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Creating Blends and Perfecting Taste: A Q-Grader Tells Us All

To say that Artisan’s in-house expert Q Grader – a ‘sommelier of coffee’, if you will - has fingers in many pies is an understatement. When it comes to working in the world of specialty coffee, you name it, Rob has done it.

For over twenty years Rob has been a leading light in coffee sourcing, production, blending, roasting and brewing. He trains the UK’s best baristas, works internationally as a coffee consultant and project manager, is part of the Senior Management Team at Cimbali UK - and is the group’s Coffee Specialist, and is also the National Coordinator for the Speciality Coffee Association (SCA). And, as if that weren’t enough, Rob is also the SCA’s Head Judge for all manner of competitive events, including the UK’s annual National Barista Championships. Quite the resume!


We caught up with Rob over Zoom - naturally - to find out whether it is accurate to compare coffee to wine, how coffee is actually farmed and processed, and to hear a bit about the magic that goes into creating Artisan Coffee Co.’s celebrated characterful blends.



At Artisan, we like to compare coffee to wine or champagne. Can you speak to that notion a little bit? 


Artisan coffee creating blends blog perfecting flavours


Coffee and wine have many similarities, not least that they both start life as fruit. Coffee and wine are frequently at the mercy of discerning and critical palates, and, often, the best examples of the genre are blends. The main difference between the two, however, is that when making coffee you use the seeds of the coffee cherry fruit, whereas winemakers use the juice of the flesh of the grape.


Wine, arguable and to an extent, tastes of grapes, as in essence that’s what it is, however the different varietals of grape when processed and fermented into wine will deliver nuances that remind us of different flavour-profiles, be that chocolate, cherry, lychee, lemon, stone fruit, or minerality (and all manner besides).


In addition to the actual grape varietal, factors such as climate, terroir and altitude can all have a major impact on the final product’s taste. Coffee is much the same; we have well over one hundred different varieties of coffee cherries in the world which will give different flavour notes to the coffee, and it becomes all the more complex when you factor in the climate and country the beans have been grown in, as well as other environmental factors that may have impacted the growing conditions, and the processing method used.


For example, a Bourbon (Arabica) coffee typically tastes sweet and full bodied, but one a Bourbon from Rwanda will be drastically different to a Bourbon from Costa Rica. Much in the same way, I suppose, that a French wine and an Australian wine made with the same grape varietal will be very different on the palate.


You mentioned processing. How is coffee processed, and how does the process impact the eventual taste?


Artisan coffee creating blends blog identifying flavour notes


Processing plays a very significant role in taste and aroma. There are two main types of coffee processing: ‘washed’ and ‘natural’. The ‘naturally’ processed coffee cherries are typically laid out on concrete patios and dried slowly in the sun, then the seed or bean is removed from the dried cherry and, voila, that is your coffee. In the case of washed coffee, the coffee cherries are soaked in water to plump up the cherry and then the bean is squeezed out before drying the seed without the flesh of the cherry around it.


Typically, washed coffees are lighter in flavour-intensity and a little higher in acidity, however many farmers have started changing their processes to leave a small part of the sticky fruit pulp on the cherry whilst drying; the difference this can make to the coffee’s final taste and aroma can be quite dramatic and this new, updated, washed process has been responsible for improving the perception of a number of previously unfashionable coffees.



What advice do you have for somebody shopping for coffee? How can people know which bean they’ll like best?


It is very personal. As with wine, one bottle may be loved by some yet loathed by others. It used to be the case that coffees from Africa would have high acidity and low body, coffees from Central and South America would have medium body and medium acidity, and coffees from Asia would have high body and low acidity. This would typically have been the starting point when looking to create blends or select coffees. However, things have changed a bit recently with modern technologies enabling farmers to develop the flavour profiles of their beans in different directions according to consumer demand. But within each continent there are still countries that tend towards certain flavour profiles, body and acidity levels. For example, Kenyan coffee in generally clean, floral and aromatic, and Ethiopian coffee tends to be more fruity, dense and wine like. Also in a similar vein to wine, the coffee cherry crop from each farm can change year on year so every time that there is a new crop it needs to be re-tasted and a decision made as to the role it might play in the blend profile we are trying to achieve.


Okay, so how do you go about creating a desired blend? 


Artisan coffee creating blends blog knowing your favourite brew


We do something called a ‘cupping’ before we decide to buy any coffee bean. The goal of cupping (effectively, inhaling each bean’s aroma and tasting each bean in isolation in order to assess whether it’s ripe for inclusion in the finished product or desired blend) is to balance out elemental variances and to allow us to asses the potential of the coffee before purchasing it. It is incredibly important, therefore, that when cupping the coffee, the beans should be roasted to set standards and then tasted the same way every time.


When we create coffee blends at Artisan, we use our experience of the coffees on the cupping table to formulate the basis of an idea, and then strive to create a flavour-profile that is greater than the sum of its parts.


Blending our coffees, rather than relying on a single bean, allows us to have more control over the finished product, and gives us the ability to guarantee consistent taste and aroma year-round and, indeed, from one year to the next.


For example, if we were blending The Enigma and we find during cupping that the bean we’ve been using from Costa Rica isn’t as jammy or plummy as the previous crop, we have the in-house knowledge and ability to switch to a coffee from Colombia or Peru that contains more of the aromas we desire in order to rebalance and perfect the blend.


Does the way we make our coffee at home have an impact on the taste too?


Artisan coffee creating blends blog brewing at home


Definitely. In fact, the fourth factor (after sourcing, processing and blending) that can have a dramatic impact on the final taste of a coffee is the brew method that is chosen. For example, using an espresso machine will encourage more body and bolder flavour notes with greater strength and mouthfeel than say, using a paper filter or V60, which will effectively ‘clean up’ the coffee making it feel lighter and more delicate, and promoting higher acidity and fruit flavours.


When it came to developing the Artisan Coffee Co. collection, we started with a flavour profile that we wanted to achieve and created different blends according to different brew methods. This way, our customer is guaranteed a fantastic cup of coffee that tastes exactly as we intended it to taste, no matter how they make their coffee at home. For example, take The Heroine, with notes of rich chocolate and hazelnut: the coffee beans used in this blend may vary between the espresso, ground filter, pods and cafetière purchase options, but this means we are able to deliver a more consistent result, in terms of both taste and aroma, from one cup to the next


Artisan Coffee Co. is a pioneer in characterful and coffee that everyone will enjoy. We know that a great cup of coffee doesn’t require you to use specialist knowledge, expensive equipment or for you to stand in line and wait. We started this journey with a mission to change the way you drink coffee forever: we’re pleased to say that we have been able to go one step further and, by creating purer, fresher coffee for everybody and every mood, have succeeded in greatly improving the at-home coffee experience.