Posts By : Darren Doyle

What is Specialty Coffee?

What is Specialty Coffee?

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When I first wrote this article in June of 2009, I identified the fragile chain of custody for specialty coffee and the collaborative work that is necessary to deliver a better coffee experience that can be measured. This remains true today, but it is important to note two other thoughts on the topic.

First, the role of those in the value chain after the farmer. Do they merely preserve the inherent quality of the coffee, or is their job to enhance or improve on that quality? Increasingly, I think that at every step we are responsible for one or more of the following: the preservation, transformation, or revelation of quality. Thus, roasters may be responsible not only for the preservation of the quality delivered by the farmer, miller and exporter, but they also need to meet their obligation for transforming the quality potential of the green bean to the realization of the roasted version. Similarly, the barista is responsible not only for the preservation of all the quality attributes of the roasted coffee but also for the revelation of those attributes to the consumer. This is not only through the transformation to a beverage in the brewing process, but in the total experience of drinking that beverage in the café environment.

Second, we are faced with the need to assess the sustainability of specialty coffee. That is, even if a coffee results in a great tasting beverage, if it does so at the cost of the dignity, value or well-being of the people and land involved, it cannot truly be a specialty coffee. This concept more than any other may be most fundamental to our assessment of what makes a coffee special, but is perhaps the most challenging to assess empirically. Nonetheless, we must continue to strive not only to understand but to measure all that makes a coffee special.

What is Specialty Coffee?

Published by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) – June 2009

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In a 1998 article for The Specialty Coffee Chronicle, Don Holly wrote the following as he grappled with the question of defining specialty coffee: “My understanding of the origin of the term ‘specialty coffee’ is that it was first coined by Erna Knutsen, of Knutsen Coffee Ltd., in a speech to the delegates of an international coffee conference in Montreuil, France, in 1978. In essence, the concept was quite simple: special geographic microclimates produce beans with unique flavor profiles, which she referred to as ‘specialty coffees.’ Underlying this idea of coffee appellations was the fundamental premise that specialty coffee beans would always be well prepared, freshly roasted, and properly brewed. This was the craft of the specialty coffee industry that had been slowly evolving during the twenty-year period preceding her speech. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) continues to define specialty in this context.” This reference was the basis from which we have built the case for specialty coffee over the history of our organization.

On closer inspection it becomes clear that the unique chain of custody of coffee dramatically impacts the ways in which we can recognize, develop and promote the specialty product. Unlike wine, the beverage we often use as analogous to coffee, there are typically many actors involved in the control of production and delivery of the final beverage. In the wine model, a single individual or company might well be responsible for the planting, husbandry, harvesting, initial processing, further processing and packaging of the grapes and ultimately the resulting beverage. Moreover, the service of wine is dependent on nothing more complex than extracting a cork and pouring the product into a suitable glass. Coffee, on the other hand, most often arrives in the final consumer’s hand after a long series of baton hand offs from farmer to miller to intermediaries to roaster to brewer, and the final experience is dependent on no single actor in the chain dropping the baton. Thus, in order to truly look at what specialty coffee is, we must examine the roles that each plays and create a definition for specialty at each stage of the game.

The first key concept here and through the supply chain, is potential. Until the moment that the roasted coffee is brewed and transformed into a beverage, the concept of specialty coffee is locked up as a possibility, just a potentially wonderful gustatory experience. Starting at ground level, so to speak, we must limit specialty coffee to those that are drawn from the appropriate intersection of cultivar, microclimate, soil chemistry and husbandry. Plant a great variety of coffee at the wrong altitude or in the wrong soil and no specialty product can be produced or get the right combination of cultivar and chemistry, but the wrong climate and the potential for quality is destroyed. Ultimately, plant husbandry is essential to the preservation of potential.

The next key concept is preservation. A ripe coffee cherry on a healthy plant of suitable ancestry planted in the right soil, blessed with appropriate climatic conditions and cared for properly must be picked at the peak of ripeness in order to preserve the potential for greatness that it holds. Coffee buyers often tell coffee growers that the single most impactful thing that they can do for coffee quality is to harvest only ripe cherry.

From the point of harvest a new round of pitfalls arises. The coffee cherry must undergo some initial processing at this point. For the majority of specialty coffee this begins with the delivery of the ripe cherry to a wet mill of some type, large or small. The time that elapses between harvest and the beginning of processing can have a dramatic impact on the final results for the coffee. Specialty coffee is dependent on a quick delivery from the tree to the mill for potential to be preserved.

Whether the coffee is mechanically pulped and then fully washed or if it is processed in a demucilaging machine, the initial processing stage must be carefully managed so that the coffee is not harmed. After removal of the skin and pulp, the coffee must be dried, another critical activity. Dried too quickly or too slowly, dried unevenly, dried and then rewetted, not dried sufficiently – all of these can be disastrous to the final quality of the coffee. From here the coffee must be rested before undergoing the last stages of raw processing and preparation for shipping. At this time relative humidity, temperature and storage containers and conditions all become critical. Finally, the coffee must be hulled, separated by size and packaged for shipping. More critical points arise here, and small mistakes in screening or larger mistakes in the selection of packaging or the storage conditions prior to shipping can bleed the coffee of its potential.

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The coffee changes hands again and begins the next stage of transformation, from green bean to roasted coffee. Here we must grapple with the third key concept, revelation. The roaster must accurately identify the potential for the coffee, properly develop the flavors and ultimately properly package the roasted product. An unskilled roaster, equipment that is not operating properly, poor packaging materials or practices can all lead to disaster. Provided that all goes well here and the coffee’s potential remains intact, there are two remaining steps before the long chain of custody that is unique to coffee ends in the consumption of a specialty coffee beverage.

After roasting and before brewing, the coffee must be ground. Grinding is best done as close in time to brewing as possible, as many delicate  aromatic compounds are fully released upon grinding and the dramatic increase in surface area necessary to effect brewing also opens the coffee to rapid oxidation and staling. The size of the ground particles is also important and driven by the method of brewing to be employed. Too fine a grind for the selected brewing process and the coffee may be destroyed by over extraction. Too coarse a grind and the coffee may never develop its full flavor potential in the cup.

Finally, after every step from coffee tree to the end consumer has been carefully orchestrated, the final process must take place—the coffee must be brewed. Whether the coffee is to be prepared as an espresso, as drip coffee or in a steeping method like a French press, the exacting application of standards of water quality, brewing temperature, coffee to water ratio and extraction must be applied to create a specialty coffee beverage.

