A new methodology aims to change the game in instant coffee

Perhaps more than decaf coffee, instant coffee has the most stigma associated with it as consumers in many global markets perceive the quality to be low. And yet, instant coffee accounts for 25% of the coffee consumed in the world, with consumption growing at about 2% annually. The Brazilian Soluble Coffee Industry Association, or ABICS, is working to alter the perception of instant coffee. During Brazil International Coffee Week (SIC – Semana Internacional do Café – 16-18 November), ABICS, in cooperation with the Institute of Food Technology (ITAL), announced the launch of a new methodology for instant quality assessment that proposes a sensory lexicon and quality grades for instant coffees.

The International Coffee Organization (ICO), in its October 2022 report, stated that total exports of soluble coffee increased by 6.1% in coffee year 2021/22, to 12.1 million bags from 11.4 million bags in coffee year 2020/21. The share of soluble coffee of the total exports of all forms of coffee was 9.4% for the year, the highest on record.

Aside from being the largest producer, Brazil is also the largest exporter of soluble coffee, shipping 3.89 million bags, per the ICO (followed by India with 2.22 million bags, with Indonesia in third place at 1.66 million bags exported in coffee year 2021/22.). Brazil’s instant coffee sector has incorporated new technologies and expanded its industrial capacity to help maintain its leading global position. Furthermore, its manufacturing processes are audited by more than 25 international certifications).

The development of this new methodology for soluble began in 2019 with the participation of experts from all instant coffee companies operating in Brazil as well as domestic and international consultants, using the main instant brands in the Brazilian market and abroad.

The methodology, the first of its kind, assesses quality by its attributes and intensity and not by scores. This concept enables consumers to select coffees according to their preferences, including the methods of consumption. That is, consumers may choose which instant coffees are best suited for black coffee, with milk/dairy alternatives, cappuccinos, beverages or gastronomy (cooking, baking, etc.).

Coffee quality has long been assessed by expert, well-trained tasters – coffee cuppers – who grade coffee bases on their appreciation of quality. However, assessment can vary greatly because there is no consensus about the level desirability or undesirability of an attribute. For example, a ‘citrus’ flavour may be positive to some, but could be negative to others, which directly impacts the coffee they purchase.

The reasoning behind the new methodology, according to ABICS, is that if consensus is achieved around the desirability or undesirability of a given attribute, it is possible to bypass the need for affective judgement by a taster and grade the quality of instant coffee based on intensity of several desirable or undesirable attributes. Therefore, grading would now be the objective of assessment, not quality.

ABICS researchers said that applying the ‘descriptive based’ quality grading to instant has multiple advantages:

  • it shows there is consensus among the instant coffee industry about what attributes are more desirable than others;
  • it shows modern sensory science tools may be applied to the instant coffee category to stimulate transparent product differentiation, and
  • it endows the instant coffee category with a language to speak to consumers about flavour and quality in a way they will understand.

Eliana Relvas, of ABICS, who was one of the lead developers of the methodology, said that the levels are not about quality, rather, how you apply it. “This is all for consumers — we want to communicate the descriptors to consumers to help remove the prejudice of instant coffee,” she said, adding, the attributes apply to everyone — some may like chocolatey, some nutty, some fruity, etc. It’s not about the quality, it’s about the descriptors.”

The first step towards creating a descriptive-based system for instant coffee was to identify key flavour attributes in instant coffee. The second step was to identify the links between each of the key flavour attributes and perceived quality to create a ‘desirability’ weight of each attribute. The third step is to propose a testing and grading method for instant coffees, based on the intensity of key flavour attributes. There are three category descriptors: excellent, differentiated and conventional.

Dr Aline Garcia of ITAL, who was the scientific researcher for the new methodology, reiterated that while the methodology has some relationship to qualities, “it is really about the descriptors.”

The new methodology is currently for the Brazilian market only but ABICS said it will be offered to other countries as the descriptive aspects of the system could be adapted by global organizations. There is room for growth with the methodology because the descriptors/attributes are terms that consumers understand,” said Relvas.

If successful in Brazil, this new system for assessing instant coffee does have the potential to be a game changer for international soluble markets.

The supporting white paper, which outlines the new descriptive-based methodology is now available and may be accessed here.

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