Red Fox’s Fabian Viveros León Talks QC, Mexico, & Covid-19

A third generation coffee worker, Red Fox’s Fabian Viveros León learned about coffee cultivation, quality control, and trading from his father in Huila, Colombia, starting at a young age. Currently living in Oaxaca, he manages quality control for Red Fox Sourcing Company, running the lab, overseeing dry mill operations, and spending time in the field managing producer relationships. He also plays a key QC role in Peru and Colombia during sampling and shipping seasons. In fact, he’s in Colombia right now doing just that. 

We talked with Fabian about growing up in coffee, what it’s like working in quality control, the challenges he saw as Covid-19 ramped up in Mexico this year, and what he sees for the future. Since Fabian speaks Spanish, this interview has been translated into English by Red Fox’s Carina Barreda. 

RJ Joseph: Can you tell us a little bit about growing up with coffee?

Fabian Viveros León: My experience starts at home. I am the third generation that has been dedicated to working with coffee in Colombia. Growing up with coffee gave me the opportunity to learn all about coffee trees, processing, and trading. In 2014, I started learning about cup quality control, purchasing, parchment storage logistics, and in 2016 I began working formally as a purchasing and logistics analyst.

RJ: How did you end up working in quality control?

Fabian: A question was generated within me. I wanted to know how the process of evaluating coffee worked. So, I came across coffee cupping and its derivatives. From there I began to enter this new world of coffee, which I did not know previously, and that now has become my life and passion.

RJ: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve seen for producers regarding quality in Mexico?

Fabian: The biggest challenge that I encountered within Mexico was the lack of knowledge about the crop and how to work it properly. Also, gaining the trust of people who have been scammed previously. Another challenge has been dealing with the non-acceptance of new knowledge and practices of processing coffee to improve their product. Coffee is not a primary economy for the Mexican smallholders, so there is a lack of interest in developing new and better practices.

RJ: If coffee isn’t the primary economy of the producers we work with in Mexico, what is? What is their incentive to produce quality coffee?

Fabian: According to what I have observed, the primary livelihood for Mexican smallholders in the coffee-growing regions is divided between agricultural activities (planting corn, beans, vegetables, among others), sale of typical clothing from the region, and wooden crafts. The incentive to produce quality coffee is to diversify income sources since there is national and international market demand. Producers have seen a possibility to improve their livelihood with this crop.

RJ: What were some of the biggest successes over the past season?

Fabian: We strengthened business relationships with small producers. We have been able to form trusting relationships and provide producers with a sense of security that we want to work with them in the next harvests. Another success is that we were able to have a broader presence within the area and create a meeting point in Oaxaca for small producers. 

RJ: How does it feel to have the job of assessing quality and, in certain cases, telling producers if their coffee passed or failed as someone who’s been in a multi-generational coffee-growing family?

Fabian: It is a very big responsibility because you have to give the producers security and confidence to speak directly and explain the reasons for the approval or rejection of their product. In addition, you have to try to motivate them to keep improving and keep working with us to follow up on their successes and failures. The important thing is to speak to them from personal experience, to relate better, and to have compassion.

RJ: What do you think are the biggest challenges for you working in QC in specialty coffee?

Fabian: The biggest challenges are communicating the client’s needs, changing the way producers think and their understanding of how to manage their crop, and also all the follow-up for the additional work we’re doing. So basically, it’s communicating that knowledge, communicating that need, and starting to do the work. It’s a challenge for all producers in any part of the world.

It’s a chain, and when you get the producer to understand the whole process, the follow-through, the feedback, seeing the final result is really gratifying for me as the person doing the quality control, and also for the producer because they understand that it’s not just producing coffee, it’s putting your heart into it, investing passion—that is the most important for producing good coffee.

RJ: Which specific challenges do you think the pandemic will highlight for producers?

Fabian: To be able to transport their products to sell, that implies that they could expose their safety in order to be able to make an income and survive. Most producers are already at high risk for this disease, they are elderly people (average 60, 80 years of age). This will be a challenge for them and the leaders in their communities to establish control of entry and exit of people and limit exposure.

