According to the International Coffee Organization, 71.93 million bags of Arabica coffee were exported from approximately 70 coffee producing countries around the world in 2016. This is a baffling number, but considering the average consumption per capita is nearly equivalent to 1 cup per person, the United States alone consumes around 325 million cups of coffee each day.
As a roasting company, our main goal is to provide fantastic coffees to our customers. At each level, we are working to break down the barrier between delicious coffee and the consumer, but this is no simple task. In essence, part of what Utopian does is filter through innumerable coffees to find what’s best and bring it to you. This past week, the Utopian team cupped about 50 different coffees to hopefully find new offerings for our customers. We would like to share a bit of this process and hopefully give you some insight into our day to day work.
Step 1. Order samples from producers and importers
The first step in choosing what coffee we will offer is to connect with people who work exclusively with green coffee. This takes several shapes and forms; one day we will be communicating with a large coffee importing organization, and the next day we will be exchanging emails with farmers and cooperative owners in Latin America. No matter what we do, Utopian works hard to establish relationships and partnerships with various members of the green coffee community.
Once we have made a connection with a producer or importer, we will then start choosing green coffee samples. The goal of this is to obtain a small portion of a given coffee to evaluate before purchasing several hundred pounds. Samples come in various sizes, but typically we will receive anywhere from 150-500 grams at a time. This may seem like a small amount, but with this amount we will be able to fully evaluate any given coffee and decide how to move forward.
Step 2. Sample Roast
When green coffee samples arrive at Utopian, they are stored in our Coffee Lab until they are ready to be roasted. The most difficult part of evaluating samples is creating consistency. Without this, we would not be capable of making sound judgements regarding what coffees we will purchase. One way we eliminate variables, mistakes, and inconsistencies is by roasting all of our samples using the Ikawa sample roaster.
The Ikawa is a small-scale fluid-bed roaster which uses hot air to roast the beans instead of a flame. By using air, we keep unwanted flavors away from the beans, resulting in very clean cups of coffee to evaluate. Additionally, the Ikawa Pro is a profile-driven roaster, which creates consistency throughout the entire sample roasting process. For those curious, a profile is a graph created for the beans to be roasted. By following this graph, we are able to pull forward all the unique characteristics from each sample batch roasted. Even moreso, with the Ikawa I use our standard sample roast profile for 10 different coffees, which roasts each sample to to the same level, leaving only the coffee’s natural flavor to be the defining difference as we begin to taste.
Step 3. Taste!
The third and final step in evaluating a coffee is tasting the roasted samples. At Utopian we do this by “cupping” the coffees side by side with as many as 10 coffees at a time. Cupping is a form of brewing and evaluating the coffee with limited variables so we can taste the essence of each sample. We do this by taking a small glass and filling it with several grams of the ground sample. We then sniff the dry coffee grounds, taking notes of any scents we perceive. Afterwards, we fill up each glass with hot water and return to smelling and inspecting each glass individually.
After letting the grounds steep (brew) for several minutes, we break the crust and smell the wonderful aromas beneath. At this point we begin tasting each cup, meticulously writing down what we taste. We do all of this while remaining completely silent to avoid any interference that could cause bias against or for any given coffee. After each team member has tasted the samples, we compare our notes and talk about which coffees will best fit into our lineup.
More often than not, all of our team members enjoy the same coffees and agree on which ones would be best to source for our wholesale and retail customers. However, arriving at the correct coffees becomes an intricate and often trying process as we scrutinize every coffee that comes through the door. We taste many coffees only to find one which we are excited to share and present. Nevertheless, when we receive positive feedback for even one coffee, it encourages us to continue pursuing the best coffees in the world.