Tag Archive for 'GCQRI'

Coffee Research – What is next?

I reported before on our involvement in the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative. This is a project funded primarily by coffee roasters to advance research into improving coffee quality, and improving the volume of quality coffee produced in the world. It’s not as if there is a lack of great coffee out there, but we are definitely on the threshold of seeing production of really good arabica drop, given greater consumption and agricultural issues with pernicious pest and disease. And, despite the nay-sayers of global warming, everywhere I go farmers are commenting on changes in their local climate and how it impacts their crop.

I am lucky; I am sitting on the preliminary Research Planning Committee for the GCQRI and the nascent projects I am hearing about are intriguing. Quite a few projects involve scientific collaboration to bring new technology to the old methods of the coffee industry. NIRS (Near Infrared Spectrophotometry) is a newer tool for analyzing chemical markers and has already yielded breakthroughs in coffee research. Under GCQRI, one possible project is to form an open NIRS Database of Quality Coffee samples from all growing areas. New samples could be submitted by roasters for cost-effective and complete analysis of all the complex factors that contribute to flavor and quality, and then the sample would be indexed among all other known samples from that region, providing a global context for understanding differences in coffee flavor. It ties right into another project, described as such “Identify Main green coffee candidate molecules strongly impacting quality.” Yes, it is true. We don’t know what it is in coffee that makes it taste good. Using older techniques, we have some pretty good ideas, but many things have been left. Coffee is just so darn complex. The project design would involve rapid screening techniques on the thousands of metabolites in coffee and then set out to correlate and identify those related specifically to cup quality. When we know that, we know how to test for quality components in future studies.

Another project along the same lines involves sensory evaluation, cupping as we call it. The project is called NextGen Coffee Sensory Evaluation. Traditional descriptive cupping has it’s place; it’s how we find coffee we like, and describe it to our customers. And some biochemical screening techniques have come along lately. (Everyone recalls the press for the “electronic nose” a couple years back). But what about relating the two in order to form a broader understanding of coffee quality. In the current methods, humans do not reliably attain repeatable results in sensory analysis (I am talking about the kind of cupping that can be a basis for scientific study of coffee quality, not the kind of cupping for someone to find and describe flavors). On the other hand, current chemical evaluations might tell us if a compound is present, but doesn’t tell us what that means … and there being a lack of understanding of which core compounds relate to quality, how do we know what we are looking for? So this new technique would involve a panel of tasters that would calibrate and agree on levels of quality and flavor attributes, then run the sample through a battery of these new, rapid techniques to validate the finding.

Repeat this, and you find out exactly what chemical components are behind flavor attributes that coffee roasters find valuable. When these findings are informed by the other two project approaches I already mentioned, you form a much greater understanding of exactly what it is we find desirable in a good cup of coffee, which can then be used to discover ways to grow higher quality coffee in the producing countries.

You might ask yourself, why doesn’t all this exist already? It might, but it would be locked in a vault at Nestle in Switzerland. And nobody else has had the means to define and fund research that centers entirely on coffee quality. Producing countries focus on fighting disease and pests, and on higher yields. Both of these are important, but in the absence of a buyer’s regard for taste quality, we end up with hybrids that have robusta genes; Catimor, Sarchimor, CR-95, Ruiru 11, Castillo, Etc. It’s only this type of collaboratively funded research that can pool resources to address the concerns of quality-oriented coffee business, and by extension, all those who drink coffee because it tastes good.

Those who lift a cup of coffee to their lips and think “Boy this tastes like an economically-produced large-scale agricultural product” or “Boy, this Insant coffee is awful but I saved myself 11 minutes I would have wasted grinding and brewing a good-tasting coffee” … well, we just can’t help you. That’s the coffee experience of the ’60s and early ’70s before the rebirth of the small roaster, and we don’t want to go back to that! You can find the GCQRI site here.

-Tom posted at Sweet Maria’s Weblog

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Updates on the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative

I had posted before about my great interest in this thing called the  Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative: GCQRI. (It’s a rare case where the full name is actually easier than the acronym!)  Basically this Initiative is trying to pull together coffee roasters, importers, and anyone else in the coffee trade who cares about the future of quality. If we can pool resources and fund the kind of research we want, about improving the quality of coffee, and growing more quality coffee, then I think a lot of other goals that have to do with economic fairness, environment, and poverty are also addressed. Buyers pay for quality, that is what a “differential” is all about in the coffee trade. If that quality is generated at the farm level, then the farm stands to have the most economic gain. Whereas if coffee is sold as a bulk commodity but is “improved” by the magic of good dry-milling, the large company, often a multi-national, will get any premium for the coffee being better-than-average. Typically research aims toward two goals: to increase yields or improve disease resistance of the coffee. Those are important and they are part of the overall quality formula. After all, you can’t get by as a farmer if you grow amazing coffee but your yields are so low that no customer could actually pay for your price of production. Farmers need to grow a good quantity of high quality coffee. With the introductions of new Catimor high-yield and disease-resistant types of coffee, quality is becoming rare. Nobody can blame local agencies for these hybrids with Robusta in their genes: They are trying to help farmers make it. But when rigorous cupping becomes part of the evaluation, cupping done by the buyers who ultimately decide the value of the coffee, these hybrids fail. And yet there are other options, ones that take considerable cooperation by producing countries and their researchers, as well as impetus from buyers. For example, Ethiopia researchers could attract funding to work with original forest coffee varietals (which represent something like 90% of the genetic diversity of coffea arabica) to look for disease resistance to rust fungus, which destroys coffee in many countries. At the same time these Ethiopia types can have fantastic cup character, unlike the catimor hybrids now propagated for this purpose. Simple-minded notion, sure … but I doubt Colombian researchers at Cenicafe who face a huge rust fungus (roya) problem ever had an option to share research with Ethiopia’s vast facilities, and yet both would gain in funding and results.

Right now the Initiative is setting it’s structure and soon will be identifying 3 to 5 research projects for 2011 that best meet the communal Quality objectives of its members. Oh … members signed on so far are roasters large and small, and Sweet Maria’s has been an early enthusiast of this whole effort, and will be funding it as much as we possibly can. More information from the “congress” I attended (really, just a big brainstorming session) can be found on the Initiative web site:  http://www.gcqri.org/ . Also, I posted the FAQ for the Initiative here so it is easily accessible  -Tom

PS: Also check out the blog of another “fan of GCQRI”, James Hoffman. He has quite a few posts on the topic.

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