RJ: What was it like finishing the last season with the pandemic beginning to shut things down? What has it been like in Oaxaca since then?

Fabian: It was a tense moment for everyone. We had to start communicating with the producers so they could transport their coffee from their communities as quickly as possible. We had to find solutions and facilitate their transportation to the drying mill and thus avoid production delays, shipments, and other difficulties.

Oaxaca since then has been coupled with Covid-19 control measures. For a month, only essential services were open, and over time other types of non-essential services were available, with the necessary control measurements to adapt to the “new normal.” Now, there are already 75% to 85% of commercial activities operating for the national and foreign populations. 

RJ: One last question: are you feeling optimistic about next year in Mexico and the seasons that are happening now in Peru and Colombia?

Fabian: Yes! For next year we expect to see even higher coffee production, strengthen our commercial relationships, and look for new strategies to find new farmers. This year was very difficult for coffee farmers, and they will need the next seasons to overcome this 2020 crisis. I feel very optimistic about what we’ll see in the 2021 harvest.


To learn more about our work, check out our journal and follow us on Instagram @redfoxcoffeemerchants, Twitter @redfoxcoffeeSpotify, and YouTube.


Logistics Are Quality

Logistics are not just as important as quality: they are key to the actual delivered cup quality your customers see. Once harvested and processed, every coffee has a certain quality potential. Our job as a sourcing company isn’t just finding that coffee and ensuring that quality potential is maximized throughout growing and processing: it’s preserving that quality through the export and import processes—something we take particular pride in. Logistics are so integral to quality and quality is so integral to our mission that we prioritize supply chains across the globe in which we can play a leading role in logistics and preserve every bit of the producer’s meticulous work. Logistics may not be glamorous, but they’re critical to all the things that are.

Pre-Shipment Storage

Once coffee is harvested and processed, it’s critical to manage conditions in which coffee is stored prior to shipment. One way to do that is by managing where and when the coffee hangs out on its way out of the producing country. 

For instance, humidity is a challenge for some of the groups we work with in Northern Peru, like Coopbam and Santuario. Since the ambient moisture in the air would be enough to interfere with these groups’ careful drying practices, they preserve quality by storing all the parchment in GrainPro. Then, as soon as they have results from their cupping lab, they move the coffee to Piura, which is much drier. The coffee is stored at the dry mill in Piura before moving to port and shipping. Other similar examples in Peru are taking coffee from Puno’s Sandia Valley, around 1,000 masl, up to 4,000 masl in Juliaca, and from 1,500-2,000 masl in the Calca producing areas to 2,000 masl in the city of Calca. 

In-country transportation schedules wouldn’t necessarily be thought of as quality improvement measures, but in fact, this practice, which we use in many other regions as well, helps ensure that the flavors this group produced on the farm actually make it to the end consumer. This improves shelf-life, meaning both that quality is intact for longer and the eventually inevitable aging process happens more smoothly. The best climate for growing and processing coffee isn’t necessarily the best for storing it, and logistics help navigate that gap.


It’s easy to go to origin and taste great coffee; the real skill lies in being able to bring that same flavor back just as vibrant as when it left. Nowhere is that more true than in Ethiopia. In Agaro, in Western Ethiopia, we have trusted relationships of over a decade in length that reach back to when the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) was formed in 2008. 

When that happened, many small independent washing stations lost the ability to export their coffee directly, meaning that we had to change our entire sourcing strategy. What came out of that was the formation of a new cooperative called Kata Muduga, formed by trade partners dissatisfied with the larger cooperative unions that controlled much of the field. When the ECX ended last year, our relationship with Kata Muduga remained stronger than ever, as did the quality coming out of Agaro.

This long, trusted relationship partnered with strategic detail work helps us manage logistics to ship our coffee first and deliver that quality intact to consumers. It allows us to get into the warehouse first, cup quickly and accurately, and make immediate decisions. A huge part of the necessary detail work is being diligent about contracts that outline key shipping details—it’s not glamorous, but it’s what makes glamorous coffee possible. 

