Some Quality Improvements at Cre8ive (soon to be East Coast Roast)
I came to the coffee industry from Craft Beer, and in the beer world quality is a huge focus. Beer is a very difficult thing to make and a lot of things can go wrong. Plus customers were extremely knowledgeable, critical and really only bought our beer if it was a lot better than normal beer they could get for cheaper.
Upon joining the coffee business, it seemed a little bit more commoditised to me. Our customers are quire price sensitive, the business itself was being run in a financially conservative way. I can 100% see why, and the approach served the previous owners well keeping it running and growing for decades.
Going forward my plans are to elevate the brand a bit and for that, we needed to make some changes to improve quality.
Here are some of the things we’ve changed or are in the process of changing. By the way if you like articles like this, jump onto our email list and I’ll keep you posted with new content I put out as I work to grow the business.
No more back blending
When I first came across back blending I was pretty surprised it was a thing people did. But I was new to the industry so I wasn’t really sure what approach people took to this sort of thing. Back blending is basically taking inferior quality coffee and blending it into new coffee in small doses. An example might be if you had a roast that wasn’t perfect, or some older beans or something like that, you could blend it into new batches in small volumes.
When I hired our new roaster Byron, he also felt it wasn’t the best move and after briefly discussing it, we stopped doing it altogether. It wasn’t something that happened a lot but it did happen.
The only reason we would do any kind of blending would be if we very slightly over or under roasted a batch, and Byron felt that he could make up for it with another batch without reducing quality (some of our blends are multiple roasted beans blended after roasting). We would be unlikely to do this, and we haven’t done so yet, but I could see a situation where if it was a very small scale of variance, we might do something like this if we were 100% confident it wouldn’t impact quality.
No other back blending will happen, nor has happened since Byron started a few months ago. As a result, we have dumped some batches and some old coffee, that previously would have been blended into new batches.
Previously every roast was pretty much accepted regardless of whether or not things went wrong during the roasting process. There was no quality committee or sensory done on batches or even a conversation really about whether we should keep imperfect batches. It’s always a very difficult decision to dump product in a low margin business, I know that from the beer world.
In the past roasts were never or very rarely dumped, they just got packed, or if they were really bad, back blended with new batches at smaller quantities.
This is not how we approach things anymore, if a batch isn’t perfect, Byron will let me know straight away and we’ll do one of the following:
- Dump the batch – this has already happened with a batch that was imperfect due to equipment failure during roast.
- Keep the batch for a week and do sensory, then decide – If it’s up to standard then it’s fine, but if it’s not, it will be dumped. Coffee really should get consumed within 1-3 weeks of roasting so sometimes if it’s borderline it’s worth waiting for the beans to rest for a week before sampling.
- It’s possible down the track if we do more small batch roasts, we will release imperfect batches as limited runs – this would be the case if it was a great coffee but just wasn’t perfectly “true to brand” for our standard roasts. This is something we used to do with beer a little bit. If we brewed a Pale Ale for example that was awesome but was 5.5% instead of 5%, we’d release it as a limited release Pale Ale as opposed to the core range Pale Ale.
Green been selection
We are much more onto our green bean selection now compared with before. Previously if the supplier sent us a different bag of green beans for example, they would get roasted and I’d be advised that it wouldn’t impact flavour. Now however, if we get sent something that is different to our ingredients, Byron will bring it up with me and depending on how different, we’ll take a different approach:
- We’ll contact the supplier and ask them what has happened.
- We’ll do a visual inspection of the beans and try to learn more about the history.
- If they are similar, we might do a small batch and just make sure the flavour isn’t changed too much.
- If they are way off, we’ll reject them and send them back to the supplier.
As you can imagine, the raw ingredients into any product have a huge impact on the overall quality of the product, so you can’t just accept different ingredients and think the product won’t change.
In the coffee industry, “cupping” is a method used to evaluate and assess the quality of coffee beans. It is a standardised way of tasting and grading coffee to determine its flavor profile, aroma, acidity, body, and overall quality.
Cupping is not something I ever saw done here before and as I learned more, I discovered that this was an important part of the quality program. Cupping is generally performed by coffee producers, roasters, and buyers to ensure consistency and quality in their products.
This is something Byron does as part of his weekly tests. It’s also something he gets us involved in from time to time if we are discussing any changes in the roasting process, green beans, or comparing blends etc.
No longer bagging from tubs
Previously the way we did things here was all coffee was roasted, cooled then put into tubs and when people purchased at retail (either from our coffee shop here, or online), we would pack them from the tubs at the time of purchase.
The problem with this, was coffee would sit in tubs that were being constantly opened and closed all week, and sometimes even longer. Coffee is like any other food product, the more oxygen the faster the deterioration in the product. In the beer business DO (or Dissolved Oxygen) is an absolute killer of quality, and breweries go to serious lengths to try to reduce it. Here it wasn’t really previously considered at all.
