Does the SCAA Brew Chart Need To Be Changed?

The Specialty Coffee Association of America endorses an objective measurement based upon an analysis of some brewed coffee. It measures the total number of dissolved solids as an analog of coffee flavor. While no one, including the SCAA, claims this is a perfect measurement of true coffee taste, nor to they claim it’s the taste everyone agrees to be perfect, the standards was established on the principle that we have to start somewhere and to help create some sort of objective standard for the industry to use to compare taste intensity.

What good’s an industry if it doesn’t attempt to establish and promote good standards? I think that’s a fair question and it’s to the SCAA’s credit that they are trying to do something to standardize measurements. But, here are some questions I have for the SCAA.

  • Are they doing a service if the standards really don’t represent the taste people really want in their coffee?
  • How do they know the standards are applicable to most public coffee drinkers?
  • Is the current dissolved solids test really accurate in measuring what consumers call coffee taste?
  • Has the espresso drink trend (really the café latte trend) caused consumer coffee taste expectations to dramatically change?

Where the Standards Came From

The SCAA’s standards are pretty clear. They suggest 18 to 22% weight of the ground coffee’s oils to extracted to a brew, which will, by their calculations become a beverage containing 1.15 to 1.35 percent dissolved solids. In effect, it’s like making a lemonade and saying we want this percentage of a lemon to be used and the resulting lemonade should contain thus amount of juice in its makeup. The standards were established by a committee of (probably) pretty learned and sincere coffee people. I’ve heard negative comments that the standards were simply a way to sell more coffee, but (and I’ve never sold a bean in my life) I think that’s an unfair allegation. These were people who recognized that a full flavored, developed cup of brew was actually not bitter and that many food service operators and home users were habitually destroying coffee’s flavor by over-extracting undersized portions of ground coffee. Their intentions were, in my opinion, good and honorable.

Now to a problem: How do you take this noble measurement? The most obvious method was chosen, and that’s using a hydrometer which measures water and then measures the same water’s density once it has been changed, in this case water that’s been changed into brewed coffee. Roast and bean variety will affect density It’s a pretty ingenious idea, and the industry seems to agree that it’s a reasonable way to “see” how much coffee taste is in there. It does not answer questions such as if the coffee flavor’s strength altered by such things as roast or varietal or any number of other factors. The test is not able to tell if the coffee tastes good. That is not its role. So, within the parameters of what it’s designed to do, it seems the test can achieve a goal.

But, what happens if tastes change? Do you think that they do? Let’s take wine. What if we found out that the French wine board set standards for pH and alcohol in wine? Would those big California clarets meet those standards? I think not, and that is part of what has happened. Like it or not, the fun and profit of espresso-based beverages has moved the American coffee drinking public away from the light-roasted vacuum-brewed cup of coffee that this august panel decided was a great cup of coffee back many years ago. To go back to the wine analogy for a moment, the French oenophile who developed the years ago wine standards would have spit out the latest Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, although some of those fine old French firms have taken to selling their Chardonnay as motor fuel due to changing tastes.

What happens when roasts change? Frank Chambers did some research on measuring coffee strength and discovered that different varieties and different roasts brewed using the same formula, brewed in the same coffee brewer, will give different results on the SCAA chart. The short cut way to say it is that dark roasts will provide stronger coffee and coffees from different growing regions provide more or less strength. In fact, the chart’s developers specified that only one variety roasted to one roast color be used for testing.

My concern is that the American Specialty Coffee Association might be inadvertently imposing a no-longer valid standard. There are only two current coffee brewer manufacturers known to me who ever mention the SCAA’s standards: Kitchen Aid and Bunn-O-Matic. Kitchen Aid designed their wonderful 4-cup brewer several years ago following the SCAA’s standards only to be denied certification when their brewer’s heating element failed to jack up the brewing temperature above 195 Fahrenheit during its first minute of brewing. While I publicly disagreed with this because I think the temperature standards are too narrow, I have to applaud the SCAA for at least sticking to their guns and having some standards. Meanwhile, Bunn keeps putting out coffee brewers that do meet the standards, but they continue to lose competitions won by brewers that don’t.