So, how do we define specialty coffee? Well, in the broadest sense, we define it is as coffee that has met all the tests of survival encountered in the long journey from the coffee tree to the coffee cup. More specifically, we measure it against standards and with methods that allow us to identify coffee that has been properly cared for. For example, while it is not possible to inspect every bean from every farm at the point of harvest, or during processing or drying or shipping, it is possible to employ the standards developed by SCAA to make a meaningful judgment on the preparation of the coffee through aspect grading and to employ a standard cupping protocol to assess the quality of the cup and to discover any defects caused by poor practices that result in a loss of potential for the coffee.

The SCAA defines specialty coffee in its green stage as coffee that is free of primary defects, has no quakers, is properly sized and dried, presents in the cup free of faults and taints and has distinctive attributes. In practical terms this means that the coffee must be able to pass aspect grading and cupping tests. The development and application of these standards, also furthered through the work of the Coffee Quality Institute, has helped to define specialty coffee in its raw form, but much work remains to be done in refining these standards and adding new ones to help preserve the potential that the coffee bean embodies.

From the green stage to the final beverage, there are other standards either currently in  place or in the process of being developed. For example, the SCAA Brewing Standard for preparation of drip coffee defines the proper ratios of water to coffee, the proper extraction, brewing temperature and holding temperature and time. There is also a standard for espresso preparation and one for steeping is under development. Roasting standards are in process, part of a monumental effort by the Roasters Guild to implement a certification for roasters that ensures they have been properly educated and trained in preserving and revealing the full potential of the specialty coffee bean. Similarly, the Barista Guild is well under way in developing a certification for the barista to ensure that the final preparer of the beverage is also an expert in the extraction of all of the coffee flavors inherent in a specialty coffee and delivering them in the cup.

In the final analysis specialty coffee will be defined by the quality of the product, whether green bean, roasted bean or prepared beverage and by the quality of life that coffee can deliver to all of those involved in its cultivation, preparation and degustation. A coffee that delivers satisfaction on all counts and adds value to the lives and livelihoods of all involved is truly a specialty coffee.

ric (1)Ric Rhinehart serves as executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association. Prior to taking on this position, he was the president of a Los Angeles, California-based roaster and retailer. Mr. Rhinehart has held executive positions in several coffee and tea firms over the past 25 years, and has designed, developed, and produced a wide range of both tea and coffee products. Mr. Rhinehart has also served as chair of the Private Sector Consultative Board of the International Coffee Organization, as a director for the Coffee Quality Institute, World Coffee Research, and World Coffee Events.

The NCA Complete Guide to Coffee

The NCA Complete Guide to Coffee

We believe that coffee is more than just a drink: It’s a culture, an economy, an art, a science — and a passion. Whether you’re new to the brew or an espresso expert, there’s always more to learn about this beloved beverage.

Coffee comes from a genus of plants known as Coffea. Learn about the two important coffee species – Arabica and Robusta.

store coffee

Start with quality beans, and store them properly to maximize your coffee’s freshness and flavor.

Coffee is grown in more than 50 countries around the world — explore the exotic places where quality coffee begins.

Check out our essential tips and techniques for making and enjoying a great cup.

No one knows exactly how or when coffee was discovered, though there are many legends about its origin.

Get deeper insight into all aspects of the coffee industry — from regulatory information and trade data to science and sustainability — with our curated list of resources.

The coffee you enjoy each day has taken an amazing journey to arrive in your cup.


Roasting is a heat process that turns coffee into the fragrant, dark brown beans we know and love. Get the scoop on the four most common roasts.

What you need to know about pending legislation — and why you should care.

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Yellow, Red, & Black Honey Processed Coffees: What’s The Difference?

“How much honey is in the honey-processed Costa Rican espresso?”

If that sounds like a riddle, don’t worry. You’re probably familiar with seeing coffees labeled “honey processed”, “natural processed”, and “washed process”. You may have heard of “red honey” or “black honey”. But it’s less common to see these distinctions made at your local café. So today we’re going to break down the different types of honey processing.

To do this, I spoke to Cesar Magana of Finca Lechuza in El Salvador and Francisco Mena and Wayner Jimenez of Finca Sumava in Costa Rica. All three of these producers are passionate about honey processing, and Francisco has been hugely influential in Costa Rica’s micro mill revolution. Today he exports coffee from almost a hundred different small lot farmers in Costa Rica, as well as managing Finca Sumava. Here’s what I learned.

SEE ALSO: Everything You Need to Know About Honey Processing

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Honey in the making! Credits: Menachem Gancz

What Is Honey Processing?

(Know your honey? Skip straight to the next section, Yellow, Red, & Black Honey: What’s The Difference?)

Coffee beans aren’t actually beans at all. They’re the seeds of coffee cherries. Yes, that’s right. Your favorite caffeinated beverage comes from juicy red (or sometimes yellow or orange) fruit.

But before the “beans” can be roasted, the layers of the coffee cherry must be removed and then the beans dried to around 11% moisture content. The two most common methods of removing the cherry are 1) removing it with water (washed processing) and 2) letting the coffees dry in the sun before mechanically removing it (natural/dry processing).

Honey processing, however, is somewhere in the middle. The cherry peel is removed but some amount of the fleshy inside, the “mucilage”, remains while the beans are dried.

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Breakdown of a coffee cherry. Credit: Danielle Kilbride

So why is it called honey? Well, it might have been called the much-less-appetising “mucilage processed coffee” if it weren’t for one lucky coincidence. Mucilage is extremely sweet and sticky, like honey. And while the name has nothing to do with the taste, these coffees are known for their sweet flavors.

Yellow, Red, & Black Honey: What’s The Difference?

So now we know what honey processing is, it’s time to look at the different kinds of honeys. These descriptions might be rare on coffee packaging, but you’ll find producers and exporters referring to coffees as white honey, yellow honey, gold honey, red honey, and black honey.

Simply put, the white and yellow honeys have less mucilage left after being mechanically washed. Gold, red, and black honey coffees, on the other hand, have much more mucilage remaining. This leads to a fuller-bodied coffee.

Can the descriptions be broken down further? Roughly speaking, yes. But honey processing is affected by humidity, heat, and the oxidation of sugar – and these things don’t provide an exact formula. Approximately, different honey processed coffees break down in the following manner:

White & Yellow Honey

White honey coffees tend to be mechanically washed, with minimal mucilage left around the bean. Yellow honey coffees are often semi-washed, and slightly more mucilage will typically be left around the bean.

There will be some variations in what these terms mean from farm to farm, however. These labels are useful, but it’s good to also discuss the exact processes used when buying or selling beans. This way you’ll avoid any miscommunication.

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White honey, unique and complex. Credits: Caffé Pecora

Gold, Red, & Black Honey

What differentiates these three is the amount of light and drying time the beans are exposed for. More humidity and a slower development lead to black honey. Slightly less humidity leads to red, and even less to gold.

