Your team at origin tells you that a coffee has juicy dragon fruit notes and clear potential for the specialty market. But what does a dragon fruit taste like? Where does that fit on the coffee flavor wheel? And what is “clear potential”?
Palate calibration isn’t easy, especially between different teams and different countries. However, it’s key for effective communication about quality, sensory notes, and a coffee’s place on your menu.
I speak with Anderson Stockdale (US Quality Control), Elena Lokteva (Colombian Buyer) and Bram de Hoog (Central American Buyer) of green coffee importer Ally Coffee, to find out their recommendations for calibrating palates across the whole team.
Lee este artículo en español Cómo Calibrar Paladares Entre Países de Origen y Consumo de Café
Preparing a coffee cupping. Credit: Neil Soque
Calibration Is About Communication
Every team within your company has useful insights to share. Yet unless they can clearly and accurately communicate them, this information is useless or, in the worst of cases, misleading.
Anderson tells me that when she is calibrated with the buying team at origin, it allows them to more easily understand what their description of a flavor or score might mean.
As for the green bean buying team, Bram tells me being calibrated helps him to understand what clients are looking for and select the best coffees. Elena adds, “The sales team better knows the customs and palates of the people for whom we are buying coffee and the tendencies and trends of their market.”
So, how do you calibrate your palate with someone – even when they live thousands of miles away from you?
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Setting up a coffee cupping. Credit: Ally Coffee
1. Cup Regularly & Share Evaluations
Hold team and inter-departmental cuppings, whether you are all in the same lab or cupping the same samples remotely.
Elena and her team in Bogota, Colombia cup the same coffees as the team in South Carolina. They prepare the coffees according to the same cupping protocol before sharing their impressions. She stresses that it’s important to be as specific and descriptive as possible.
Anderson recommends asking for as much information as possible, including the reasons behind the score. “Even if you think you are being annoying, or sending too many Skype messages, if you have a question about how somebody has graded something and what they thought of that coffee, in my experience, you should just reach out,” she stresses. “Ask about the other person’s experience and how they came to that conclusion.”
She explains that this helps you to not just understand that particular coffee but also your colleagues’ opinions. “It helps you understand how they work, and how they logic through different puzzles which then, later on, you can apply. You see a written score and you are like, ‘Huh, I think that [they] go on the acidity first, then body, and I can see how her balance score is this number because I know that’s how she likes to cup her coffee.’”
It also enables them to understand their different flavour references. Correlations with flavour descriptors like “malt” could be as different as cherry ChapStick or a Pop-Tart. These conversations are part of the calibration process.
A team cupping. Credit: Neil Soque
2. Use Objective Tools & Training
Anderson stresses the value of “an actual common language,” which for the team at Ally Coffee is based on Cropster and the Q Arabica grading system. “We do generally deal in the English language,” she says, “but outside of that, we deal in the language of Q. So, we can all know that we are calibrated, [that we] know what is an 80-point coffee and an 84-point coffee or a 90+ coffee.”
Training can also give team members a common language. Ally Coffee offers training on a diverse range of topics. A Q processing module, for example, teaches about the impact of processing on a coffee’s quality and sensory characteristics. In doing so, it provides another language to use when describing coffees, as well as setting calibrated expectations.
Coffees at a cupping. Credit: Ally Coffee
3. Have an Open Mind
As much as it is important to communicate what you perceive in a coffee, and how your training leads you to evaluate it, the team at Ally Coffee emphasize that it is also important to stay open-minded. Listen to your coworkers’ opinions, pay attention to what your customers want, and adapt.
Bram says, “[Coffee] is a personal preference, and I learn every day about my own preferences. [While] calibration is important, I don’t think calibration means you agree on every coffee. It’s just that you agree on what a coffee can or cannot be.”
Elena says, “It’s not only within your team that you have to be calibrated but also with your clients.” This may mean listening to feedback from the sales team and changing your perspective on certain types of coffees. Clients are able to directly calibrate with teams at origin by participating in the sourcing trips that Ally Coffee offers.
“Everything depends on how people react, and this is the market research that the companies are doing,” she tells me, stressing that preferences change “every year and… every harvest”.
Preparing a cupping. Credit: Ally Coffee
Understanding what someone else means by “floral”, “exotic”, and even “86 points” isn’t always easy. However, when you have open communication, objective measurement systems, staff training, and regular calibration, your team can better work together. Miscommunications are reduced, while better purchasing and sales decisions are made.
Anderson tells me, “It’s just that conversation. Keeping those lines of communication open, asking a lot of questions… and just being able to have that open and honest exchange.”
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