Standardization, Automations, and This Thing I Did With Water

Posted on October 11th, 2016

As you may know, Cafe Imports now has sales offices in the US, Berlin, and Melbourne. One of the distinct challenges posed by this growth is that of maintaining consistency. So much of what we do is based on what we taste. Even if we’re tasting in the same way, how can we ensure that we’re tasting the same thing? There have been, are and will continue to be massive expenditures of time and energy with regard to herding these cats on an industry wide scale. Bring cat nip? Fortunately for myself, the only creativity that I’m charged with tamping down is that which might occur in our own cupping labs, by our own cuppers…


What are we talking about here? Simply put, standardization. We use standards, rather than opinions, to assess coffees. We also use standards, rather than whim, to prepare coffees. To be clear, standards are just institutionalized opinion and whimsy. Nonetheless, they have their place. Where is that? Anywhere a strong argument exists for consistency in assessment. If I need to talk to Joe about a coffee in Australia, we need to be speaking the same language, and doing the same thing to arrive at that language. Honesty, the guy is a bit of a goofball and his toilet flushes backwards. If he tells me that he loves coffee brewed with tepid salt water through an old rugby sock, great on him. It’s not for standards to tell him “Now Joey, no no, you know better.” That said, if Joe decides that maybe he wants to filter his cupping samples through those socks, that’s where standardization comes into play. What brand? How old? Yellow or green?


So we got our words, our cupping standards and our protocols. The next thing we did was come to the realization that sample roasting is hard. Not so much because it’s hard to pull out every little nuance of every little coffee, but more because it’s hard to wean yourself from the idea that you might ever be able to reliably do that — even more because it’s hard to remember that that’s not the point of sample roasting. The true artisanal-craft-sample-roastology-art of sample roasting is not too light not too dark always the same adjusted for coffee again and again and again. That’s a very difficult task. Unless you’re doing it 100 – 200 times per week. Then it’s just difficult.


When you’re working intermittently, few here few there, it’s very difficult. This, in that the point is consistency, repeatability and not allowing any pomade to get on the coffee. So we went automatic with Stronghold S7s. Automatic mosty. I still program the automation. With Stronghold coffee roasters in each office replicating profiles based on coffee density, the roasts used are the same. We train centrally, share samples between offices and all wear the same brand of socks. Problem solved. Solvedish?

Well duh. Of course it is. Same roast, same words, same experience. Right? Lemon curd! Roast profiles!! Lexicons! Same same but different. At best. Completely setting aside that I was only rarely allowed Cinnamon Toast Crunch as a child and thus slyly broaching but also setting aside the topic of lexicon in a global industry that is somehow faddish and idiosyncratic simultaneously and occasionally brilliantly iconoclastic to boot, we still have to deal with the largest part, by volume, of our problem. Water.


People harp on water. Make it clean. Make it hot. Not too hot. Don’t let the TDS osmosis in the pex line. And now there’s more. Is it another fad? Dunno, but if it is, this fad may hold some water. Check out Phil and Sebastion’s story about roasting coffee for Oslo (keep in mind that you don’t have to go to Oslo to replicate their results). But I’m ahead of the story.


We use a water treatment system made by Global Customized Water. This system is a Reverse Osmosis system with a bunch of pre and post filters and a little blend back valve. Basically this means that we take our raw Minneapolis water, clean it, strip it down to zero, and feed some of the cleaned (but un-stripped) water back in. This brings the TDS back up to brewing range. Nifty. However, because Minneapolis water is relatively low re: TDS in the first place, the blend back doesn’t bring us up as high as we would like to be for coffee extraction. NP.


Part two. When I called GCW they told me not to worry, they had a solution. Two of them actually. If I added a little of each to my holding tank each morning, our TDS would be up and our water would be absolutely delicious. Great said I. No problem said they. Hitting the standard said I. We’re on it said they. The solutions came, I figured out a method (standardization) and we began beginning our days with measurements and additions. Checking that TDS box like it was going out of style…


A little while later a book came out. Like, Like Water for Chocolate, this book was called Water for Coffee. Water for Coffee pursues the thesis that TDS is not enough, and too much, simultaneously. Everybody knows that water is H2O. Or do they..(dun dun dun)? Water, it turns out, is really waters. Kinda like how everybody is a unique and beautiful snowflake. Except that rather than being a thing that people say because we’re the only remaining species of homo sapiens on the planet (with the genetic variability to prove it) and nobody wants to believe they’re just another bozo on the bus, with water there are measurable compositional differences.