Gold honey will be dried during warm, sunny times with little humidity. This helps it to dry quickly. Red honey, however, is processed under more shade to slow down the drying time. This will increase the amount of humidity the beans are exposed to. And black honey takes even longer, and is dried under even more shade.

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Black honey coffee, rich in body, flavorful, laborious, and expensive. Credits: Gold Mountain Coffee Growers

Why Process Darker Honeys?

The darker the honey, the more work is involved. Black honey processed coffees require constant monitoring to avoid over-fermentation and mold developing. They also typically have greater potential to lose freshness. As of such, they should be roasted as soon as the green beans arrive at the roastery, especially if you want to capture the sweet honey flavors.

So if black honey is so much hard work, why do it? Because the darker honeys come across well in espresso, where it almost tastes as if someone added a drop of honey to your cup. White and yellow processed coffees, in contrast, tend to have a cleaner taste when prepared as a filter coffee.

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Black honey processing in Costa Rica. Credit: OR Coffee

How Do Producers Control Honey Processing?

I asked Francisco, Wayner, and Cesar how they control their honey processing to achieve the right color. They explained that it needs a lot of effort. Throughout the 60-90-day harvest season, they do visual inspections on the patio/beds and collect samples.

Francisco is in a unique position because he is both an exporter and a farmer. The epitome of practicing what he preaches, he’s constantly searching for ways to improve the coffee industry in Costa Rica. And so he’s started a new trend: color-coding drying beds.

These beds assist farmers throughout the drying process, enabling them to identify the beans and continue to process them appropriately. He shares charts explaining the color system with other fincas who have also adopted it. And it’s his aim for all farms, mills, and even roasters to use it.

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Colour-coded drying beds. Credit: Francisco Mena

What Different Honeys Processes Mean For You

As a producer, are you considering classifying your honey processed coffee even farther? If you’re a roaster, are your importers and direct trade partners educating you on the best way to highlight the work they’ve put into the coffee? If you’re a consumer, are you looking for coffees that with notes of dried fruit or chocolate?

Or, as a marketing professional, how are you informing your audiences about the differences between the processing styles? Explaining the intricacies of different honey processes to consumers without overwhelming them is a challenge. A quick one-liner seems reductive. Could an infographic or a visual chart be the way forwards?

Coffee has an extensive story to tell. With the many different processing methods and flavor characteristics available, the nuances of different honey processes are precious. I hope they’ll have the opportunity to be both highlighted and appreciated.

Written by Danielle Kilbride, with thanks to Cesar Magana, Francisco Mena, and Wayner Jimenez.

Exclusive Coffee is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind. This interview was conducted in accordance with our editorial policies, and Exclusive Coffee has had no greater influence on the final copy than any of our other interviewees.


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5 Coffee Industry Trends You Can’t Miss in 2017

In one form or another, chances are almost everyone you know starts their day with coffee – be it home-brewed, bottled, or purchased hot or iced from a coffee shop. As longstanding as its popularity may be, the coffee industry is in the midst of a rapid change.

As millennials’ fast-paced lifestyle becomes ubiquitous, consumers are preferring to get their caffeine on the go. In turn, retailers are experimenting with novel ways to speed up ordering and get busy shoppers back in their stores.

Here are the five coffee industry trends that will dominate 2017: 

1. New Generation, New Measure of Value

As of last spring, Millennials have unseated Baby Boomers as the largest living generation, according to U.S. Census data. This younger generation is more social and mobile than any other to date. As a result, coffee consumption has moved from the privacy of consumers’ homes to more public venues, and is then compounded by social media.

With that in mind, millennials have come to value different aspects of their coffee than their parents. Since many older generations drank their coffee in the comfort of their own homes, they focused on the price of the coffee they were drinking. Millennials, on the other hand, are more focused on experience rather than price.

Here’s how to capitalize on this trend:

  • Invest in eye-catching packaging and labels people will want to share photos of.
  • Showcase your brand’s commitment to sustainability.
  • Experiment with new packaging and delivery systems.
  • Highlight your leadership team. Consumers might be able to connect with your founding team, and hearing their message straight from the source can be more powerful than reading the words on a label.

2. Ready-to-Drink Coffee Takes Off

It is no secret that we live in a fast-paced world, or that it’s getting even faster. That means that people want to have their coffee ready to drink as soon as possible. In this environment, the canned and bottled ready-to-drink coffee market reached $2.4 billion in 2015 and has only continued to climb, Bloomberg reported.

One reason RTD coffee may be taking off in 2017? The falling popularity of soft drinks in the U.S. and beyond. “It is probably not a coincidence that canned or bottled ready-to-drink cold coffee is catching on at a time when fewer are drinking carbonated soft drinks, including the caffeinated colas,” said Karen Bundy, V.P. of Food & Beverage Marketing at Multi-sponsor Surveys in a press release.

This movement has inspired some of the coffee industry’s biggest players jump in to the RTG arena. In September 2016, Dunkin Brands announced it would be partnering with Coca Cola to bring a new line of cold coffee beverages to retail in 2017.

Related: A New Generation of Products Is Shaping the Future of Coffee

3. Morning Coffee on Tap

With ready-to-drink coffee making it easier for consumers to get their caffeine fix on the go, some retailers are trying to get coffee drinkers back in the store with nitrogen infused coffee. Nitro coffee is poured from a tap and provides a similar mouthfeel as a beer (think Guinness). The foamy and creamy texture allows brewers to rely less on sugar and milk to cut coffee’s bitter taste, which is appealing to the more health conscious coffee drinker. Plus, the texture is incredibly difficult to replicatein an RTD format, giving coffee shops something to offer millennial consumers looking for unique drinking experiences.

4. Out With Iced Coffee, in With Cold Brew

Iced coffee has long been the go-to for consumers looking for a refreshing pick me up in the summer months or even just an extra kick of caffeine, but this is starting to change. Cold brew coffee has exploded in popularity over the last several years, and 2017 should be no different. Cold brew sales jumped up 580% between 2011 and 2016, according to a Mintel report. While a large part of these sales has been at coffee shops themselves, plenty of retail brands are also adding cold brew products to their lineups.

Here’s what separates cold brew from the more traditional iced coffee: Iced coffee brews just like standard hot coffee – it uses heat to extract flavor, sugar, oils and caffeine from the coffee beans. Then, that coffee is chilled and served over ice. The cold brewing process uses time, rather than heat – soaking beans in water for 12 hours or more in order to turn water into coffee.

