The Art & Science of Specialty Coffee

Coffee, like Culinary or Mixology, has historically been considered an art rather than a science.  The skills required for roasting specialty coffees, coaxing the subtle nuance of taste and aromas characteristics, and the experience required by elite barista to manipulate the grind-dose-tamp extraction process to produce a truly amazing sensorial experience, have been compared to those of a painter, chef, or musician: artists, not scientists.

The question of art vs. science in specialty coffee has been a steady topic of conversation for the past generation.  Most debates have two distinct camps. However, most specialty coffee professionals will align themselves as artists, not scientists.

Artists have long been opposed to conformity, structure, and the status quo and express their creativity and individuality in their work.  Writers, singer/songwriters, painters, sculptors, poets, etc., all have mysterious, intangible expertise that allows them to arrange words, sounds, and colors in ways that are pleasing and thought provoking.  Scientists follow strict protocols using quantitative analysis and precise measuring tools to collect data and reach conclusions.  Specialty coffee roasters and elites baristas aspire to reach artist status, and to be recognized for their mysterious skills and expertise to produce amazing coffee.  Imagine the conversation in your local coffeehouse between a consumer and their barista, “This coffee is amazing, I can taste all the characters and aromatic nuances that you described – you are a true artist!”  This is the reaction to which we aspire, not: “This coffee is amazing, I can taste all the characters and aromatic nuances that you described – you are a true coffee scientist.”

Before the use of PID controls and thermocouples in roasters, brewers, and espresso machines; before the industry embraced controlled time and temperature profile roasting techniques; and before we understood pre-infusion, turbulence, brew solids and rates of extraction, we used the time-honored process of trial and error as best presented by the school of hard knocks.  Before the SCAA and the Guilds, there was limited access to coffee education.  Knowledge was gained mainly through private research or The International Coffee Development Group and The Coffee Brewing Center who were clearinghouses for scientific coffee information.  These were the days where artistry prevailed and science was not a topic of conversation in our industry.

Today the skills necessary for product development are still in the realm of artistry; using one’s experiences and expertise to build and create taste and aromas through green coffee selection, roasting, brewing, or extracting.  Having expert level knowledge of how sensory attributes and tastes will compliment or contradict each other is still a recognized art, similar to food and beverage pairings.  Knowing how colors can combine to make new colors, being able to read music, knowing how mediums combine in sculpture, this is all necessary science that is the building blocks for creativity.  Knowing the flavor changes that occur when changing green coffee, manipulating the roast profile or adjusting the drink preparation, is similar to artist who combines colors on canvas or notes in a song, it may be appealing and delicious or not. Either way artistry is at work

Coffee marketing is best described as presenting your product superior to your competitors.  One valuable tool marketers use is to evoke the sense of artistry and mysterious intangible skills to explain why their product should be purchased, using the consumer recognition of culinary and mixology as an art form. Chefs, vintners in the wine industry, and distillers in the spirits industry, are also artists, using many of the same techniques as coffee roasters and baristas to create innovative and distinctive flavor characters in their products.  The too often heard “We roast with love” or “We are guided by our passion” should remain in the realm of romantic movies and not in coffee marketing.

However, in all food production there is science.  How we embrace the science, meaning our level of understanding and utilization of the scientific method, measuring tools and testing protocols is what will separate a singular specialty experience never to be repeated from a sustained and consistent specialty coffee product that can be enjoyed over time and at multiple café’s.  The artistry in specialty coffee is the creation of coffee products which will distinguish a company from their competitors.  The science required to re-create the coffee product for consistency is the definition of quality.

Beginning with product development in roasting, quantitative measuring tools must be in place to measure the attributes of the green coffee, the development of the roast, the attributes of the roasted coffee, and the operation of the roasting equipment.  The data collected during the artistic process will be used to blend art and science together in the form of a product specification document.  This document is a tool used by specialty coffee professionals to re-create the coffee characteristics and flavors for the next batch, for the next week, and possibly until something fundamental changes in the green coffee supply and the coffee character is not able to be re-created.