The Coffee Brewing Chart

Part of the SCAA’s brewing standard was the creation of a chart that showed where a coffee’s flavor strength, as measured using a hydrometer, appeared in relation to its strength versus bitterness, versus body. Although interesting to only the most advanced home users, the idea was to get the commercial coffee servers to “get religion” and see that their adherence to the SCAA’s standards would produced a full-flavored but not bitter cup. The chart, which is difficult if not impossible for most people to understand (even in the industry), contains a box on it that represents the ideal balance of flavor strength, so-called “development” (supposedly “which” flavors), lack of bitterness (over development?) and thrift or economy. The message is clear: brew coffee that falls into the box and you’ll be making people’s taste buds happy. We know, we’re the Specialty Coffee Association. The last tests I saw of various consumer coffee brewers, only one brand made it into the box and it was a Bunn-O-Matic. None of the others did, and the list was extensive. So, either the other manufacturers are ignoring the SCAA or they are incapable of meeting the standards or don’t know how to measure their machines. I’m guessing it’s number one and that they just don’t care or thing anyone will notice.

Now, I just gave Bunn a free ride. But, how about them? Why did they fail to impress Cooks Illustrated? Why do high-end roasters who want their customers to own the best brewer often recommend other models, some of the same ones that don’t brew coffee that fall near the SCAA’s box? You might speculate that the other brewer manufacturers don’t care or know how to test, but the high end bean sellers do care and do know how to test. This tells us in a dramatic way that those bean sellers don’t think their customers want coffee that’s “in the box”—the SCAA’s box at any rate.

I’ve tested the Bunn machine. My test results confirm what the SCAA’s box says. The Bunn delivers a nice no-bitterness cup of coffee, one that is very full flavored as far as acidity. My taste observations are that many consumers, including some who buy very expensive beans and grind them carefully before brewing, are now weaned on espresso. The level of bitterness that bothered an honest coffee merchant or taster in 1970 no does not bother this end-user and in fact he desires it. I challenged Cook’s Illustrated on some of their methodology but I spoke extensively with Cook’s Illustrated’s Lisa McManus and they did consult with some honest and notable coffee experts before drawing her conclusions. I think she represents fairly what many consumers would taste. Cook’s Illustrated did not report performing any total dissolved solids tests.

In my opinion, we have here an honest mistake in the making. The sad thing is several industry leaders are trying to do the right thing. Two of the industry’s most noble and honest manufacturers are losing sales because they are adhering to seriously deficient and possibly outdated standards. And, the SCAA is failing to reexamine and update their standards given emerging consumer taste pattern changes.

The risk is what happened to me when I followed the outdated road maps on my GPS this summer. I didn’t reach my goal and someone without guidance did.

Coffee on the Auction Block

Marcel Duchamp upon viewing an airplane propeller close-up for the first time in 1934. “There is no way painting can compete with this”, was his final proclamation.

While I’m not ready to toss out my favorite objects d’art to collect only assorted industrial designs, I will admit to a certain fascination with inventions of the machine age.

While conventional artworks adorn the walls, or take up space in an otherwiase vacant corner, machines look cool and do thing. Some of the best designed coffee gear is beyond function in its appeal, at least I think so.

Apparently so do others, all gathered together under a canvas tent to outbid each other on some of the treasures sold from the recently closed John Conti Coffee Museum, in Louisville, Kentucky.

So it was, that Patricia Fitzibbon and I flew in for a visit and the possibility of finding some new acquisitions for our growing collection.

Like all great artworks, great industrial designs tell a story, the development and refinement of human invention. For this reason, as much as I detest certain aspects of shopping malls, for example, they are, in effect, modern art museums. Often, their “exhibits” are a better reflection for the life and times of our modern world than the so-called modern art museums, which often appear to me as out of touch embittered mausoleums for the rich, demonstrating only how remote the aristocrat has become from their previous leadership roles. Of course, to deny the rich their role in defining the shopping mall would be in itself a great mistake.

