What's not in your cup

The thousands of miles long supply chain from grower to roaster has quality assurance at every step ensuring that when you open your little bag, you’ve got a homogenous, harmonious little family of happy beans, who you will, of course, ritualistically grind and drown.

The process of sorting beans is a mix of purpose-built machinery and a lot of manual labor. Much of this sorting for quality and size is achieved by industrial air sorters and sieves but a lot of sorting for defects is still done by hand. Generally this involves workers lining up on either side of a conveyer belt removing troublemakers as they process by.

On arrival to Borealis, beans need to be evaluated. Looking for consistent density, color, and size, as well as checking for defective beans. Otherwise, you could have some perfectly roasted beans, but with other larger or denser ones not quite there. Smaller ones would be slightly burnt, and like your childhood dreams would be destined to express themselves with overwhelming bitterness when you are drinking.

The bad beans are all known by aliases, like any proper crime syndicate. Floaters, pales, full blacks, half blacks, stinkers, each of them can escape attention. The tolerances are quite unforgiving; one bad bean really can spoil the batch.  The reasons for the defects are varied. Some are of natural causes like insect damage, or simply immature or overripe beans or fallen cherries being picked. Others are errors in process; exposure to moisture or heat at the wrong times, or overstaying their welcome in one stage of the process for too long.

The SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) grades coffee based on the allowances for these defects. Even the very worst grade of coffee, off grade, which hopefully you’ve never had, only allows 86 defects in 300 gram. That’s 86 defects in about 2000 beans. The tolerances for exchange/premium coffee grades, like what Borealis purchases, are far more rigorous, with no more than 23 defects allowed.  

That doesn’t mean the dozen or so allowable defects make it into your cup. One of the small advantages of small-batch roasting is that roasting five pounds or so at a time means fewer places to escape attention before going in the hopper. There’s one last QA pass, and that’s Brian, looking for the bad bean. Next to the roaster atop Brian’s red tool chest sits a small jar, proudly displaying what didn’t make it past the last gatekeeper: black beans, insect damaged beans, husks and even a couple decent sized twigs.

There are also two slightly larger reject containers, weighing in at 150 lbs each. Destined for the Team Crafty Columbian blend, Brian received two bags of beans with an unacceptable error rate; a black bean or two staring up from the burlap. It’s all being rejected. Larger roasters might offset a bad batch by diluting it into larger batches of better beans for roasting, while pursuing a heavy discount from their supplier, but this isn’t something that’s feasible or desirable for Borealis Coffee Roasters.

Beyond the principle of paying for a certain level of quality and expecting it, bad beans would ruin Brian’s coffee and his reputation. He has the appropriate underdog suspicion that in the vast coffee industry, at some point in the supply chain someone figured the little guy “might not know better.” With great finality the two clamps marked “Reject” attest that at Borealis, this is not true. When you are appreciating a good cup, appreciate what went into it, as well as what didn’t.

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