Thoughts on Calibration

By: Porttia Portis

Sep 7, 2022

If there's one word I could use to describe my experience with NKG PACE, it's calibration. Why calibration, you might ask? It is the crux of everything we do as coffee quality control specialists. Before joining the program, calibration wasn't something I would have associated with people but rather equipment. You can calibrate a thermometer, a grinder, even an espresso machine but people? So what does it mean to calibrate people?

Regarding quality control in coffee, calibration is an exercise to establish that tasters throughout the production chain evaluate coffees on the same level with a specified set of qualifications. This is vital for ensuring effective communication between producers and customers. Quality control specialists help to bridge this communication gap through calibration, which acts as its own language to assign quality value attributes to a coffee. It is QC's job to use this "language" of sorts to be unbiased in order to find the best home for the coffees in question. In addition, since individual tastes can be subjective, these assessments help bring a level of objectivity to the post-production process. 

However, it's not just a matter of becoming calibrated but remaining calibrated. QC specialists must calibrate with one another regularly, if not daily, to ensure that everyone is on the same level of understanding and communication. This means cupping, cupping, and more cupping. The first week of the NKG PACE program was filled with coffee tastings, cuppings, and other sensory exercises for myself and the other Partners to establish calibration with one another. 

After we dispersed to our individual placements, our calibrations went from daily to weekly or sometimes bi-weekly, but each of our placements has helped us to learn more about the language of calibration from different but equally valid perspectives. For Charles in Hoboken, that looks like a focus on calibrating to industry standards; Jayy in San Diego gets hands-on experience calibrating with customers, and I get to calibrate for educational purposes in Seattle. Our experiences have led to a deeper understanding of quality control and its practical applications.

As we approach the end of the first quarter of the PACE program, calibration is becoming less unfamiliar and a part of an established routine for the Partners and me, almost like muscle memory. We all look forward to our daily cuppings in our respective labs and calibrating with one another during our check-ins. These virtual calibrations are a testament to the fact that calibration can take place anywhere, a fervently adapted sentiment as Covid-19 shifted the world of coffee as we know it. A lot of the coffee industry relies on in-person interaction, but calibration can be done anywhere with anyone as long as all parties have the same coffee and cupping equipment.

The coffee industry's future is uncertain, which naturally welcomes a lot of anxiety. However, calibration may be one of the few areas in coffee where we can take comfort in the amount of sameness involved. Knowing that calibration is a way for all aspects of the coffee industry to learn to speak the same language gives me hope that we can reach synthesis on other vital issues with the common goal of protecting coffee for future generations to come.