One of the most common misconceptions we see is that anyone with a skilled palate can go to Ethiopia, taste coffee, and deliver it to their customers. While palate skill matters, without strategic trade knowledge and partnership it’s all too easy to end up in a situation where that great coffee will show up last, having spent months of its life hanging out in a variable climate and lost a ton of potential quality and shelf-life. Getting containers out of the country, timing them correctly to avoid jams, and using relationships strategically all take logistical expertise that is a key component of end quality. 


When importing coffee, we look carefully at logistical details with quality preservation as a key focus. Many importers prioritize delivering the lowest possible price to their end consumers, and that’s a valid approach, but it’s not at the core of what we do. We prioritize delivered quality even when it isn’t the cheapest option (and it often isn’t).

Part of this is in timing—we typically choose the fastest route into the US. We are specific in our contracts and avoid trans-shipping (where the coffee stops at one port and gets moved to another ship, continuing its journey from there), which often leads to delays in questionable climates. 

In the case of Mexico, we’ve also experimented with trucking the coffee overland rather than shipping. Last year, even though our primary warehousing spaces are in New Jersey and California, we sent a container north to Texas, then split it up and sent it to its final destination overland to get it here faster and have better control over travel conditions. 


We warehouse in third-party warehouses, meaning that we rent space from other warehousing companies and they work with our customers to coordinate shipping through trucking companies (we help facilitate, but it’s not under our aegis). Working with third-party warehouses allows our customers to consolidate their orders, but it’s not without its vulnerabilities. 

Damage to bags within the warehouses, mixups that end with the wrong coffee going to the wrong person, these are logistical concerns that occur in the warehousing stage that we are accountable for but not in control of. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of one of these issues, you know how much warehouse logistics have the power to affect quality on your menu. 


If you’ve ever encountered an issue with your coffee after a rough truck run, you’ve had a firsthand demonstration of how important in-country transit logistics are to quality. Our role in this process is as a resource: we help customers get fair freight quotes under the umbrella of our relationship with freight companies, and help them coordinate shipping and release from the warehouse. 

Since this is a process we are adjacent to and don’t control, we do everything we can to help, but we also know this is a place where logistical failures outside our purview can have a massive effect on quality. We can do everything to carry the torch and ensure as much preservation of coffee quality as possible leading up to trucking, but if your coffee accidentally gets soaked or contaminated on the truck on the way to your roastery, all of that hard work is compromised. 

Logistics Are Key

In the world of top-tier specialty coffee, there’s often a divide between the glamour of quality and the nuts and bolts work of logistics. It’s easy for the language of logistics to turn to static in the ears of those not deeply involved in their intricacies, especially because they’re often jargon-laden and complex. But the truth is, logistics absolutely have the potential to make or break quality. Coffee is perishable and extremely climate-sensitive. The greatest coffee on Earth is worth nothing if you can’t deliver it to its destination with all of its quality potential intact. It’s easy to go to origin and taste great coffee, but the real skill lies in being able to bring that same flavor back just as vibrant as when it left. 

Scaling Quality: Sample Roasting

Tasting coffee is the foundation of any high-quality coffee sourcing company, and you can’t taste coffee unless you roast it. Different companies take different approaches to sample roasting, but the key to any approach is being able to execute it consistently. It’s impossible to build accuracy and objectivity into your cupping process if you don’t start with the right roast, so our goal is to make sure that our roasting process is as repeatable as possible.

To ensure maximum consistency, we start with the right tool for us: Ikawa roasters, which run consistent roast profiles off a digital console with precise temperature controls. The dilemma that underpins this is whether or not one size fits all: can you learn the most about coffees by tasting them all on the same profile, or do custom profiles reveal the most about a coffee’s true nature? 

For us, the answer is somewhere in between and relies on the water activity (aW) of a coffee, or the rate at which moisture moves in and out of the raw coffee seed. We believe that when tracked consistently over time, water activity readings can yield a ton of information—not just about a coffee’s shelf-life, but also about how it’ll behave when you, our customers, production-roast it. Since we have pretty tight ranges for water activity in coffees we buy, we have 3 custom profiles that we choose from based on a coffee’s water activity and moisture. 

