All Things Fairtrade Coffee: Interview with Alex Urban

It’s safe to say that we’re a nation of coffee lovers. Coffee is the world’s second most traded commodity after oil, and almost 100 million cups of coffee are consumed per day in the UK alone, with 80% of people visiting a coffee shop at least once a week. But how much do we actually know about what goes into the selection of the coffees we know, love and consume on a daily basis?

Here to talk all things coffee is Traidcraft’s very own Coffee Consultant, Alex Urban. With years of coffee tasting under her belt and now the highly-regarded Q Arabica Grader status to her name, what Alex doesn’t know about coffee isn’t worth knowing! We grabbed her for a quick chat about everything from how she first started out in the coffee cupping business, to her most memorable cup of coffee.

Alex Urban quote with a coffee farmer

Can you explain a little about what a coffee cupper is?

A coffee cupper is a coffee taster, i.e. a person that tastes, analyses and evaluates the aroma, taste and the tactile perception (the mouthfeel and the flavour of a cup of coffee). A cupper gives scores for uniformity, clean cup and sweetness, and deducts points if there is a fault or taint, i.e. a defect in one of the cups. Normally five cups of the same coffee are prepared in order to do a cupping and to be able to score uniformity - beans are weighed and ground separately in order to be able to evaluate the uniformity. If there is one sour bean, we want to taste it only in one cup, not in all of the cups.

How did you get into the business of coffee tasting?
During my years at Uni I worked as a waitress in a wine restaurant; that’s where I first came into contact with wine and wine tastings. I discovered, for example, how different Riesling from different regions in Germany may taste, due to different influences.

Whilst working in the wine restaurant, I had to prepare my first coffees with an Italian espresso machine – this was where I gained my very first experiences in coffee preparation. Already having this background, I started working in the coffee supply chain as a product manager, e.g. purchasing green coffee, and I quickly noticed that much of what is true for wine is also true for coffee. I completed my first coffee sommelière training about seven years ago, where my training focused particularly on green coffee grading/evaluations and sensory skills in the course over the last years. The last one being the Q Arabica Grader course, which I passed recently.

As well as this, I am an Authorized SCA Trainer for Green Coffee and Sensory Skills (SCA = Specialty Coffee Association). I have also learned more about coffee preparations and completed Barista training courses: in order to evaluate a coffee, it is important to be able to prepare it properly.

What are your day to day tasks as a Q Arabica Grader
I don’t know yet, it’s only my second week.

A quote from Traidcraft's Coffee Consultant, Alex Urban, with an image of a farmer

How many exams have you had to take to achieve your highly-regarded 
Q Arabica Grader
19. All of the exams were in a coffee school and laboratory in central Edinburgh. The lab had all windows covered with paper and taped so that no sunlight could come in. During the sensory exams, it was completed illuminated in red light (so that we could focus only on the flavour of the cup and would not be detracted by our vision). We spent six days in this lab for the “Q course”, up to 10 hours daily, the last three full days being our exams – it was a pretty intense exam! So many cups of coffee were drank and the last afternoon I caught myself thinking, “I am not going to drink any coffee anymore”.

How many people have your Q Arabica Grader qualification?
In the UK 83, in Germany 23, in the entire world around 4,000-5,000.

What sort of tasks do you have to complete in your exams?
We had to grade green and roasted coffee, i.e. find and count the defects (an imperfection of a bean, which could be breaks, chips, insect damage or foreign matter which has an impact on cup quality), as well as matching pairs of acids in coffee and aromas and know their names. Of course, we had to cup a lot of coffee; in the exams we had four tables with six coffees - one table with coffees from Asia, one with naturally processed coffees, one with coffees from Africa and one with so called ‘milds’ i.e. coffees from Latin America. It’s then five cups per coffee which have to be scored and evaluated for its body, sweetness, acidity, uniformity, clean cup… and taints and faults. 

We, as a group of future Q Arabica Graders, were supposed to score the coffees as similar as possible, as all Q Arabica Graders around the world are meant to evaluate coffees pretty much equally. We spent the first three days of the course calibrating ourselves; being calibrated is therefore crucial in order to pass the exams. Our group was extremely calibrated and good!

How do you differentiate a good coffee from a bad one?
A good coffee for me is a coffee where everybody involved in the supply chain has done his/ her best, starting with the farmers, farm management, harvesting, processing, storing, transport, roasting and preparation of the coffee to name some of the steps. Good coffee for me also means organic, fair and has direct trade and transparency along the supply chain. A good coffee of course means also good quality, i.e. the taste.

Some tiled images of some coffee farmers taking us through the harvesting process of Fairtrade coffee

What is your most memorable cup of coffee?

When I was visiting a coop, United Organic Coffee Growers, located at Mount Elgon, close to Mbale in Northern Uganda, I was offered a cup, I was offered a cup of coffee and without thinking, I said yes. It took about an hour and 10 people at least to prepare the coffee: they collected the green coffee beans still drying in the sun, while resting in parchment (a skin layer which is removed before the coffee is exported), they hulled the coffee manually (hulling = removing the parchment), hand sorted the coffee (removing defects), roasted the coffee manually on a camping gas stove, grinded the coffee manually with the biggest mortar I have ever seen, prepared it as a pour over coffee i.e. they just pour boiling water into a cup with ground coffee and served it in a cup with little hearts on it. Drinking this coffee looking at the mountains, the coffee gardens and being amongst the very kind, humble and proud coffee farmers who had a cup as well, was definitely the most memorable cup of coffee.

Do you have a favourite coffee?
In general: A coffee that’s fair, organic and of high premium/specialty quality and was traded directly. I particularly like Bolivian coffees and naturally processed coffees from Ethiopia a lot but I am not limiting myself to only one particular origin, processing method or type of coffee. It always depends what I like best in a specific situation, time of the day and mood. Of course, an “interesting” cup is always something that I favour, so I’d always prefer to drink a less common coffee or origin, or something I haven’t tried before.

So, the next time you’re pouring yourself a cup of fairtrade coffee, you can sit back and rest assured that it has Alex’s expert seal of approval!

Published at: 04-04-2019
Tags: Fairtrade Coffee Coffee Tasting Q Arabica Grade Coffee Cupper