Related: How to Make Cold Brew Coffee at Home

5. A Shift Toward Specialty

Overall, as shoppers prioritize experience over price, consumption of gourmet and specialty coffee beverages is on the rise. Out of the $48 billion U.S. retail coffee market, about 55% of spend will go toward specialty coffee next year, the Specialty Coffee Assoc. of America found. Even for brands that have not traditionally operated in the specialty space, opening up a luxury line could pay off in 2017.

Interview: What’s So Special About Pacamara?

The Pacamara varietal is unique. If people aren’t talking about its outstanding flavour and cup attributes, they’re talking about its distinctive size.

But what’s the real story behind this hybrid?

SEE ALSO: The Language of Coffee – A Day In The Life Of Coffee Producer

We spoke to Federico Bolanos, the Director of Coffee at Café Tuxpal and Viva Espresso with the Pacas family in El Salvador, to learn more about this varietal and cup. Coach of 2011 WBC Champion Alejandro Mendez, and of 7 Salvadoran barista champions between 2008 and 2014, he has invaluable insight.

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The Pacamara cherry. Credit: Federico Bolanos.

How Long Has the Pacas Family Been Producing Coffee?

The Pacas family have a long history with coffee. They have been producing coffee since the 19th century.  The first Pacas family member to begin planting coffee was Jose Rosa Pacas. He began the family coffee legacy when purchasing land in the Apaneca Lamatepec mountain range in El Salvador and planted Bourbon coffee trees. Now, the 5th Pacas generation is running operations and helping grow the business.

The Pacas family have a fully integrated coffee business from seed to cup (coffee farms, a coffee mill, an export company, a coffee roastery, a barista training center, and cafés). The coffees they produce are some of El Salvador’s finest and are exported to quality-driven roasters around the world.

Federico Pacas Sr and Jr

Federico Pacas Sr and Federico Pacas Jr. Credit: Federico Bolanos.

Lily Pacas

Lily Pacas. Credit: Federico Bolanos.

How Was the Pacas Variety Discovered?

The Pacas varietal was discovered by Fernando Alberto Pacas Figueroa in El Salvador in 1956.  This new varietal was spotted by Mr. Pacas on his farm, San Rafael, when he noticed a totally different plant thriving in his coffee plantation.

How Was the Pacamara Created?

The Pacamara coffee varietal is a creation of the Salvadoran Institute for Coffee Research (ISIC) back in 1958, which resulted from the crossing of Pacas and the Maragogipe varietals.

The Pacas is a natural mutation of the Bourbon varietal, as determined by research conducted by scientists of the University of Florida.  The Pacas trees are shorter in size, have tighter internodes, and develop a compact foliage which help it endure tough climate conditions like tough winds, sunlight, and water scarcity.  It is a real trooper… it is highly resistant to diseases, adapts to many growing conditions, and provides high production yields.

The Maragogipe is a mutation of the Typica varietal. The Maragogipe trees grow very tall in size and they produce some of the largest coffee seeds. This varietal does not produce high yields but the cup quality is remarkable.

The idea behind the creation of the Pacamara hybrid was to get the best of the two varietals.  It was named PACAMARA in reference to the first four letters of each parent varietal.

It took approximately 30 years of careful scientific research to create the Pacamara varietal.  It was released to coffee producers in the late 1980’s.

Pacas family mill - Beneficio Tuxpal

The Pacas family mill, Beneficio Tuxpal. Credit: Federico Bolanos.

Does Pacamara Have Any Distinct Cup Characteristics? What About Coffee Plant Characteristics?

Pacamaras usually have complex and intense aromas; medium to dense bodies with creamy textures; and elegant acidity with flavors that swing from sweet notes of chocolate and butterscotch to fruitier undertones that remind me of citrics, red berries, and stone fruits.

The Pacamara is a medium-sized tree with thick foliage, short internodes, and large leaves.  The cherries it produces are long and have a small protuberance, and the seeds are large and oval in shape.

As Director of Coffee, What Would You Like to Say to Consumers of the Pacamara Variety of Coffee?

Pacamara is a highly celebrated varietal around the world due to its decisively distinctive cup characteristics, which are uncommon and sometimes unexpectedly captivating.  It’s definitely a coffee you shouldn’t miss out on.

You can connect with Federico Bolanos, Director of Coffee and coach of the 2013 and 2014 World Barista Championship finalist William Hernandez, using the social media handle @federicobp.

Written by Karyan NG (@beanmarket) and edited by T. Newton. Thanks to Federico for talking to us.

Feature Photo Credit: Frederico Bolanos.

Perfect Daily Grind.

Bourbon vs Caturra: What’s a Varietal & Why Should I Care?

So you’ve been hearing the word “varietal” floating around. Or maybe you’ve been looking at your coffee packaging and wondering exactly what the difference between a Caturra and a Catimor is. Never fear, because in today’s video guide Amber, representing Seattle Coffee Gear, examines the fine grind of the issue.

Species, Varietal, Cultivar: What Do They Mean?

The main coffee species are Arabica, Robusta, and Liberica. When you’re drinking specialty, it will most probably be Arabica (although there are exceptions). As Amber explains, any naturally occurring subspecies is called a varietal, and any cultivated one a cultivar. These are your Bourbons, Caturras, Catimors, Catuais, Geishas, Pacamaras… and more!

But why is this important? And what’s the relationship between all these subspecies? Watch this short and sweet video to find out:

SEE ALSO: Coffee Plant Species: Arabica vs Specialty Robusta

SEE ALSO: Batian: Can This New Varietal Transform Kenyan Coffee?

Each varietal has a different profiles, so start taking notes of what you’re drinking. You’ll soon discover where your preferences lie.

Feature photo credit: Marcelo Corrêa

Please note: Perfect Daily Grind does not own the rights to these videos and cannot be held accountable for their content.

Wine and Coffee: Sharing Culture and Complexities

Wine and Coffee: Sharing Culture and Complexities

From terroir to tasting techniques, learn the many ways coffee and wine overlap, rewarding interest and enthusiasm with unique expressions and experiences.

Coffee cherries, Guatemala / Getty

The coffee industry recognizes the parallels between the world’s second most popular beverage (just behind water) and wine. But few wine lovers know that the same pleasures in a Burgundian Pinot Noir can be found in coffee.

Coffee—like wine, cheese, meat and other food/drinks—is capable of conveying a sense of time and place. Examples of efforts to preserve these categories include European regions that carry protected designations of origin (PDOs) like Prosciutto di Parma in Italy. Wine, of course, comes from thousands of global appellation systems like the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in the U.S.

One reason coffee has yet to cultivate the connoisseurship of wine is because its beans have long come from developing regions like East Africa and Central America (read: not Europe), grown either by large corporations or impoverished farmers. For a long time, coffee has been sold as cheap fuel for the human engine which makes it no wonder coffee beans trail only crude oil as the world’s top traded commodity.

