When most people describe their beloved morning cup of coffee, their vocabulary doesn't stray far from "strong," "bold," or "flavorful." But these are rather inadequate descriptors. The coffee we love and depend on to start our day is far more complex and nuanced. In America, there are select individuals who are committed to ensuring the quality of the coffee we drink. They go to incredible lengths to make sure that it won't fall short of the taste we've come to expect.
The latest episode of our digital series "Made Right Here," created in partnership with Maxwell House, shows exactly what quality control looks like. We chatted with Jenn Castro, senior manager of green coffee quality for Maxwell House, who schooled us in the art -- and science -- of the coffee bean and its journey to our cups.
In your words, coffee is equal parts art and science. Explain that to us.
Jenn Castro: The coffee bean is a very complex ingredient. To me, coffee making is an art first -- a composition. It's the outcome of selecting the right beans in an effort to develop a desired flavor profile. Creating this work of art requires a deep understanding of the beans themselves - where they come from, how they are grown, how they are harvested and prepared for shipment -- as well as the behavior of the roasting machines.
But coffee is also half science. My background is in chemical engineering, so the scientific side is equally as fascinating to me. Ensuring quality coffee requires technical testing and meticulous execution of tried-and-true processes. We must meet certain specifications in order to deliver a consistently good cup.
How do you evaluate the coffee bean for flavor, to arrive at the ideal composition?
JC: Like all quality-focused roasters, we use a sensory evaluation process called "cupping." Starting at 6 a.m. each day, we roast and grind samples of the coffee beans to be evaluated. It's critical to use fresh beans. Then, we divvy up the grounds into individual cups and pour hot, nearly boiling, water over them to allow the coffee to brew. To release the aromatics, we "break the cap." This refers to the practice of moving the crust of grounds floating at the top of the cup to release the aroma. After evaluating this, we allow the grind to settle to the bottom of the cup and start the tasting portion of the test. We evaluate sensory attributes like body, acidity and notes of berry or chocolate.
How do you know when you've come across a "bad bean"?
JC: It's amazing what cupping can reveal. We refer to flavor and aroma concerns as "off notes." Sometimes you can get a stale taste or coffee may come across as almost medicinal in flavor. When we test a bean that doesn't meet our quality standards, we immediately reject the product. This is why it's so critical to do cupping every day and throughout the day: to constantly stay on top of quality.
Do even your best testers sometimes need a break from coffee?
JC: Absolutely, and we have a number of safeguards in place to avoid palate fatigue, or "tired tastebuds," in simpler terms. Because we often evaluate many samples in a given day, we segment our cupping evaluation into sessions, so they're not all back-to-back. Also, our testers drink a lot of water. You must have fresh taste buds in order to do the job well.
It is a real benefit to have experienced taste testers on our team. A number of them have been with us 30 years or longer, and our flavor standards have become part of their DNA. I often refer to this complete immersion in our coffee as "tribal knowledge," as it's part of our workplace culture to pass down this information to younger generations of testers. These tasters know immediately if a bean doesn't measure up.
Are there other ways to tell if the quality is up to par?
JC: People often find it interesting to learn that when we get beans as raw materials, they are green. We evaluate the beans first in this state and look at the beans' physical attributes. Are they broken? Small? Oddly shaped? Atypical in color? Cupping comes second. The physical and sensory processes, in combination, demonstrate the tremendous care that's taken to produce our coffee.
How does coffee factor into your day-to-day life?
JC: I'm a morning coffee drinker, myself. I start my day with a giant mug. It helps me get my kids to school and helps me to align my priorities as I drive into work. I know that many others across the country and across the world start their day in this same fashion. Life can throw you curve balls. It's an honor to work on a product that's dependable and lives up to the motto of "Good to the Last Drop."
To learn more about the Jacksonville Maxwell House plant, check out the following video: