As specialty coffee becomes more popular, consumers are becoming more and more aware of the quality in their cup. This means, among other things, looking for more complex flavours and higher cup scores.
To meet this demand, an increasing number of specialty coffee roasters have started offering exclusive, high-scoring, and expensive micro lot coffees, many of which are only available for a limited period.
For the roaster, sourcing, roasting, and marketing these beans is no easy task. Profiling and batch roasting high scoring lots of coffee can be a costly endeavour, and the increased cost of the raw material means there’s an even smaller margin for error than normal.
You might also like our article on roasting for filter and espresso at home.
Quality at origin
If a roastery wants to start offering high-scoring coffee to its customers, the first thing to do is look for quality at origin.
Coffee quality and cup score are influenced by an almost endless number of different factors during production. This includes everything from the unique terroir of the growing region to the care and attention the producer pays to each plant during its growth cycle.
This means that you’ll get absolutely nowhere with your aim of roasting high-quality coffee unless your sourcing operation is designed to find quality at origin.
Charlotte Malaval is a two-time French Barista Champion and the Green Coffee Buyer at Toby’s Estate in Melbourne, Australia. She says: “It’s all about the farmer and their terroir. These incredible gems are often produced with the perfect combination of climate, environment, soil quality, and variety.
“After that, it’s up to the producer to apply the best farming practices for these plants to produce the best cherries, and then harvest them at peak maturation.”
As such, it’s important for producers and coffee pickers to recognise exactly when these higher-quality lots reach peak ripeness.
However, even after the cherries have been harvested, the producer often has more work to do.
Charlotte adds: “The producer is also often the one in charge of processing and drying, which require time and equipment as well as deep knowledge and experience.”
Quality control through processing, drying, milling, and storage will all be essential in bringing out the best flavours of a high-quality coffee and securing the best possible cupping score.
Sourcing & green bean analysis
While quality and quality control during production are key, roasters looking to offer high-scoring beans to their customers also need to know what to look for. Cupping and sampling is an excellent place to start, but green bean sourcing is complex at the best of times.
Chris Kornman is the Education and Lab Manager at Royal Coffee says that there are certain data points that high scoring coffees often share. The process of analysing these data points is known as green coffee analysis.
“Green coffee analysis is a broad subject that can be broken down into a number of categories. These include density, moisture content, water activity, screen size, and visual appearance, including physical defects,” Chris explains. “The data can be used to help determine quality, problems, or the lack thereof.”
As well as indicating quality, green bean analysis can also be used to guide roast profiles and help roasters avoid waste when profiling larger batches.
Chris says: “The highest quality green coffees tend to have what we’d call stable and consistent physical metrics. These include moisture content between 9% and 12%, and water activity usually under 0.6aw.”
Modern green coffee analysis often focuses on metrics like moisture levels and water activity to provide invaluable insight for roasters.
However, in some form, green coffee has been analysed for decades among producers.
In producing countries, coffees have long since been graded by size, with terms like “AA”, “Supremo”, and “Superior” used to classify the largest beans. Uniform size is key for coffee roasters, as roasting beans of different sizes will lead to an uneven roast and poor or imbalanced flavours in the cup.
Chris adds: “Relatively high density is common [in high-quality lots], and screen size is an older metric… it’s not really as valuable in indicating quality as it used to be historically.
“You can have smaller beans that are still very high in sensory quality… [the important thing is that] all good quality green coffee should be free of visible defects.”
Whether you’re looking for target water activity, moisture level, or screen size, green coffee analysis is a great way to understand more about your beans.
Chris tells me that Royal Coffee’s open-source coffee education centre, The Crown, is where the importer analyses all of its Crown Jewels – a distinctive range of “top-shelf” 22lb boxes of green coffee.
For many, the main question about roasting higher-scoring and more expensive lots is simple: are they harder to roast?
Higher-scoring coffees are generally a lot more complex, and consequently can be intimidating for a roaster. To perfectly balance acidity, sweetness, and body in the cup, roasters profile each new coffee over a number of batches.
