different Origins, Different Quality Specifications
Not every country has the same quality evaluation system for their beans.
“Commercial grade coffee from Brazil has very different specifications,” Danner tells me, “in comparison with a Guatemalan coffee, which is based on the Hard Bean system. Each origin has its own specification for quality.”
The hard bean system is a way of labelling coffees based on altitude and density. Strictly Hard Beans (SHB) are grown between 1,600 and 1,700 m.a.s.l. You’ll find a variety of qualities below SHB that ranges from Stocklots to Hard Beans – all of which have a demand in the industry.
Balzac Brothers sources coffee from over 20 different counties, and work with both specialty and commodity-grade beans, so this is an important first step for them. What’s more, common defects and climate conditions can change dramatically from one region to the next.
Not every country evaluates it the same way, but quality is always important. Credit: Evodia Coffee
Climate Change & Regional Defects
Each coffee-producing region faces its own pests, diseases, and concerns – from the potato defect in parts of East Africa to coffee leaf rust in Central America. What’s more, climate change often presents producers with new challenges.
Ricky tells me it’s important for Balzac Brothers to stay up-to-date on what is going on in the different regions they source from. “We want to support our partners and buy the coffee they have or pay at premium. We have definitely noticed some fluctuations in crops based on the volume that they are producing from different origins. For example, in El Salvador, their crop has been decreasing because of Roya [coffee leaf rust]. So we have to adjust to those things that we can’t change.”
But what happens if they spot more defects than expected? I asked them to explain their processes for this situation.
A coffee farm in Antioquia, Colombia. Credit: DelosAndes Cooperative
Responding to Quality Issues
It’s unusual for a defect to be present in the delivered coffee if it wasn’t there during the first samples, Ricky and Danner tell me. But Balzac Brothers still has a system for it.
“If there is an issue, we talk with our producer or exporter or partner at origin to see where the problem originated,” says Ricky. “Sometimes we can trace it back based on the defects identified.” Insect damage can be easy to recognise, for example, and steps can be taken against it.
“One of our foremost goals is to support our partners at origin, so say if something did occur after we purchase the coffee, we don’t automatically assume that there’s malintent. We’ll work with them to come up with a plan to improve the quality the following year, but to also see what we can do to move the coffee for them so we’re not simply hanging them out to dry.”
He also tells me that they have processes in place to make it easier to respond to issues. “If there is a large contamination, hopefully we can isolate the sacks so we can further investigate what percentage is contaminated. We prefer to get the coffee in sacks and not super sacks, which makes it easier to isolate.”
Balzac Brothers will provide feedback to producers based on defects. Credit: Balzac Brothers
Defects in Specialty vs Commodity
It also helps that Balzac Brothers buy both specialty and commodity-grade coffee. They tell me it’s rare to get defects in specialty coffee, but in the commodity beans they expect to find them. How many they accept depends on the contract they establish with the supplier. It also varies according to the region of origin: in Rwandan beans, they might expect to see the potato defect; in Brazilian ones, over-fermentation from the natural processing.
“In the specialty world, we’re tempted to purchase only the best coffees,” Ricky says. “But we have to remember that there is the rest of the farm, and that there’s got to be a home for that coffee. There has to be some tolerance of defects in order to sell that coffee and provide livelihoods to those farmers.”.
Cupping specialty-grade coffees at Balzac Brothers. Credit: Balzac Brothers
In an ideal world, defects wouldn’t exist. But they do – and so it’s important that importers and roasters have the ability to measure them, and the inclination to work with producers to prevent them in future.
Ricky and Danner tell me they believe in being systematic. They also believe in trust and strong relationships. This is what will allow them to source high-quality green beans while supporting both producers and roasters.
Balzac Brothers were a sponsor of PDG Micro Coffee Festival El Salvador. This interview was conducted in accordance with our editorial policies, and Balzac Brothers has had no greater influence on the final copy than any of our other interviewees.
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