Across roasters, we’ve noticed that a higher water activity will crack harder, carry more momentum, and generally take less energy to get to its end temperature. On the other side of that, coffees with lower water activity can tend to exotherm less when compared to coffees with higher water activity when they crack and require more energy to develop properly and get out of the roaster. So, our 3 custom profiles compensate for that range, allowing us to get the same level of development out of each coffee with consistent, slight tweaks to profile. 

With a lot of our sample roasting done at elevation, we also tweak profiles to compensate for that factor. Although Ikawa’s heating element is PID-controlled and will digitally attempt to follow the profile curve, we’ve noticed that if we use the exact same profiles at elevation, the coffees will overdevelop on the same line. To compensate, we increase the airflow during roasts and drop the final end temperature a little. Over time, we’ve gotten to a point of consistency where the roast is rarely a factor on the cupping table unless we want it to be.

These profiles aren’t and never will be set in stone. On the thankfully rare occasions where we feel like a sample roast is noticeable on the cupping table—meaning that the coffee might taste dark, light, overdeveloped, or underdeveloped, to the point of making it more difficult to assess the sample itself—we make a note to take a look at what factors might have influenced the roast and experiment with our process from there. 

For instance, water activity and moisture are usually tied closely together, but in rare instances, they differ. One time, we noticed that a coffee tasted underdeveloped, and it turned out that while it had a slightly higher water activity within our narrow acceptable range, it had a very low moisture content, which had affected the roast. From there, we made sure to adjust our protocols to swap roast profiles based on moisture within a certain range rather than basing them on water activity alone. This is just one of many examples. 

We do our best to represent the coffees that producers work hard to bring to our table and the onus is on us to guarantee that our assessments are based on the best data available. Our roasting process should never be a variable, and we work hard to make sure it isn’t. That helps us not only to bring in great coffee, but also to ensure that our producing partners get to showcase their work and put their best foot forward, even though they aren’t physically present while we’re tasting their coffee.

If you ever have any questions for us about the way your coffee is roasting, shoot us an email and we’ll be happy to share our thoughts. To see our Ikawa profiles, get in touch with your trader or hit us at

To read a truly excellent primer by resident roastmaster Joel Edwards, click here.

Posted in Lab

Sample Roasting


This piece was originally published here in 2016 and shares some general principles, specifics, and best practices. To learn more about our current sample roasting program, click here

Hi folks, Joel here! I often get questions from customers about sample roasting, so I wanted to share some thoughts on our approach and the protocols we use at Red Fox.

An important part of what we do here at the lab everyday is evaluate samples, and it’s necessary for us to have protocols in place to help us accurately assess quality. Our protocols for sample roasting are designed with the goal of achieving consistent results, so that we can compare many, many samples, as accurately as possible, across days and weeks and months.

When a sample arrives here at Red Fox, we first measure its moisture content and water activity (aW). Moisture content is literally how much water is left in the coffee after it is dried. A coffee seed has a moisture content of around 60% when it’s first put out on the drying table or patio. As the coffee dries, the moisture content is brought down to 9-12%, usually over 7-21 days.

Water activity, simply stated, is a measurement of how bound that moisture is inside the coffee seed. There seems to be a relationship between how quickly a coffee has been dried and its aW. That is, coffee dried very quickly will often have a higher aW, while coffee dried more slowly will have a lower one. We pay attention to moisture content and aW because they tell us something about how a coffee was prepared and how the quality might change over time, but also because they give us clues as to how that coffee will behave in the roaster.

Higher-moisture coffees need more energy to get going and I will often introduce them at a higher temperature. (Density plays a role in this as well, but I am focusing on higher-grown, relatively dense coffees here.)

A coffee with a higher aW needs less energy during the latter part of the roast (especially going into and out of crack), while coffees with a lower aW need more energy to achieve the same line.