In this way, water is perhaps rather opposite to humans. For while it appears quite the same, when you open it up it can (and will) be quite variable. Of course, H2O is H2O. The catch is that H2O is not something that exists in nature as such. There’s always something else. Minerals. Molecular bonds. Stuff. All this stuff behaves differently in solution. Brewed coffee is a solution made largely out of water (a variable solution itself). Know why your Dr. Bronners ™ is sudsier in Minneapolis than in Saint Paul? Different variables in the H2O.


Of those variables, the minerals are what we really want to look at. Of those minerals, you can create two general groups: general and carbonate hardness. General hardness allows water to rip stuff out of other stuff. Like acids in coffee. Carbonate hardness is a buffer- it keeps acids from swinging the pH of your solution wildly. It rounds, tamps or smothers acids in coffee, depending. In almost all cases, a sample of water will contain some amount of both. TDS does not distinguish between these two categories.


Our perfect TDS is crap! Before getting into full “sky is falling” mode, we decided to put it to the test. The two solutions that we were using from GCW were exactly these two complementary mineral components: one for general and one for carbonate hardness. Phew. Once the alert level was dialed back down a bit, we decided to do some testing. We decided to make up a few different waters, roast a bunch of coffee, mix ’em up and see what happened.

I wanted to use 4 opposing waters and compare their coffee brewing capacities. I decided to use 200 ppm total hardness as my benchmark. That is, apart from the distilled option, the other three would each total 200 ppm. The variable would be in the composition of the ppm. Our waters were as follows:


  1. Distilled.

  2. 200 ppm KH.

  3. 200 ppm GH.

  4. 125 ppm GH/75 ppm KH.


As it turns out, three of these four waters (these are not naturally occurring waters, fyi- all real waters have some balance of mineral content and more mineral variety than our additions) were able to function as relative stand-ins for the water that we have in our three offices. While we don’t run a full 200 ppm here in the Minneapolis, we do run a fairly close 2/1 ratio. Further, while Berlin’s water contains a balance of GH and KH, it has a huge 214ppm KH, and GH of 286! For the purposes of our demo, the 200 KH suited just fine. Finally, Melbourne’s water is very water. With a total hardness of only about 30, again about 2/1 GH to KH, the distilled was not too far off.


I roasted three different coffees for the trial: a washed El Salvador, a rip roaring washed Ethiopia, and a natural Ethiopia.


The results? You should probably just run this game yourself. Jason put it very well. He said that he was expecting maybe a few out of our 20 or so tasters would really get the difference. Another mountain made of molehill in the annals of coffee geekery. Turns out everyone in the room could not only taste the differences, but no one in the room could really believe the coffees were the same.


The quick and dirty?


Distilled: it does extract. Just not that much. Thinner crust, thinner cup.


KH: The gross one. Made all coffees taste like all popcorn. Burnt popcorn.


GH: Actually the crowd favorite. Not surprising, as GH in absence of KH produces a screaming cup of acid and we all know how balance is a code word for 85…


GH/KH: The balanced cup.


What’s it all mean? Water is important. But just because I called the KH dominant example the gross one doesn’t make it so. That’s not important. Neither is purporting to have the best water composition in all the land that everyone else should follow. Those things are games. Molehills made of mountains. Water is important to your coffee because it changes your coffee. Just like the grind setting, dose, and roast degree.


If you’ve waded this far through this much mish mash then you probably also take care to select and roast your coffee and are invested in its presentation in the world. If that’s the case, you may find it fruitful and interesting to play around with the H2Os a little as well- even just to figure out what yours is. Without revamping your water system you may still be able to find ways to tweak your roasting or brewing approaches to accommodate your water. You may also find that you like something better than what you’re currently doing. Or maybe you’ll find that you’ve already innately done this.


For us, we have three offices each with substantially different water trying to do standardized assessments and share automated roast profiles on identical machines. Turns out even if you split a batch of coffee roasted on a single machine (let alone a shared profile on different machines, let alone a hallowed and followed one), if your water doesn’t match then neither does the coffee. So we strip it all down and build it back up to be the same. We’ve got GCW RO units in each office that monitor the output water and feed it that sweet, sweet mineral mix.

Do you need to do that? Na. Should every single roaster and cafe do that so we can all be exactly the same? Of course not. Every little thing doesn’t have to be an industry mobilizing global initiative. Roasting to your water and watering to your roast can go a long way to changing your appreciation for and approach to the complex cup. Maybe that’s enough. Will the automatons take over? Only if we don’t take the time to learn to swim.


Ian Fretheim — Director of Sensory Analysis at Café Imports

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