Compounding the problem, beans demand careful shepherding from the harvest to the consumer. Coffee is a delicate product. John Moore, CEO of Nobletree Coffee, says “[It’s a] miracle it actually makes it to your cup.” Until recently, few had the interest or resources to get fresh, near-perfect beans to consumers.

As enthusiasm for wine continues to spread in the U.S., specialty coffee is poised to follow. Growers, importers, roasters and retailers want coffee to be seen as a pleasure to be appreciated for all its complexity, not just to clear a brain fog.

Vintage Coffee Print

Species and Varietal Classifications

Most wines come from a species of high-quality vine called Vitis vinifera (for example, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay). Its workhorse counterparts are the hardy Vitis labrusca (Concord, Cayuga) and Vitis riparia (Frontenac, Baco Noir) varieties and hybrids.

For coffee, that parallel is drawn between Arabica and Robusta.

Arabica is the source of the majority of specialty-grade coffee. Robusta, on the other hand, is the general base of commercial blends like Folgers and Maxwell House.

Within the Vitis vinifera subset of wine grapes, hundreds of varieties are cultivated for commercial winemaking. The coffee equivalent of a “variety” is a cultivar. There are thousands of cultivars within the Arabica species, and important ones include Bourbon, Typica and the rare, expensive Geisha (or Gesha).

Vintners maintain that wine is made in the vineyard, and they’re not being coy. The same concept applies to coffee. Quality starts with farming practices.

Coffee cultivars display certain, consistent sensory properties, whether they’re grown in Colombia or Panama. They also transmit terroir, just how a Santa Barbara Pinot Noir tastes ripe, with notes of cherry cola, compared to a racier, earthier German Spätburgunder.

Transmission of Terroir

Fine wine is valued for its ability to transmit specificity of place that can include geography, soil, climate and weather patterns. Wine appellations attempt to identify and protect these differences, and provide quality standards. While specialty coffee has identifiable regional characteristics, no formal appellation system yet exists.

Ethiopia, for example, has quality and character recognition for its beans from Harar (known for exuberant fruit aromatics, especially blueberry) and Yirgacheffe (known for vibrant acidity, citrus and floral notes).

Promoting terroir to market coffee is a fairly recent concept. On its Brazilian farm, Nobletree Coffee plants trees in different locations to gauge site influence. These days, most consumer coffees are labeled by their country of origin, but are increasingly noting specific regions and farms. The uptick in “micro-lots”—coffees from exceptional beans separated from the larger harvest—shows promise in identifying special sites, much like single-vineyard wines.

Coffee Plantation

Quality Starts on the Farm

Vintners maintain that wine is made in the vineyard, and they’re not being coy. The same concept applies to coffee. Quality starts with farming practices. For a long time, quantity was favored over quality, as pickers were paid by the weight of beans harvested. Education and training have taught farmers skills like identifying cherry ripeness, sorting, pruning and processing, as well as pest and water management. And similar to grapes, bad weather can wipe out an entire year’s crop.

Sensory Attributes: Flavor, body, and acidity

Professional tasters from both worlds describe coffee and wine by their flavors, aromas, body and acidity (a few more attributes exist for wine, like alcohol). Wine has around 200 recognized flavor compounds, while coffee has nearly 500. Tasting coffee for purchasing and quality control is called cupping, and certified Q Gradersare akin to top sommeliers.

Other flavor influences

Roasting coffee is akin to the influence of a wine’s barrel aging. A winemaker that ages Pinot Noir in a heavily charred barrel for 24 months sacrifices bright fruit for smoky, toasty, vanilla notes. The latest term in oak usage is “judicious,” recognizing when barrel aging enhances and supports a wine, but doesn’t smother it. Coffee that’s roasted judiciously highlights unique flavors. For a long time, consumers wanted “strong” and “bold” brews, synonyms for dark, oily, heavily charred beans. However, the availability of better coffees has driven the adoption of lighter roast styles and helped change consumer preferences.

The Loca Mocha

The People Behind the Drink

Whether a bottle comes from the cellar of a historic château or a low intervention vineyard, wine drinkers take interest in a producer’s story, we want to connect to the origin and creator of the drink. Coffee also has incredible history, culture and human stories behind it, too. Whether it’s two exporters who fled war-torn Yemen to bring rare beans to a specialty coffee show in the U.S., or the cooperative in Kenya that empowers women by providing critical income, a deeper look at our morning cup reveals a chain of human hands behind it.

An Unfair Reputation for Snobbery

Some consumers complain that hipsters have hijacked the specialty coffee industry. Stories abound of snooty baristas who roll their eyes if a customer requests milk and sugar in a pour over. These complaints are similar to ones long lobbed at the wine industry for thinking too highly of itself for its specialized knowledge.

To be clear, when the faces of the wine or coffee worlds convey haughtiness, it’s a shame. But let’s not penalize an entire industry because of a few who sometimes poorly represent it. And when we do learn, let’s take joy in sharing our enthusiasm, not lord it over one another. The best way to do that? Over a cup of coffee.


How to Re-Invent a Wheel: A Tale of Science and Industry | The Specialty Coffee Chronicle


The scientific story behind the new SCAA Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel is quite fascinating. This tale includes a star cast of characters, including World Coffee Research (WCR), Kansas State University (KSU), Texas A&M University (TX A&M), the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), and key SCAA members and volunteers. It highlights research SCAA identified a need for, pioneered, and interpreted, resulting in the highly anticipated revision of the flavor wheel we’ve all known and loved for over two decades. SCAA is committed to its members—and to the advancement of the entire industry—to engage in an increasingly data-driven and scientific approach, which led us to look for a solution that would stand the test of time and be based on solid scientific research. We are very pleased with the outcome and hope that you will be equally as enthusiastic about this valuable new resource.


What is a flavor wheel?


Flavor wheels are made up of words arranged in a circular form. Why don’t we use a flavor tree or a flavor pyramid or a flavor choose-your-own-adventure? This seems to have everything to do with the first flavor wheel, developed in the late 1970’s for beer by a chemist, Dr. Morten C. Meilgaard (Meilgaard and others 1979). This was followed in the mid 1980’s for wine by Ann C. Noble at the UC Davis (Noble and others 1987; Noble and others 1984). From there, many other industries followed suit, including our own. The words used in wheels serve to create a vocabulary around a product or category of products, standardize training, and facilitate general discussion around flavor and perception. Wheels provide clear and common communication about products between tasters, facilities, exporters and importers, and consumers alike, just to name a few.