But when you’re conscious that each “wasted” batch of a high-scoring lot is cutting into a limited, expensive supply of green coffee, what should you do?
Chris says that roasters need to be careful not to try too hard finding the “perfect” profile to match each bean.
“Let’s say you’ve purchased coffee that’s US $20 or $30/lb. Something very rare, and there isn’t that much of it,” he says. “Spending weeks or months and losing a significant quantity of the coffee when profiling is a waste of product and isn’t doing anyone any favours.
“Your job is to get that coffee into the hands of people who will appreciate it. If you spend all your time in R&D, then there’s nothing left for people to enjoy. So, don’t overthink it.”
Charlotte agrees, and even notes that sometimes, a high-scoring coffee can be simpler to roast purely because that quality is present.
“This is usually because they are processed and dried to a higher standard,” she says. “The flavours are more distinct, so it is very easy to identify them, set expectations, and measure your success.”
As for whether or not they are simply more difficult to roast? Chris says: “Well, you know [outright that] high-quality green coffee is going to be treated with more care in the roaster, [so it’s hard to tell].
“Of course, it’s also a more nuanced coffee, so you’re going to be more careful with it than a low-quality blender or dark roast, where you can get away with a more generic profile.”
Once you have your profile, replicating it is important. In the interest of consistency, lower-capacity roasters are often used to roast smaller batches of these higher-scoring lots.
While this might seem like a smart move, there is a simple counter-argument: an increased number of batches effectively means you have more opportunities to be inconsistent.
“High-quality coffee tends to be roasted in small batch machines because firstly, there’s usually less of it and secondly, it tends to be expensive,” Chris explains. “Small batches offer less risk; if you blow the batch, you’re going to ruin less of the coffee.
“[Smaller batches are also used] because higher quality coffees tend to be more expensive, meaning that they tend to move more slowly than, for instance, a blend, which is in higher demand.”
Chris adds that there are good reasons to use a roaster of larger capacity if you’re focusing on consistency.
“If you’re roasting a whole lot of coffee in really small batches, especially if your roaster is manual, then you have close to a 0% chance of repeating your perfectly-profiled roast each time,” he says. “In larger batches, you’re actually increasing your consistency not from batch to batch but from bean to bean in that same roast. You have a larger volume of coffee that’s been roasted correctly.
“If the coffee is in high demand and of high quality, then you should probably also be roasting it in larger volumes. You’re saving time and energy and improving your consistency, meaning that your customers all get the same excellent experience, rather than having a bunch of small batches at varying degrees of quality.”
Keep your market in mind
For some, the logic behind sourcing high-scoring green coffee might seem simple: higher prices for green coffee means higher prices once it’s roasted. But that’s not always the case. It’s important to make sure you have a target market in mind when sourcing these expensive beans.
Charlotte says that when sourcing high-scoring beans, she will always have the end-use for the coffee in mind.
“These coffees are usually for high-end cafes with a focus on filter coffee, or home consumers,” she says. “Because of their very high quality, their price is also pretty high, and only small volumes are available.
“Every time we featured a coffee scoring over 90 points, we bought and sold between 24kg and 90kg based on how much was available initially.”
Charlotte also notes that these higher-quality coffees might even be a way to drive more traffic to the roaster’s website or social media channels. “Sometimes we also use them as a marketing exercise, or for different features,” she explains.
Furthermore, even if the volumes of these high-scoring coffees are low, they can drive potential customers to other, lower-scoring beans you sell, which might have higher margins.
High-scoring coffees often come with a premium price tag and can be intimidating to work with. Unlocking the true quality in these expensive beans, which are often in short supply, should be the aspiration of any good roaster. Analyse your green coffee before you get started to outline factors like moisture level and water activity, and let this guide each roast.
However, as Chris and Charlotte note, it’s also important not to get too hung up on finding a “perfect” roast profile. Chris concludes by noting that, at the end of the day, it’s important to just “let that coffee see the world”, rather than whittling through batches as you obsess about making it perfect.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on the rise of home coffee roasting
Photo credits: Charlotte Malaval, Evan Gilman, Royal Coffee
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