At Red Fox HQ, we have a two-barrel Probat sample roaster and we use a 90g charge to achieve the roast times we are looking for. For a coffee at 10% moisture content, I’ll introduce the sample at 350F on the analog temperature display, with the air fully to tray and a high flame. (For the broadest audience appeal, I’m assuming we’re all old school and don’t have any fancy thermocouples or data-loggers on our sample roasters). Once the coffee has turned yellow (lost all green shades), I’ll increase the air to drum to about three-quarters open. This happens between 3:15-3:45. At first crack (shooting for between 7:00-8:00), I will open up the air even more. If I’m working with a coffee with a higher aW, I’ll also lower the flame setting at crack. The idea is that during crack a coffee with a higher aW will really want to race once it goes from endothermic to exothermic. By increasing the air flow and lowering the flame, I’m trying to mitigate that. The opposite is true for a coffee with a low aW, where it almost acts like a heat sink and needs more energy to finish (in my case, less air to drum). I’m sure we’ve all roasted a coffee that seemingly takes no effort at all and easily follows the ‘standard line’ without abnormally big air/gas changes — that coffee was probably well-dried with solid moisture content and aW. Depending on the coffee, I’m looking for a “development time” after crack of anywhere from 1:15-1:45.

The metric we use to measure roast degree is percent weight loss or:

1 – (end weight/starting weight)

For example, a 90g charge with an end weight of 79.8g is:

1 – (79.8/90) = 0.113 or 11.3% loss

We are finding that we generally like samples to fall between 11-13% loss. Lower than this range and we start to taste grainy, cereal-like flavors (underdeveloped). Higher loss will begin to take on roasty/bitter flavors (overdeveloped). That being said, lower-moisture coffees can take a lower % loss and will take on roasty flavors faster (e.g. a coffee with 9.2% moisture could taste fine at 10.75% loss, but might start to develop roasty flavors at 13% loss). Similarly, higher-moisture coffees can take somewhat higher weight loss before showing roasty flavors and will taste underdeveloped at 10.75% loss. If you want an easy answer in the struggle between under- and overdevelopment (in sample roasting), then 11.5%-12.5% loss is almost always just right.

Note that these are standards we’ve developed at our lab on our equipment. The specific times and temperatures may not work for you, but the principles will. Even more important is creating a standard protocol, so that you can properly evaluate each sample you receive. If every sample is roasted to different standards, it will be difficult to accurately assess the quality. How many offers have been passed up because the roast was off?

Lastly, I want to mention our intentions when we sample roast. We are not necessarily looking for what the coffee will ultimately taste like as a production roast, but rather we are evaluating each coffee for sweetness, brightness, and body with clarity of flavors and whether any defects are present. This roast style is meant for cupping specifically and will not extract fully in most other brew methods.

I would love to hear your thoughts on any of this and welcome a continued discussion.

These protocols have been informed by Scott Rao’s “The Coffee Roaster’s Companion” and by roasting and cupping thousands of sample roasts. That being said, everything is impermanent and they will likely change as we refine our technique and understanding.

Age in Coffee: A Primer

Coffee is a seed, and like any other produce, it is perishable—meaning that even the very best, most shelf-stable coffees on the planet will eventually show their age. Coffee shelf-lives vary region to region, coffee to coffee, and year to year based on myriad factors, some known, some suspected yet unconfirmed, and likely some not yet discovered.

Age is something that we at Red Fox track closely. All coffees age, and we can learn a lot about the process: how it progresses as well as its various causes. By testing the physical attributes of coffees (in our case, moisture and water activity) and tasting them at tight intervals, we try to learn as much as possible about what gives coffees the longest possible shelf-life and what the often subtle and gradual process of aging can teach us about coffee processing.

What Age Tastes Like

Once coffee is harvested, it goes through constant, if subtle, change even in its green form. Typically, coffees that are processed meticulously tend to open up and improve for a certain amount of time off harvest (a few months in most origins, but sometimes much longer). After that, they tend to stay relatively static for a period, then begin to lose some of their highlights, their subtler flavors like flowers and fruit. From there, they continue to round out, and as more nuances of flavor pass out of the seeds, notes of paper and cardboard start to creep in. Eventually, those flavors become predominant and the coffee loses most or all of its original character.