To create a flavor wheel, you need words and you need to arrange them. As it turns out, there are many ways to do this. Many existing wheels do not include scientific research as a part of their development. Some are based on a consensus by industry or a trade group, and others are created by individuals. The original SCAA wheel was created using something of those methods. It would have been very easy for SCAA to revise the wheel some years ago with a special ad-hoc committee. After all, this is in line with the origins of our wheel and is how a lot of others continue to be created. Based on my research on this topic over the past couple of years, it seems that the coffee industry was rather unique in its wholehearted and universal adoption of one wheel, which has allowed us to do a lot of meaningful work to enhance coffee quality. Perhaps this is because the original SCAA wheel, by Ted Lingle, came in 1995—relatively early in the realm of specialty food and beverage wheels. An immense amount of credit is due to Ted for that. In my research of this topic, I have found very few other wheels rooted in scientific inquiry. A few notable wheels also stemmed from sensory lexicons (Lawless and others 2012; Noble and others 1987; Koch and others 2012; Suffet and others 1999; Gawel and others 2000). However, no other wheel has used the approach that we will detail below, and thus we have engaged in groundbreaking research.


For the words that make up the wheel you likely know by now that SCAA adopted the World Coffee Research (WCR) Sensory Lexicon. It is a groundbreaking piece of research led by sensory scientists and their trained panels at KSU and TX A&M. You can all read about the work, sensory descriptive analysis, trained panels, and view the published lexicon to understand more about it. I personally encourage you to read a few informative articles published by WCR, what the WCR Sensory Lexicon is,what it isn’t, and finally, how it can be used to advance coffee research. On a side note, if you like what WCR has accomplished here, I encourage you all to participate in funding future research. As coffee roasters, there is a fantastically simple way you can make a difference, and that is through the check-off program.


From this, you know that sensory descriptive analysis is a powerful tool that provides word descriptions of products and a quantitative basis for comparing product sensorial similarities and differences (Meilgaard and others 2007; Stone and others 2012). Today, it is one of the most powerful, quantitative, sophisticated and extensively used methods in sensory science. Describing the sensory characteristics of a product enables informed business decisions, guides product development, allows benchmarking, quality control, and the tracking of product changes over time. It is also valuable in terms of academic research, where it enables the establishment of correlations with analytical measurements, thus allowing a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying flavor. Creating a lexicon is the first step in this process (Lawless and Civille 2013). Using this method for research will enable us to relate specific variables to specific changes in flavor (i.e. establish causality). For me, that means we will finally be able to begin addressing the some of the central dogmas of the coffee industry, relating to why coffee tastes the way it does. That is exciting progress.


After understanding the power and potential for the WCR Sensory Lexicon, we knew we wanted to adopt and promote it as an association. Aspects of the lexicon can and should be immediately embraced by industry, including vocabulary, definitions, and basic use of the standard references to calibrate coffee tasters. Therefore, SCAA saw a great opportunity to revise the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel. The strength of WCR’s research made it clear that it was critical to adapt the SCAA flavor wheel to be compatible with the lexicon and bring a new tool to the coffee industry. As the WCR Sensory Lexicon was being finalized, we had the words describing the flavor attributes. What we didn’t have was the information on how to arrange the words around the wheel. Even within the development of a lexicon, the listing of attributes into categories is commonly based on panel opinion and, according to a review of this process, is not a rigorous nor important part of lexicon development (Lawless and Civille 2013). This information left us with lots of questions. After all, we didn’t want to take the most scientifically-based coffee flavor resource and misuse it or simply decide behind closed doors how the words should be placed. We wanted to find a way to treat the arrangement of the lexicon with the same respect, diligence, and science that went into creating the lexicon. Thus we set out on a quest to discover the frontiers of sensory science. That’s right – to boldly go where no one has gone before.


In fact, sensory science is very much a young and rapidly developing discipline. From my own study while completing the UC Davis Applied Sensory and Consumer Science Certificate Program I have learned that this field that seems to be moving just as fast as the tech world, and that is no coincidence. The number of data collection tools, software, and analysis techniques available to scientists has grown exponentially as technologies, statistics, and information management are used in more effective ways. SCAA needed a research partner who was willing to think creatively and do solid research to help us understand how the lexicon should be arranged in terms of tiers/levels as well as placement. Given the world-renowned reputation of the sensory science research conducted at UC Davis, and our ongoing relationship with the coffee initiative on campus, we reached out to the food science and technology department to see if any sensory science laboratories could work on this project. Dr. Jean-Xavier Guinard and his PhD candidate, Molly Spencer, took on the challenge.


The UC Davis lexicon sorting study


After some discussions with Molly and Dr. Jean-Xavier Guinard, it was clear that no pre-existing “cookie cutter” sensory science method would be immediately appropriate or feasible for what we wanted to accomplish. So, Dr. Guinard and Molly went to work, examining other published studies, doing background research, and brainstorming solutions to our very specific question. They determined that a modified free multiple sorting method could be used to understand the associations and relationships between the lexicon flavor attributes. In this way, we could understand how industry viewed these terms as well as how highly trained sensory descriptive panelists would group these lexicon attributes. To quantify hierarchical grouping, the researchers at UC Davis created an online program for participants to use remotely that would map out all of the instances where lexicon attributes were associated. In the end, we would understand what the main flavor categories (or, the tiers/levels of the wheel) should be, as well as which flavor categories showed relationships which indicate they could be positioned next to each other around a wheel.


The sorting exercise


Sorting is a method of classification. After all, putting groups of things into categories is one of the most common operations in human thinking (Coxon 1999). The Free Sorting procedure was originally created as a word-sorting too (Steinberg 1967), but was later adopted for sensorial analysis (Lawless and others 1995). For our current project, although we based the variables to be sorted (the attributes) on sensory evaluation (tasting) of coffee, the sorting exercise was one of vocabulary only and did not include tasting. In this way, our sorting exercise was one based on the experience of the participants.


In the Free Multiple Sorting (FMS) method, assessors are traditionally asked to sort food or other product samples into multiple groups in a way that made sense to them as individuals. They sort the samples into a subject-chosen number of groups/categories (Coxon 1999; Dehlholm and others 2012). When performing the task, the assessor is allowed to make additional sortings of the same sample set until they feel they have covered all sorting possibilities (Steinberg 1967). For our study, we modified the method so that instead of sorting food samples themselves, panelists were asked to sort the attributes (with definitions) into categories and sub-categories, and the sorting task was done only once per panelist. Additionally, the panelists were to sort the attributes into categories and sub-categories in a hierarchical manner until they felt there were no more sub-categories to be sorted. A user-friendly web interface (see Figure 1) was created to allow for simple, efficient sorting of the 99 attributes. The user would then see instructions and the list of attributes, each with an information bubble to the far right with a scroll-over pop-up including the definition/description of that attribute as defined by KSU and TX A&M. If a panelist was unclear about the meaning of one of the words of the lexicon, they could scroll over the information bubble to access the definition. The participant was able to drag and drop the attributes into categories and sub categories, for as many hierarchical levels as they deemed necessary.


