Just a generation ago, if you were visiting a coffee farmer and you asked them if their coffee was good, most would, of course, say yes. If you then asked how they knew it was good, they would grab a handful of green coffee and show it to you. That farmer was like most farmers.

“Look at those tomatoes, will you. Ever see tomatoes like that?”

“Just look at that corn. Now that’s what I call some great corn.”

Surrounded daily by food and beverages being sold because of how they taste above all else, it’s easy to forget that this has not always been the case. Sixty years ago, the definition of “good food” was food that could survive for years inside a can. Wine was white or red and if you were at a fancy restaurant, they might have some pink wine too. The beer “aisle” wasn’t an aisle at all, it was ten feet of five beers. All chocolate came from Pennsylvania.

Specialty coffee may not have led the shift in tastes toward taste, but it was certainly at the front of the peloton; and as the specialty coffee segment grew, quality differentiation based on taste began to proactively push back through the supply chain rather than waiting around to taste whatever showed up.

Harvesting coffee cherries at a farm in Peru

Thirty years ago it was unusual, though not unheard of, for a roaster to show up on a coffee farm without being part of a larger tour group. Trekking alone through the coffee wilderness was what their importers did. Today, it’s not only common for roasters to visit farmers, but likely that when they do meet they will talk about how the coffee tastes. Cupping labs at origin were once rare, limited to the big city and usually run by a government entity. These days cupping labs are far from ubiquitous, but they are far from uncommon too; and coffee cupping, outside of a formal lab setting, is an increasingly common sight wherever specialty coffee is grown.

This increasing awareness at origin has meant that quality control based on full cupping—not just agricultural practices and/or an up or down clean cup votes—needed to move closer to the farm gate to address quality issues further downstream in the supply chain.

Olam has long been deeply integrated and invested in the entire supply chain and the new specialty coffee cupping lab and specialty division in Brazil reflect new expectations for specialty coffee from that renown coffee growing region, and those nearby. But more than distance can separate any two cupping labs.

With this in mind, Todd Mackey and Joshua Marsceau of Olam Specialty Coffee set out recently for the new cupping lab in Santos for an extended conversation about quality with their Olam compatriots from Brazil and Peru. The technical term for this conversation is “calibration,” an important part of this world of taste in which we all travel. Basically, this is the process of making sure that when I say tomato and you say tomahto, we don’t have to call the whole thing off because we’re actually saying the same thing.

Cupping at Olam’s new specialty lab in Brazil

“The calibration itself focused primarily on establishing consensus around Brazil and Peru quality classification by cup and was broken out into five full cupping sessions by processing method,” said Mackey. The sessions included orientation to the CQI Q grading format and SCAA scoring sheets, and blind cuppings of coffee from South and Central America. Marsceau noted that these type of very focused quality calibrations requires an investment in face time. “It’s important to have face to face interactions. The discussions after each cupping session provided a lot of clarification for the everyone involved.”

After a few days of lab sessions, the group spent a couple of days visiting farms and an Olam mill. Joshua and Todd were not surprised to find farms equipped with cupping labs and roasting operations. In some cases, cup quality control has been pushed all the way back to the hands of the farmer. Many farms in Brazil that have been operated by the same family for generations are adapting quickly to the needs of specialty buyers, diversifying production methods, exploring new methods, and separating their harvest by any number of criteria, all in the relentless pursuit of taste.

The trip ended with a visit to a large Olam mill in Alfenas, Minas Gerais. Although this is a commercial mill representative of Olam’s extensive portfolio and global coffee reach, the Brazil specialty team is borrowing some of the large mill operational expertise to develop a micro-mill geared to the small lot needs of specialty grade coffees.

Fewer and fewer suppliers at any point along the specialty coffee supply chain can be held hostage by those who understand quality parameters that they do not. Olam is committed to ensuring every hand that touches the coffee understands how their contribution adds to the value of the product and how that value is measured.