Having recently read James Hoffmann’s blog post concerning the perception that quality in coffee can be challenging to scale, I felt this was a good opportunity to contribute to the discussion from a small roaster perspective. Whilst there are undoubtedly differences between our two businesses, I suspect that we also have more in common than would be immediately obvious.
Of the differences between us, I suspect that scale of operation is the one which most directly influences how our businesses are run on a day to day business. Here in Sheffield we roast a much smaller amount of coffee - three or four runs each week, lasting around 6-8 hours on a roaster which has a capacity of 5kg. We are firmly focussed on the retail sector. In fact no more than 2-3% of our output finds it’s way into the wholesale market.
Our business and our reputation has been built almost entirely on quality. Growth has been steady over the past three years and we do well at retaining customers who go on to order coffee regularly from us. Alongside good service, coffee quality is the key factor for us - and we have established that this is what keeps our customers coming back - but within this higher order, quality orientated aim, our main goal is consistency. In my experience there are few things more dispiriting than buying coffee from a company that you have had great coffee from in the past and finding that the coffee you received this time is not up to scratch. That unsettling feeling when you’re not sure what you are going to get is the main barrier for me when it comes to trying out new coffee. Regardless of how well the coffee matches onto my flavour preferences, if it is well roasted then it’s highly likely that I will order from the same roaster in the future. However, if the beans are not as good as I’m expecting, or if the roasting is clearly off, then that roaster won’t be getting back on my shortlist anytime soon.
Quality control within our roasting operation is a relatively straightforward process in the sense that we have firmly established quality control measures that we use to help keep us consistently on track. Checking fidelity to roast curves on Cropster is an example. Measures like this sit alongside a real-time feedback loop between the cafe and roastery; enabling more measurement where required, which in turn informs the development of roasting profiles in the period prior to coffee being released for sale.
All of this leads to us having a huge amount of control over the coffee that we release and it’s here where there may well be advantages in being smaller. A big advantage (and for many other reasons a huge downside) is that all our roasting is done by one person. We can say with absolute certainty that all the coffee leaving the roastery has met the quality control standards that we have in place, guaranteed. There are also upsides to the fact that we only roast batches of around 3kg at a time. If something goes wrong in the roasting process and the coffee doesn’t meet our standards, it goes to compost every time. It must be difficult when roasting perhaps ten or twenty times this much coffee in each batch to make the same decisions or to work within the same exacting standards - after all the cost of mistakes in absolute terms is massively higher. So, being small means that roast profile development, and adhering to quality standards is a less costly business for us. All our development roasts are done on the same machine that we use for production roasting, which has obvious advantages in terms of maintaining consistency.
There are other factors too. We may be able to purchase smaller, more interesting lots of coffee and sometimes this is exciting. A larger company is less likely perhaps to spend time and effort finding these tiny lots given the relatively small return they would make on the investment - after all, most larger companies are orientated towards the wholesale market and I expect that a larger company has a minimum lot size that they would buy based on how the economics play out. Of course, James pointed out in his piece that there are also numerous competitive advantages that a company has as a result of being bigger around economies of scale, potential to invest in equipment and so on.
So, do I think that smaller roasters are more able to provide better coffee, more consistently to customers? Absolutely not. I have not found any evidence from my own experience to suggest that poorly roasted coffee is more likely to come from a larger company than from a smaller one. For me, the size of the operation is probably a fairly insignificant factor.
The extent to which a company is willing and able to develop, implement and enforce quality control standards is what sets the good roaster apart from the mediocre roaster. In a smaller business, this whole process may be easier. In a large company it is necessary to spend time and energy ensuring that your whole team has the required skill, understands your standards, and ideally is able conceptualise those standards as an expression of the values which underpin your company.
Of course, some businesses as they grow will choose to prioritise other issues over quality but speciality coffee is, after all, all about quality. Customers buy our coffee because it is better than non-speciality coffee and short term gains which come from increasing profit margins as a result of cutting costs associated with quality control are surely short sighted. In such a crowded market, customers have a lot of choice and in this part of the market, they demand consistently high quality as they should.
Most roasters these days have Cropster, a refractometer, some cupping bowls, some people and equipment which enables the coffee to be brewed. Although there are other tools that can help, these are perfectly adequate in ensuring that quality standards are consistently met once used within a process control context.
I believe that its all about trust - and trust comes from carefully natured relationships that are built over time, valued above all else and where consistency is the key ingredient.