Hopefully you have noticed the new section on our website called “Producer Profiles.” We are working diligently to compile info and photos for all of the coffees we offer and the producers we represent. The goal is to share as much information as possible about the land and people who produce the coffees we sell. We will continue adding to this section as coffees come back into our rotation and we invite you to use these sheets for your own marketing purposes.
However, we’ve made the deliberate decision to omit tasting notes. There are two main reasons for this. The first has to do with seasonality. We buy coffee throughout the year, but we focus on particular origins at the specific times of year when the “newcrop” offerings are available. In many instances, we narrow our selections down even further and try to buy as much coffee as we can during the peak of the harvest. Finding this “pocket” is not easy and often requires rejecting multiple preshipment samples, but it makes a world of difference in quality. There can be pronounced variations between a Huehuetenango coffee from the same farm in late March versus early May, for example. This presents challenges for both producers and roasters. Producers prefer to sell coffee steadily, as it results in less strain on their production systems and better cashflow. We are able to satisfy this need, while still ensuring that we get the coffee we want at the times we want it, by offering prefinancing and forward contracting for our long-established suppliers. In nearly every case, we are contracting and paying for coffee far, far in advance of when we are importing and selling it.
Roasters also like to see coffees offered year-round because it allows them to maintain consistent supplies for their customers. Average consumers often fall in love with a particular coffee and want it every day, rain or shine, January or July. The solution to this issue is a bit trickier. Any seasoned coffee buyer knows that coffee changes dramatically over the course of even several months. Alternative packaging, like GrainPro bags, can be somewhat of a remedy, but it opens a Pandora’s box when it comes to all the additional plastic waste. Royal Coffee stopped wrapping pallets several years back for this very reason, and we have been circumspect in our use of Grainpro bags. Buying coffee when it’s fresh and letting it run out once it’s not is the tried and true approach we will always advocate. The second reason to not put our tasting notes on these sheets has to do with the vast differences that exist between roasting machines. If you’ve been to the office here in Emeryville, you know our master roaster Patrick Kennedy uses two 1925 Jabez Burns open-drum setups. The manufacturing is decidedly old-school, there are no fancy calibration dials, but they produce remarkably consistent profiles and allow for much sensory interaction with the coffee during roasting. This is exactly what we want.
We cup many coffees side-by-side, and consistency is paramount. But the profiles we end up with can be night and day away from someone roasting on a Sivitz air roaster, an IR-12, or any in the cosmic multitudes of other sample and production roasting machines out there. Two batches of the same coffee roasted on the same day by the same person, but on different machines, will be unquestionably distinctive in the cup even if they are attempting to create the same roast profile. So while we seek to focus our offerings around “peak of harvest” coffees, the reality is that the very same coffee cupped three times over the course of several months will yield dramatically different experiences, notwithstanding the inherent differences between machines.
Putting cupping notes on a sheet that will be circulated across the globe to roasters buying the coffee over the course of many months and ending up with widely disparate roast profiles does not serve us or the customer. It is far better to call or email your salesperson and discuss how a coffee is changing over the course of a season. Many of our customers also send us samples from their production roasts so that we can offer our opinions. These discussions are extremely useful for everyone as they help to dial in exactly what buyers are looking for. Roasters today face stiff competition. The industry has matured, and in order to survive, you need to differentiate yourself from the pack. The inclusion of tasting notes on offerings has become as ubiquitous in coffee as it is in wine. While this can make a coffee more accessible, it has also led to the proliferation of some highly questionable descriptors.
No one in our office has ever gotten “Watermelon Jolly Rancher,” “Frankincense,” or discovered the “Scent of Spring Rain” in a cup of coffee, and trust me it is not for lack of trying (those are all actual “notes” we’ve heard over the years, by the way). However, the need to provide more advanced sensory descriptions to your customers is undeniable, and we are happy to help you with it. We are always glad to share our own buying advice, cupping, and roasting experiences with you. Indeed, it is the reason Royal Coffee exists. Just don’t expect us to wax poetic about the notes of “Banana Laffy Taffy” and “Braised Nasturtium” we are encountering, because quite frankly we must confess a weakness in discerning these attributes. I have actually had customers say to me, after reading some of the crazier notes out there, “I wish I had a palate like so and so…” This is silly. There’s a reason you don’t taste Ground Unicorn Horn in the coffee, and it isn’t because you don’t cup enough.