You might also hear this profile referred to as “faded” (because most of the original character has faded from the beans), “woody” or “papery” (because the coffees taste like wood or paper), or “baggy” (because the flavors taste very similar to the jute bags coffee is packed into, originally thought to cause these flavors).

Our QC Check-in Process

At Red Fox, we use a carefully calibrated set of procedures to track each coffee’s aging process from the time we decide to purchase it until it passes completely from our hands.

Prior to roasting and cupping, we take moisture and water activity readings on each sample that enters our lab and collect them in our sample database, which also stores roast metrics and cupping notes. Using controlled roasting and cupping processes, we cup coffees as offerings in order to make purchasing decisions, as preships to ensure quality prior to shipment, and as arrivals once the coffees enter the warehouse. Then, every 30 days after arrival, we retest moisture and water activity, roast the coffees, and cup them again, taking note of changes over time.

Once we start to taste even a hint of age flavor in coffees, we note and measure it on a scale of 1-5. At 1, the very beginnings of age, not perceptible to many, start to show. At 3, the coffee possesses about half of its original character and half characteristics of age, like cardboard or paper. At 5, the coffee retains none of its original character, giving over completely to age flavors—although many coffees never reach this point and do continue to retain some original character elements no matter how far off harvest.

Level of AgeDescription
Level 1Some faint beginnings of age characteristics. Not readily perceivable by everyone.
Level 2Age can clearly be noted; slight dryness. Origin characteristics are still the predominant flavors.
Level 3There is an equal amount of age and original character.
Level 4Age is the dominant flavor though some brightness and/or sweetness can still be found.
Level 5Only characteristics of age are present.

Once we taste age in coffee, we discount the coffee to make sure that it gets sold and roasted quickly, while it retains a significant amount of its original character.

Water Activity and Age

We’ve noticed that even more than a coffee’s moisture content (the literal amount of moisture found in the seeds), water activity level seems to be an excellent indicator of how a given coffee will age over time. Water activity describes how bound the moisture is inside the coffee seed, how much it moves in and out. Unlike moisture, water activity often fluctuates dramatically over the course of a coffee’s lifespan. We’ve found that both high water activity in general but also major fluctuations in water activity—whether during milling, transit, or warehousing—tend to act as solid indicators that a coffee’s shelf life may be shorter than similar coffees whose water activity stays more stable throughout those processes.

This is difficult to track at parts of the process where we aren’t in the physical vicinity of the coffee, like shipping, so last year we started packing data loggers along with select containers to gain more insight into the conditions coffees experience during transit. We’ll have data to share on this soon, and we hope it will help us start to close the gap on the few remaining inconsistencies in our research on water activity and age. If you want to be a part of these experiments, get in touch and we can talk about getting data loggers in some of your coffee.

Past Crop v Age

Many use the term “past crop,” meaning coffee from a past year’s harvest, synonymously with age, but they are not synonyms. We’ve had coffees pass across the cupping table for over a year without showing any age—and in fact, some Ethiopian coffees start to hit their stride far after most coffees would show almost nothing but age. Unfortunately, some coffees display age characteristics at the offer level, before they’ve even left their country of origin. Most coffees sit somewhere in between, but the arrival of a new crop shouldn’t be seen as a switch that flips, rendering the older crop automatically aged.

About to cup a large table in the Berkeley lab.

Age is Not Death

All coffees age, and that doesn’t mean that they no longer have great flavors or a place on a well-rounded menu. While we work to understand coffees’ aging process as much as we can and to guarantee the longest shelf lives possible, coffees showing various amounts of age can still bring just as much to the table as fresh coffees.

Even the most seasoned palates have variable sensitivity to age in coffee, and many consumers not only can’t taste mild to moderate age in coffee, they actually enjoy flavors like cedar that present in coffees with significant age. While coffees showing moderate to significant age may not be the best match for light roasted products, they can still bring sweetness and character at fuller roast levels, which many consumers prefer.

