2019 SCA Sensory Summit


I (Jacoby Steele) had an amazing time in Davis, both getting to know fellow coffee people from all over the world, and experiencing some amazing sessions pertaining to coffee and other sensory expertise.

The purpose of the Sensory Summit that the Specialty Coffee Association hosts is to provide an intensive learning experience for people who consider themselves coffee sensory professionals. The event is crammed pack with really fresh research and information into several facets of what makes coffee such a wonderful sensory experience. They have historically brought in professionals from many other craft industries as well as drawing from our industry’s best and brightest from all different parts of the coffee spectrum.

This year’s sessions dove into some exciting stuff that I feel like anybody could get excited about- along with some wonderfully nerdy things that I think only us coffee geeks will truly get excited about. There were CERTAINLY highlights of the sessions that I will share with you now.

World Coffee Research – If you wanted to read one paragraph of what I write here, this is what got me most excited from this weekend’s summit. World Coffee Research is a non-profit group who is devoted to coffee’s less explored side- genetics! From their website, World Coffee Research says that their goal is, “To enhance farmer livelihoods and ensure coffee’s future, we conduct essential research on the plant and on the conditions that help it thrive”. Hanna Neuschwander, the director of Communications, shared a progress report on the group’s latest project. They are two years into a Multilocation Variety Trial, where they are planting 31 top performing coffee varieties in 27 countries (and counting), in a trial that has been stringently designed to allow the varieties to show us which coffee plants are most genetically suited to each producing nation. They are monitoring all plant growth (which is an early indicator of the plant’s ability to thrive long term) and when they have a harvest, they will track under similarly strict terms what the quality of the coffee is like from each variety.

Couple this with a thorough testing of exactly how resistant to disease each plant is in a given context. The hope is to disseminate quality data to producers all over the world. Presently farmers grow what they grow because it was the seed they could get their hands on, what they inherited, what the country let them grow, or if they’re lucky, what they were able to purchase from seed distributors who were trying to breed new varieties that promised some kind of quality or health that they were previously unable to acquire. With the results of this test, producers and producing countries will know with much greater certainty what kinds of coffee varieties to plant for the highest quality outcome, and the healthiest plants. This kind of effort in unprecedented, and will give farmers precisely the knowledge they need for their farm’s future.

For a fun look at how a coffee’s genetics express themselves differently under different circumstances, the topic of their research, we were given a Geisha coffee variety grown in both California and Gesha Village, Ethiopia, roasted by the same person. The coffee from Ethiopia had a very perfume-like aroma, heavy on jasmine, citrus, and a light tea-like body. The SAME type of coffee grown in California was much more subtly floral, with rich orange-peach acidity and a body that was much more tactile. All of the people in the room exclaimed excitedly when asked to give their impressions of the coffee. One person remarked that it felt like the same coffee, with its’ attributes in scales, that was teeter-tottered in opposite directions from one cup to the other. Everything was present in both cups, but it remarkably different expressions brought out by the specific “nurture” that the different growing conditions provided. In the same way, Gesha may actually perform poorly in some countries- or not even survive! This trial will be able to reveal what has been hoped for, or painfully guessed at with trial and error, by producers around the world.


We learned about coffee freshness from doctor Chahan Yeretzian of the Zurich Institute. He had some really interesting to share, with the interesting touchpoints surrounding their identifying both physical and chemical markers of coffee freshness – carbon dioxide being present is the physical marker, and the ratio at which certain volatile compounds are present also seem to indicate coffee going stale. Since every coffee is different, all of these measurements have to be compared to the specific coffee at the point of being dropped out of the roaster to have an accurate reference point.

The findings using these markers were very interesting- the freshest pod for convenience coffee hands down was Nespresso. Coffee stays fresher in bags that have a one-way valve and are lined-aluminum bags. The worst way to store your freshly roasted coffee is to dump it out of the bag and into a canister… It was interesting to see someone working to try to find ways to quantify freshness apart from that disappointing experience of tasting a coffee that has gone stale. I loved seeing the affirmation of our switch in bag types, and also loved that I have a better answer to give customers who are curious about how to keep their coffee freshest at home. Doctor Yeretzian affirmed that this research is continuing and they’re excited to keep finding useful data for coffee professionals.