Due to the high number of attributes to be sorted, the high number of expert panelists compared to most sensory descriptive methods (72 panelists), and the end goal of this experiment (a flavor wheel), it was determined that each panelist only complete the sorting task once. This method was modified from the typical FMS method in which a small number of descriptive panelists (8 – 15) may each perform the same sorting task on the same sample set multiple times, until they feel they have exhausted the sorting possibilities. Multiple sortings would have caused fatigue for the panelists with 99 items to be sorted, and there was both sensory expertise and coffee industry expertise to be considered, so it was in the best interest of the new flavor wheel to accommodate a large panel of participants to include input, experience, and expertise from both fields. After the sorting was completed, we focused on three statistical analyses to help us understand the results.



Figure 1. An example user interface for a completed sorting task for 9 (of 99 possible) attributes.


We had two study groups, which ultimately were able to be grouped into one population post hoc based on the results. The first group consisted of 29 trained, experienced, sensory panelists who worked on chocolate and wine panels at UC Davis. These panelists were not required to be trained specifically on coffee, but they had all participated in sensory studies and worked with and been exposed to most of the flavor attributes on the coffee list. They were sent written instructions to perform the free multiple sorting task on the web remotely and individually, from their personal computers.


To make sure the results would accurately reflect the needs of the industry, we knew we had to invite coffee people to contribute to this research and create the data. The SCAA invited hundreds of our nearest and dearest coffee professionals to participate in this work, including our boards, committees and councils, subject matter experts and SCAA instructors, WCR affiliates and stakeholders, Q instructors, colleagues at CQI and ACE, and other industry leaders. In the end, 43 judges recruited by SCAA from the coffee industry performed the same online procedure as the UC Davis panelists.


The analysis


The point of this work was to understand how closely related the flavor attributes were, as judged by a group of expert sensory panelists and coffee industry alike. To organize the raw data, a program was written using Ruby programming language to translate the sorting data into matrices that could be used for analysis. For both of the methods detailed below, first two binary matrices were created for each participant (1 if the relationship existed, 0 if the relationship did not exist), one matrix for “sibling-sibling” relationships, in which the attributes appeared in the same sub-category, and one matrix for “parent-child” relationships, in which one attribute appeared in a sub-category under another attribute. These type of relationships were therefore our similarity criteria. See Table 1 for an example of this. From all of the individual sorting data collected, a symmetrical proximity (similarity) matrix with sums of counts of how many times the attributes appear together in “sibling” relationships or “parent-child” relationships was compiled for the 72 participants. This similarity matrix was then used to complete the following analyses.




Table 1. Example excerpt of a similarity matrix for one study participant, highlighting 7 attributes


First, we needed to compare the two study groups (panelists versus industry). We wanted to know if the trained panelists arranged the lexicon differently than our industry group. We knew that either result would be interesting in its own way, but had hypothesized that the groups would have different results based on their different backgrounds and training. For this, two similarity matrices, one for UCD panelists and one for Industry participants, were used to run two separate 5-Dimensional Multidimensional Scaling (5D-MDS) analyses. The results of the 5D-MDS analyses were used to run a Multiple Factor Analysis (MFA), a technique to compare two datasets. These analyses were competed in XLSTAT® 2015. The MFA was performed and showed that there was no significant difference between the UC Davis panelists and the Industry group. We knew this because the RV-coefficients were greater than 0.70, meaning the two groups were related and came from the same population. With this in mind, we could move forward with the evaluation of the relationship between the flavor attributes based on one population of 72 panelists and industry participants.


Agglomerative Hierarchical Cluster (AHC) analysis was performed on the data using the similarity matrix. AHC groups the attributes into different categories and sub-categories on different levels based on similarity criteria. AHC clustering is typically visualized in the form of a dendrogram. The classic example of this is species taxonomy or genetic linkages, which we are used to seeing in dendrograms. Agglomerative hierarchical clustering starts with every single object in a single “cluster.” The unweighted pair group average linkage agglomeration method was performed to link the attributes back together, one pair at a time, from the bottom (most similar) to the top (least similar). In each successive iteration (linkage), it agglomerates (merges) the closest pair of objects (either an individual or the average of a group) by satisfying the specified similarity criteria, until all of the data is a part of one large category. On a dendrogram, each of these linkages is represented by a horizontal line. The y-axis of the dendrogram represents the specific similarity (between 0 and 72) of the clusters that were merged. The number of main classes can be specified by the user or determined by the software. In this case, the number of main classes was originally indicated at four by the XLSTAT® 2015 software, but this was not adequate for the flavor wheel and did not separate the great number of attributes distinctly enough. After observing the data, nine classes were specified, as this was determined to be the optimal number of main classes that statistically separated the 99 attributes clearly while still maintaining intuitiveness.


The most common approach for analyzing data from sorting tasks is Multidimensional Scaling (MDS) (Lawless and others 1995). MDS was carried out on the similarity matrix in order to get a 2 dimensional representation of the relationship between the flavor attributes. This MDS analysis was also performed using all 72 participants’ data (from the full similarity matrix) to create a visual aid to see where the attributes fall in proximity to one another. Specifically, non-metric (ordinal) MDS was performed, meaning the order of the “distances” (using Kruskal’s stress values) calculated for the resemblance matrix matched the order/ranking of the distances in the representation space (the plot). This was done to supplement the AHC data and to guide the order of the main classes (clusters) around a circular form of the flavor wheel. All analysis were completed in XLSTAT® 2015.


The results


For all participants together, AHC was truncated at nine main classes (see Figure 2). The MDS plot for the compiled data of all 72 participants is depicted in Figure 3. This led to the main suggested flavor categories and hierarchy for the flavor wheel. However, what a dendrogram does not do is name the horizontal linkages (or larger groups), and thus, certain “umbrella” terms for the 9 main classes were needed.

Figure 2. Dendrogram representing the results of the AHC analysis on the attribute sorting results.



Figure 3. The 2-dimensional 5D-MDS plot.