Perhaps even more critical than the flavors that remain in the cup as coffees age, the value that coffees bring through the strength of their supply chains does not diminish with time. Coffees that represent an investment in a deeply-rooted, high-quality value chain still hold that value and are worth investing in.

We’ve gathered a lot of data on age in coffee over the years and will continue trying to crack its complex code, so stay tuned for more results as we continue to gain insight into coffee’s aging process.

To learn more about how we source coffee, visit our journal.

Posted in Lab

Scaling Quality: Signal Detection Cupping

At Red Fox, our very small team cups a veritable ton of coffee. Whereas another importer might cup a single representative sample to purchase multiple containers from a coop, we often cup as many as 250 samples to build just one. This is a lot of work, so why do we do it? The answer is that we feel that each producer, no matter how small their operation, deserves to have their coffee tasted by our team and assessed independently. We also feel that every producer deserves specific feedback on their coffees and the ability to make additional quality premiums when their coffees exceed our already-high expectations.

Even more than the why, this piece is focused on the how: in order to cup the amount of samples we do with the tiny team we are, we use a carefully dialed system called signal detection cupping. First introduced to us by roasting and sensory expert Paul Songer and honed to our needs over time by resident expert and Director of Quality Joel Edwards, signal detection lets us cup a ton of coffee both efficiently and objectively, allowing us to not only make the right purchasing decisions but also share concise, focused, and quantified feedback with the producers we partner with.

More than just helping us cup more accurately, efficiently, and consistently, signal detection is also a linchpin in how we allocate coffees and construct lots. Where many others take a single sample from a cooperative as the de facto blend for a particular region—which, in general, is also considered de facto inferior to the single producers of that same region—we build them by hand, taking the extra time to craft lots that are a perfect representation of a particular community, family, or microregion. Without signal detection, this process would be a lot more time-consuming.

How Signal Detection Cupping Works

First, some context: we only use signal detection to cup coffees for purchase. We have a completely different procedure we use to assess preship samples and arrival samples, as well as to track quality over time. The signal detection process is specifically calibrated to help us cup offer samples from producers both efficiently and effectively and make the least biased, most informed purchasing decisions possible.

We’ll get into the details, but first, some general principles:

  • Signal detection is double-blind, so no one tasting coffee has any idea which coffees they are tasting beyond which cooperative or producer group they came from.
  • We place three cups of each coffee at random points in the table based on numeric assignments from our signal detection spreadsheet instead placing cups together and judging them as sets.
  • Each panel participant cups the table a single time at their desired temperature and we come back to the table to taste & discuss coffees in question after the data is entered into the system and analyzed.
  • We rely on the group’s aggregated scores and calibration to generate accurate and comprehensive results rather than on individual opinions.

While signal detection might not be the right cupping procedure for every roaster, it utilizes principles that underpin any solid cupping protocol: ensuring consistency, eliminating bias, and relying on group calibration more than individual opinions.

The Details

Specifically, the signal detection scoresheet works via a scale of 1-6, which takes on the following values:

1: Defective

2: Not Red Fox quality

3: Probably not Red Fox quality

4: Probably yes Red Fox quality

5: Yes Red Fox quality

6: Definitely Red Fox quality

Prior to setting up the cupping, we enter all of the sample roasts we are cupping into our signal detection spreadsheet, which assigns them random numbers, then scramble them, so that we can set up the cupping with no knowledge of which coffees we are tasting.

We brew the coffees without assessing fragrance or aroma, then move through the table quickly once the coffees are completely cool, taking one or two tastes of each and assigning them a score on this scale. While this process would be glib if used by a solo cupper, it works perfectly with a team, ensuring that all cuppers taste all coffees in a uniform and brisk fashion and don’t second-guess their first instincts.

We then enter our anonymous individual scores into our spreadsheet, which calculates our aggregated scores, giving us a group average, a cup-to-cup spread, and a confidence rating. At this point, we unscramble the coffees so we can see the random cups as sets and assess their quality and consistency.