 I also learned a tremendous amount from the staff of UC Davis, who has done some awesome research in coffee brewing. From their work, we’re already seeing some really cool revelations. For instance, we realized that the “coffee brewing chart” that we use to calibrate recipes pre-dates the beginnings of drip coffee (which blew my mind) and hasn’t been worked on or updated since the ‘60’s. We are seeing that there will need to be a more complex image to really give us a more functional chart- particularly from a sensory perspective because vastly different substances come out of coffee at a given ratio!

Another take away was the realization that free monosaccharides and other substances that contribute meaningfully quality components to our cup of coffee are still coming out at the end of a brew cycle! So don’t pull your carafe away from that stream of coffee until it is fully done dripping! UC Davis is building a whole new building to support their work, and I can’t wait to see what they figure out next!

We also learned some really fun multisensory perception from a neuroscientist from Brazil. She showed some great studies she has done that show how our perceptions of certain colors, textures, and sounds help our brain clue in on certain flavors found in a beverage or can convince us to feel like we don’t like something if the colors and texture don’t match our previous experiences. A good part of the data included the fact that nearly none of the participants liked a Kenyan coffee (bright and acidic) when it was served in a pink cup (associated with soft and sweet flavors). Something she emphasized was that these kinds of reactions aren’t psychosomatic/fake – but are our brains experiencing cross modal perception. This is an inescapable part of how we experience flavor, for better or for worse! She also noted that the more experienced people become at tasting coffee, the less extreme these responses- since our brains are focusing more on what we’re tasting and also drawing from more past experiences of quality coffee to anchor into what its perceiving.

On top of all these wonderful experiences I’ve shared with you, we tasted every coffee defect that is expressed in coffee (gross), because in order for a specialty coffee business to succeed, we have to make sure we are ONLY buying specialty coffee, free from of all defects. There are very helpful flavor companies who have created extracts that imitate all the defects and sell them to roasting companies so they can routinely calibrate themselves against samples to ensure they never experience those flavors in their coffee. We also learned about how roasting effects the sensory attributes of coffee from the vice president of Probat. We had a craft chocolate maker walk us through how roasting changes the flavor profile of cacao, which was so exciting.


I also got to know some wonderful people! I had a longer conversation with Fabiana Carvalho who talked more about the reality of people’s sensory experiences with me. I admitted that I had bought into thinking that when I talked to customers about flavor notes I was priming them in a negative way- she suggested that instead of doing that I was helping their brain wade through the complex flavor of coffee and anchoring them in more familiar flavor experiences. We also talked about famous chefs who utilize super and sub-additive experiences to enhance their cuisine. Grant Achatz especially came up in the conversation. Doctor Fabiana was convinced that Grant was inspired by his uncle, who would trick him by wrapping potato chips in a candy wrapper. Grant experienced lots of “sub-additive” responses as a child towards food from these experiences that eventually moved him to want to give customers similar positive surprises that make the food more exciting.

I had great conversations with Matt Yarmey from Pure Intentions Coffee in Charlotte, NC about specialty coffee’s maturation- Matt is driven to be an educator to the burgeoning movement. He sees good training and education as the pathway towards growing new coffee businesses into true professionals who can move the industry forward.

I got to meet  Julio, who runs the cupping lab for Sweet Marias, the first place we ever bought green coffee from! I passed along how grateful we are for all they do to sell coffee equitably and provide excellent information about their coffees on a consistent basis.

I also got to meet Gavin, who runs the cupping lab for Atlas Coffee- the people who import the coffee we buy from Luis Alberto Balladarez, along with many others. It was great talking with him about what he was excited about at the moment. He loves to track the progress of developing origins they’ve spent time in, along with continuing to build quality systems that can help Atlas grow as a consistent provider of quality coffee. We gave him a bag of the Myanmar A Lel Chaung that we purchase through them to take back to his team.

I could keep typing but I was very excited to be a part of this event. There were so many indicators of the positive growth of our industry, beginning to draw more and more on quality research, learning from peer craft industries and how they’ve established themselves in ways we haven’t yet… Along with that, just how passionate and friendly our industry is! It seems like everyone I meet is involved in coffee because they love it and they love the people that it lets them serve. It was a shot of inspiration and encouragement for me to spend the weekend around so many of them!