This July, we sent a small team from DOMA to Oakland, California, to visit “The Crown” (the coffee lab) at Royal Coffee. Royal Coffee supplies some of the green coffee that we roast at the DOMA Coffee Lab. Ian, Jim, and Joey went to visit, drink coffee, eat food, and also learn a thing or two—day two of the trip included Advanced Sensory Exercises, meant to hone our team’s coffee evaluating skills as part of the never-ending quest to continue the learning process.
The sensory exercise at Royal Coffee doubled as practice for several parts of the “Q-grader” test, a master class which involves six days of lectures and exams. The Q test is a tough one to beat; becoming a Q-grader is similar to becoming certified as a sommelier in the wine industry, or a cicerone in the world of beer. It’s niche, intense, and a bit crazy (in the best way).
At the DOMA Coffee Lab, our crew evaluates coffee four to five days a week through a process called cupping. They rate each coffee based on SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) and CQI (Coffee Quality Institute) standards with categories like aroma, flavor, aftertaste, body/mouthfeel, acidity, balance, and uniformity. It takes a lot of practice to cup coffee: the same coffee will be tasted side-by-side three to five times to make sure each brewed cup tastes the same.
The sensory exercises at Royal helped our team up their game. They practiced triangulation (where 1 of 3 coffees is unlike the others, and must be detected); learned to taste and identify common organic acids found in brewed coffee (citric, malic, tartaric, acetic, lactic, and phosphoric); and identified sensory modalities in varying amounts and blends (salty, sweet, and sour—or any mix of those—which are present in low, medium, or high levels).
“By ‘calibrating’ a cupper’s taste perceptions and descriptions using these standards, we can be sure that all cuppers will give a similar score for the same coffee and will describe the coffee using only industry-standard terms that are common worldwide,” says Jim Hottenroth, DOMA’s roasting manager.
This means Jim can send Joey to Guatemala to taste coffee and know exactly what that coffee tastes like without going to Guatemala himself. When Joey tells Jim that he found a coffee that scores 90 points, has intense sweetness, delicate acidity, and notes of tropical fruit and spice, Jim can decide whether DOMA wants some of the action.
“Experiencing the flavors in coffee can be very subjective,” says Joey, a coffee educator at DOMA. “I think this class focused on ways we’re able to make ourselves as objective as possible. For example, we can taste different strength solutions of individual acids (that tend to give people specific flavors) so that we can better identify them in the coffees we taste.”
In short, sensory training helps a coffee cupper speak the same language as the rest of the industry. The sensory training also taught our team that not everyone plays along.
“Some importers disagree with the layout of the SCAA scoring system, so they create their own unique approach to grading,” says Ian Nelson, part of DOMA’s production and quality control team.
The sensory experience at Royal made Ian aware of industry standards that will change his own approach to tasting coffee at DOMA’s daily cuppings, paying closer attention to different ratios of salty, sour, and sweet, for example.
After a full day of learning at Royal, our team went out to play around Oakland. Jim recommends visiting Amoeba Music on Haight street, while Ian says Souley Vegan is the spot for amazing vegan food.