Designing the wheel


The development of the wheel also necessitated a qualitative approach. The fact is any statistical result must be interpreted. That is how we went from a dendrogram and an MDS plot to a wheel. As you can see, there is no completely accurate way to accomplish that. Interpretation is a human exercise. Luckily, we had a lot of smart humans at our disposal, including those at UC Davis, WCR, SCAA, and sensory scientists at KSU. After our results were finished, we spent many hours examining the possible iterations of a wheel. We waxed poetic on the merits of a four-versus-three-tiered wheel. We considered the dendrogram and the inherent challenges of grouping relationships into pairs. We had to work together to agree with WCR and KSU on the overall (inner ring) flavor categories. And that is just what we did.


To create a template that would fit around the wheel, we used the dendrogram to create a chart for each of the main flavor categories (see Figures 4, 5, 6, and 7 below for examples). Then, we went back to the MDS and compared all results, grouped and individually, to evaluate each of the 9 flavor classes in terms of where they were in relation to one-another, circularly. This helped us inform which segments of the wheel would be contiguous. Therefore, the wheel was designed not only to show relationships between and among the 9 main flavor categories, but also to show relationships amongst the individual attributes, down to the order and placement of the third ring on the wheel. Categories that are near each other on the MDS plot were perceived to be similar (based on the 72 participants) and therefore are generally located near each other on the new wheel. For example, within fruity, citrus fruits were often seen to be closely associated with the sour attributes on the MDS plot and therefore those sections of the wheel are contiguous.


General words that encompass the broader categories at the top of the dendrogram (for example, “sweet” or “fruity”) were pulled from the lexicon based on the recommendation of the KSU scientists and panelists. In some instances, it was necessary to put two lexicon terms together as a category heading, in which cases a slash (/) was used to differentiate the two terms. Due to fact that the WCR sensory lexicon and this project were being completed simultaneously, a few terms were moved, re named, or added to the lexicon and therefore the flavor wheel to create the final organization. See Figure 8 (below) for the final iteration of the new Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel.



Figure 4. Example of interpretation of the dendrogram in the Nutty/Cocoa flavor category, with colored circles indicating the matching clusters with levels on the charted hierarchy.




Figure 5. Example of interpretation of the dendrogram in the Floral flavor category, with colored circles indicating the matching clusters with levels on the charted hierarchy.




Figure 6. Example of interpretation of the dendrogram in the Fruity flavor category, with colored circles indicating the matching clusters with levels on the charted hierarchy.




Figure 7. Example of interpretation of the dendrogram in the Sweet flavor category, with colored circles indicating the matching clusters with levels on the charted hierarchy.


In conclusion


The ultimate goal of this project was to sort the given coffee flavor attributes in such a way that simplified the choice of words describing the coffee, whether it is in general or more detailed terms. The categories and sub-categories developed using these sorting methods were used to create a new coffee flavor wheel. AHC analysis provided a hierarchy and MDS provided a visual representation of how the main flavor categories should be arranged around the flavor wheel. You may notice, if you are a student of flavor wheels, that there are a lot of commonalities between the WCR Sensory Lexicon & the new flavor wheel with other wheels, describing different products. The original wine wheel, mentioned previously, has many of the same main flavor categories as our new wheel, including spice, fruity, floral, vegetative, and nutty (Noble and others 1984). This is not because wine and coffee share a multitude of similarities that should be dwelled upon. Rather, it is because what we are actually recording and quantifying is the human sensorial experience. Humans, as instruments, find many similarities in the perception of foods and beverages – we are just capturing the experience.


In summary, we have created a revision of the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel. We crafted a wheel appropriate for coffee cuppers and industry that is also useful for descriptive panelist training and product developers. Perhaps most importantly, it is a solid tool for communication with customers and consumers. It represents a true collaboration between descriptive panelists, sensory scientists, industry, WCR, SCAA, and UC Davis. It is the product of creative and collaborative approach to problem solving on the frontiers of sensory science methods and analyses. We can all be proud to have contributed to this work – because every single person who has gotten to the ending paragraphs of this article has absolutely been a part of the process. We have created this tool for you. You have inspired it. It is yours to use and share and grow with. Thus, we have created a completely revised SCAA Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel.

How to Re-Invent a Wheel: A Tale of Science and Industry


Source: How to Re-Invent a Wheel: A Tale of Science and Industry | The Specialty Coffee Chronicle

Scientists discover big clue to how caffeine wards off Alzheimer’s

German and French researchers have demonstrated that caffeine has a positive effect on tau deposits, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. They showed how giving regular doses of caffeine to mice bred to develop tau protein deposits in their brains slowed memory decline compared to control mice.

The team believes the findings will eventually lead to a new class of drugs for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

Jointly led by Dr. Christa E. Müller of the University of Bonn and Dr. David Blum of the University of Lille, the researchers report their findings in the journal Neurobiology of Aging.

Alzheimer’s disease plays havoc with the metabolism of brain cells, causing them to stop working and lose connections with each other, and eventually, their death. This gradual deterioration is what leads to memory failure, difficulty with daily tasks, personality changes, and other features of the brain-wasting disease.

The two hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease are deposits of tau protein (which clog up the insides of brain cells) and plaques of amyloid protein (which clog up the spaces between brain cells). The development of these hallmarks is not easy to investigate in living brains, which is why studies of mice bred to have similar conditions are so useful.

Several studies have already shown that regular moderate caffeine intake prevents memory decline in older people, and reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Others have taken this further and shown how caffeine intake slows memory decline in mice bred to develop amyloid plaques. But until this latest research, no studies had yet investigated the effect of caffeine in mice bred to mimic the other hallmark of Alzheimer’s – the tau deposits.

For their study, the team evaluated the effect of regular, persistent caffeine intake in mice bred to develop tau deposits similar to those seen in humans. The tau mice were given the caffeine in their drinking water at a concentration of 0.3 gm per liter.

Another group of identical tau mice – the controls – were not given caffeine in their drinking water.

Findings support the idea that caffeine intake has positive effect on tau deposits

The tau mice on chronic caffeine did not develop the spatial memory impairments seen in the controls.

The results showed the tau mice on chronic caffeine did not develop the spatial memory impairments seen in the controls.

They also showed that the chemistry of the tau proteins in the hippocampus – the seat of memory in rodents – was different in the caffeine-drinking mice. The team writes:

“Improved memory was associated with reduced hippocampal tau phosphorylation and proteolytic fragments.”

Plus, the findings showed that caffeine appeared to reduce several pro-inflammatory and oxidative stress markers in the hippocampus of the tau mice.

The researchers conclude that their findings support the idea that caffeine intake is beneficial in mice that develop tau deposit similar to those seen in humans, thus “paving the way for future clinical evaluation” in human patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

In 2011, Medical News Today reported another mouse study by the University of South Florida that concluded coffee wards off Alzheimer’s because an unknown ingredient teams up with caffeine to stimulate blood levels of a critical protein that appears to put off the development of the disease.

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