This is something Byron and I discussed when he started, and we both agreed to move away from doing it this way. The way we do it now is we estimate the weekly retail sales of each bean, and the coffee packer (normally my son Jordy or Julia or Tayla), will make up this amount at the start of the week as part of the normal packaging run. Then if any more is needed as the week goes on, we just break down a wholesale bag to make up the retail bag for sale. No more tubs (except for Decaf, more on that one later, we have plans there as well).
Byron is regularly inspecting our beans, which is not something I noticed being done before. If he sees anything out of the ordinary he’ll show me and we’ll have a conversation about it. 2 examples of this happening recently were:
Filler bean issues
One of our blends is pitched as a more traditional / lower cost blend and it contains some filler beans. What this means is beans that are cheap and don’t really add to the flavour, just fill in the space more or less. This isn’t something we’d do with our flagship blends, but it’s fairly common for blends that are more traditional and more commodity in nature (of which we have one, Costa D’oro).
Byron noticed that some beans in the blend were not roasting properly. He could tell in the finished product by visually inspecting the batches and after a series of brews was able to narrow down the problematic bean, and was able to notice issues in the green bean. In this example, we are in the process of going back to the green bean supplier about our concerns and seeing if we can replace the bean or get higher quality versions.
Last week Byron pointed out to me that one of the beans in the tubs had started releasing oil. This happens to coffee after a little while and once it happens, the oil can go rancid. We know if this happens and we sell the coffee, it might not get consumed for a week or two and that would be problematic. It was a small amount of coffee and while it was tasting fine now, we took the decision to dump the rest of the tub in case there were issues down the track.
Another big part of our plans for improving quality is we are in the process of acquiring a pilot roaster. We currently only have a 40kg roaster which is fairly big. One single batch will produce over $1,000 in retail value in coffee so the stakes are pretty high when it comes to tweaking batches, or any kind of experimentation. Plus it means for slow moving coffees like Decaf, one batch will last quite a while. This isn’t great because coffee should be consumed as fresh as possible, ideally 1-3 weeks after roasting.
We are in the process of acquiring a pilot roaster, which gives us the ability to roast 7kg batches. This means for slow moving roasts, we can just do small batches and sell them as fresh as possible. It also means if we want to tweak blends, we can do them at a small scale before risking them on a big batch. This will result in us doing this more often, and ideally regularly tweaking and improving our blends. Again, going back to beer, our pilot system was a big part of our process of making quality beers. Going forward, that will be our plan here as well.
Slightly reducing Batch size
We have a 40kg roaster here but the standard approach in the past was to roast 48kg per batch. This puts pressure on the roaster and while it saves labour, it increases the risk of something not roasting perfectly.
Also, roasting profiles are written for 40kg batches so things will change a bit if you increase that by 20%. We are experimenting with bringing this down to 40kg, doing it in single batches first to make sure there aren’t any negative consequences. We expect the roasts to be more consistent and perhaps we’ll get a bit more time out of the machine between servicing as well.
We recently had our roaster and afterburner serviced for the first time since I took over. It’s not a small job, the equipment builders (CRA – Coffee Roasters Australia) come in and clean out and fully service the machine, then a gas fitter does the same with the afterburner and dials it all back in again. We are going to make sure we do this at regular intervals.
We picked up a few other things as part of this process like a better type of grease to be using on the machine, and some tweaks in our processes.
Byron is also very much onto the ongoing cleaning and maintenance of the machine, regularly giving it deep cleans and dealing with small issues that arise. And we had a good conversation with Mark from CRA about how to manage ongoing maintenance going forward. There have been a few things pop up since servicing that have had to be dealt with.
Previously we didn’t put full dates on our coffee bags. There was a bit of an obscure date that we understood but our customers didn’t know about. It was thought that customers would be spooked if beans weren’t perfectly fresh.
I’m a big believer in freshness in food products and dates. With our beers we were one of the first breweries to put packed on and best before dates on our cans. Best before dates were common when we started, but packed on dates were rare. It reveals more to the consumer and it’s also a bit more of a pain to do. But we believed (and I continue to), that you should take customers on the quality journey with you and customer education and inclusion is a big part of it.
Putting dates on our coffee bags is also a bit annoying, but I think it’s the right approach.
Going forward we put full roasting dates on our bags so our customers know the freshness of the beans. If you look at one of our bags, you’ll notice the date on the seal at the top of the back of the bag. We are still in the process of rolling this out as it’s a bit more work.
In my experience creating quality food products really comes down to the attitude of the company owner and team. If the team sees the product as a commodity, quality won’t really factor into decisions. If the team sees quality as a critically important thing, it will always be something that continues to get better and better. And most quality products don’t get produced by setting a standard and then forgetting it, they get produced by continuing to focus on quality over time and having the attitude that quality can and should always be improved.
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