The tools required to collect the process and quality data are not specific to the specialty coffee trade or the commercial coffee market. These tools are basic food science and process control tools used throughout the coffee industry and food manufacturers.  For example, data collection may include ambient temperature and humidity, green coffee temperature, moisture content, and density.  Other important measurements include charge weight, drum air temperature, bean temperature at specific time increments, gas pressure, flame intensity, and cooling time.  Finished product measurement may include any of the following: roast development scale (Agtron), color development, or three-dimensional L.a.b. color scale.  Other quality data collections including moisture content, water activity, grind particle size (if applicable), counting roasted coffee defects, and headspace measurements in a stored package are for the management and control of the manufacturing process to produce a uniform and consistent recreation of the development samples using scientific tools and quantitative data collection. The specialty coffee professional will use science to re-create the product development which was a result of artistry.

The barista has many tools available to help measure the parameters of brewing or extraction.  The artistic process of blending roasted coffee for a particular desired profile or from a single lot coffee to develop a high-quality beverage has not changed.  The expertise that is derived from experience with coffee and coffee preparation techniques will drive the artistic process.  Developing the flavor characteristic, accentuating the acidity or body, maintaining the sweetness, and aromatics can all be manipulated within coffee, similar to blending colors and textures on a painting, or developing the melody and harmony in music.   Culinary Artists consider acidity (perceived organic acids), temperature, texture, fats/oils, primary spices and herbs, accent or finishing ingredients, as well as color and plate composition when developing recipes and menu items.

Chefs, artists, and baristas are all following a similar artistic process of bringing together complimentary and contradictory characters and attributes to create something that is greater than the sum of the parts. The barista may collect process control or quality control data when developing preparation formulas or drink recipes that include all the collected information from the roaster/manufacturer plus additional information including:  time from roasting, water quality (taste, aroma, pH, hardness, TDS), brew water temperature, time of brewing/extraction cycle.  The bed depth, including size and shape of the portafilter or brew basket (for French press, Hario or Clever cone, etc.), will also provide valuable information that must be controlled for the beverage to be re-created.  Beverage temperature, water pressure or flow rates, extraction percentage, brew solids, brix, and pH will all provide information to help create a preparation specification or beverage recipe to be used to re-create and the beverage multiple times and at multiple locations.

Baristas, roasters, coffee tasters, and other coffee professionals use science when conducting cuppings.  A cupping is a sensory analysis of coffee products that use science to control the variables that will change the profile or flavor attributes of the coffee being tested.  Managing the roast development, grind particle size, dosage, water quality, water volume, water temperature, timing of the test, etc. will all insure a proper and appropriate coffee analysis is conducted.

The goal of the specialty coffee artist is to create an amazing coffee or coffee beverage that will be recognized for its quality and appreciated for its taste, sweetness, and aroma characteristics.  The goal of the specialty coffee scientist is to measure the coffee and beverage development to create a specification used to re-create the coffee beverage.  Science should not only be looked at as a cold and sterile analytical perspective, but also a food safety or good manufacturing practices program. If coffee is manufactured improperly there may be a consumer health issue or product quality issue. Science in specialty coffee should be considered an ally, not the enemy of art.

Retail operations thrive on uniformity and consistency, the consumer wishes to receive products with similar look, aroma, and flavor at each visit.  Specialty coffee professionals who recognize and embrace the coexistence of art and science will be able to produce and prepare specialty coffee products that can be duplicated over time and between roaster or cafe locations.  There are too few coffee scientists and instead of being utilized in the creative, development phase of new products they are usually called upon to solve problems.

The conclusion: both art and science should co-exist as coffee equivalents.

Spencer Turer graduated from Johnson & Wales University with degrees in culinary arts and foodservice management, and began his coffee adventure in 1994 as a barista. After working in quality control, green coffee buying, retail marketing and importing, Spencer is now the Vice President at Coffee Analysts in Burlington, VT.  He is a Co-Founder of The Roasters Guild, a Licensed Q Grader and has earned many certifications from the SCAA. Spencer can be contacted at

Suggested Reading