Anyway, back to Louisville, John Conti, Louisville’s premier local roaster, amassed quite a collection over the past 17 years, and had until this year, displayed most of it in a museum open to the public. Although well attended, Conti, probably realizing he had at least one of everything, decided to call it quits, keep a few choice items and allow his booming wholesale coffee business take up the museum space. His museum closed officially in January.

Auctions such as this are as close as most collectors can get to a Las Vegas-style adrenaline rush, and energy to all this that I found quite appealing. I was probably lucky that I forgot my check book, or this issue would be printed on cheaper paper stock. First, the most surprising thing to me is that old coffee tins do very well in commanding respectable or perhaps the word is “outrageous” prices. Save your old Maxwell House cans. Or is it just nostalgia for the time when these brands were still quality names, which means any can after 1075 is likely worthless. For what it’s worth, I saw Saturday morning sales of 1940’s Folgers coffee cans starting at $70. All I know is I was saving my cash for more interesting stuff.

I was glad I did because soon, the bidding moved on to some classic coffee grinders. Those who think latest is always greatest will be surprised when I tell you that coffee grinders were better fifty years ago. Hobart and others built grinders for shops that did a better job on the grinds most customers used then (and still do). The fact that they were so well built is in evidence by the number of them still in existence, and for this reason, they are the bargains of collectors. I was able to pick up a 1920’s Hobart for just $40. As expected, the unit performed perfect grinds, with no adjustment the moment I got it home. I picked up another less-well-known grinder for $12. The ultimate slap in the face of new technology came when the auctioneers raffled off an almost-new Ditting Swiss grinder (current new retail: $1,200) for five dollars. It was a surreal moment, but I have to remember that I was among collectors and, in fairness to the Ditting, it isn’t bad (although it does nothing to unseat the Hobart) it’s just not rare or old.

Many of the action’s participants were members of the Mill Association, a collectors’ group dedicated to old grinders. One of its members told me that he doesn’t even drink coffee, after I asked him which grinder he thought did the most even grind. I still can’t quite understand what possessed him to become obsessed with grinders for a product he doesn’t consume, but, I will say that this group added a strong presence to the ceremonies. There were others who were also coffee connoisseurs and our discussions were lively and fruitful. It was nice to discover that there were others outside the few I know, who realize the value of these products.

This article would be remiss if it did not highlight the presence of Ed Kvetko, former CEO/co-owner of Gloria Jeans Coffees. Kvetko, who long ago told me of his dream of establishing his own coffee museum, was there, along with Gloria Jean herself and his now-endless supply of money, which on at least one occasion, he used to outbid me.

It became first unusual, then irritating, and ultimately humorous to hear the auctioneer’s gavel pound the table, followed by “number five”, Ed’s bid number. After awhile, members of the audience, having no recourse since they were constantly being outbid, behind chanting Ed’s number in unison in sync with the auctioneer. Whereas I and others needed to raise out hands to grab attention of our bids, “number 5”, never out of the interest of the auctioneer, was able to take home all kinds of objects by the slightest raise of his eyebrows to signal interest. Ed’s body language was the only clue one had as to the possibility of outbidding him. At times, when an object would obviously only serve as backup for one already in his possession, Kevtko would sit relaxed in his chair and conveniently stop bidding at just over $20, allowing the middle class participants an opportunity to pick up this or that knick-knack.

Other times, however, Ed would move forward on the edge of his sea, at rapt attention, cigarette dangling from his lip and immediately outbid even the bravest of competitors. Considering that I know Ed has been around the world on similar expeditions, I can’t wait to see his final museum, which he told me he’s locating near his house in Fort Myers, Florida.

After finally outbidding “number five” on a Michael Sivetz-designed (and signed) home roaster, I finally relaxed, only to enter an accidental bidding war with Patricia. Although she was sitting immediately to my right, we became confused during a bid for a 1970’s Kitchen Aid consumer grinder. Knowing how much I wanted it, Patricia entered a bid, which I heard but did not realize she had made. In the tension and confusion, I raise the bid, to the surprise of the auctioneer, who knew we were together, although he realized a good thing when he saw it, and snapped his gavel to close the sale. I glanced over at Kvetko, who smirked.

Now I know why Gloria Jean kept silent the whole time.

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