Allocating Coffees and Lot Construction

This is where we start the process of building lots. Looking at our group average, our cup-to-cup variance, and our confidence rating, we’ll be able to see at first glance that some coffees were clearly exceptional and that some did not quite meet our quality standards. For those coffees scoring either solidly in between or all over the place, we go back and taste them as a group, then come to a decision.

In our core regions where we work primarily with smallholders—Colombia, Peru, and Mexico—we build our menu at a few different tiers: regional lots, community or family lots, and producer ID lots. Where a coffee gets slotted depends on its quantity as much as its quality.

Typically, offers will need to average around 4 to be contracted, and those lots will be bulked into community or regional lots. Offers that score closer to 5 will be marked for separation, qualify for a higher price tier, and will be marketed by name when possible as producer ID lots. Offers that score closer to 6 will receive an additional premium. Each tiny lot that goes into both our community and regional lots is vetted with the same rigour; each producer gets the same level of feedback from us. Even though cupping each producer’s lots separately isn’t the easiest way to buy coffee, we feel it’s more than worth it to build lots that represent each producer’s work at its finest, especially because we often find that these hand-built lots can present even more dynamism than the best producer ID lots.

For example, take Inzá, Colombia, where lot sizes average around just a single exportable bag. Cupping these tiny lots takes a lot of effort on our end, but not nearly as much as it takes to produce them. We aim to be as intentional as possible with how we bulk these lots and present them to the marketplace. For instance, no matter how exceptional their quality—and it is exceptional—a slew of one-bag producer lots is neither feasible to market on our end nor feasible for our clients to market and sell to their clients.

So, we take the next step to make sure these tiny lots can find real market representation in a way that makes the most logistical sense for all involved: crafting bespoke lots at the community, family, microregional, and regional levels that most accurately represent each producer’s unique cut. For example, Eibar Rojas, neighbor to the Oidor family in San Rafael, produces tremendous quality—just not always a lot of it. His farm is on the same southern-facing slopes as his neighbors and grows almost entirely Caturra, same as his neighbors. His farm is at 1800 masl in its lowest point, the Oidors at 1750 masl. Both peak out just above 1900 masl. When carefully blended together, these coffees showcase exactly the quality and unique character that its individual producers are bringing to the table. Their lots are often too small to find market representation when separated, but together, they showcase their quality perfectly and fit perfectly into the supply chain as well.

Or, look at brothers James, Hernan, and Jose Casso. They have four hectares between themselves and their father Miguel—not so much if separated individually, considering they produce coffee from June through February, but collectively enough to produce over 50 exportable bags annually. With that volume between them, they’ve got teamwork down to a science and work with us to bring their coffee to market in the most representative way possible: as familia lots that are as labor-intensive to construct and every bit as special as any single producer lot we bring in.

Why It Works

Group input and calibration are critical to the consistency of our process because even the most talented and experienced palates can have an off day. As Paul Songer, who introduced us to signal detection, says, 100% calibration where all team members feel exactly the same about each coffee not only doesn’t exist, but wouldn’t benefit a team. Fostering diversity of opinions is crucial in making sure that each producer’s coffee receives fair and balanced feedback, and signal detection allows us to look at group scores and stay within a fairly tight calibration range without having to close off the natural variations in palate and preference.

Removing bias by cupping blind with three randomly placed cups of each coffee also helps us to score coffees fairly and accurately. When we see that a set has very different scores between cups (but not cuppers) we know that one of the cups had a defect—but we got to taste and score the other two cups unbiased by that knowledge. As Joel says, when you taste the first cup in a three-cup set, you’ve usually already decided how you’re going to score the other two. Cupping blind also allows us to remove any political elements that might affect perceived preferences.

An added bonus is that signal detection is very easy to train new partners into, so as we deepen relationships with producing partners and onboard new team members, we can quickly bring them into our system and calibrate.  

Signal detection works well for us, but that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. It’s a very specific system we know will deliver the results we need, but we do feel that the general principles that underpin the process would benefit any cupping team or buyer: ensuring consistency, removing bias where possible, cupping with a team when possible, and doing your best to appreciate and represent the hard work each producer puts in to get their coffee to your table.