The sound of slurping fills the room. Everyone cups coffee without saying a word during the Rosetta coffee cuppings and blind tastings. But then Barista Trainer Tim pulls out the whiteboard and calls your name, “Ok, coffee number #1, what flavor notes are you getting? What is the level of acidity, sweetness?”
A little bit daunting and intimidating for team members who join the Rosetta coffee cuppings for the first time. But Jono, Co-owner and Coffee Roaster at Rosetta Roastery, sees this differently.
You have to get over the fear of being wrong.”
“You have to get over the fear of being wrong. If you are too afraid to guess or try, you’re not going to learn anything.” Jono explains, “If I have a bad day and guess my coffee wrong, this is a good thing in a sense. Because others on the team become less afraid of making mistakes.”
Rosetta Roastery has been standing at the center of the Cape Town specialty coffee scene for the past eleven years, with Jono and Rob heading the business.
The two University friends started Rosetta Roastery in 2010, in the same month that Jono became a father. “This was a pretty crazy time, it all happened at once,” Jono says.
As the head roaster, Jono drinks every coffee he roasts two to three times a week during coffee cuppings and blind tastings. “My finger is pretty much on the pulse on what’s happening with our coffee. And 50% of the coffee I drink at the roastery is in cupping form.”
But before Jono was clued to the spoon and taking beans to first crack, coffee was a status symbol for him to prove he was a grown-up.
“When I got out of the University I said to myself, ‘I will never drink instant coffee ever again.’” Jono found a relatively good-looking but generic supermarket brand, House of Coffees, to kick off his adult life. “It was the best coffee I knew of at the time. So I was making the statement to myself, ‘I will only buy this from now’. And I think when you start doing that, you’re going down a rabbit hole.”
Both Jono and Rob became avid hobbyists, testing beans and getting overcaffeinated. But the morning-hobby quickly turned into a window of opportunity to start their careers in coffee. “Honestly, I was in it because I wanted to sell delicious coffee. We both wanted to buy the nicest tasting coffee.”
They soon would discover that local coffee sources couldn’t provide what they were looking for. They had to dig deeper.
As Jono and Rob cupped various coffees from Rwanda, Kenya, and Ethiopia, they only found poor quality. “Every time we found coffees that were disappointing we’d ask the question, why are they not as good? And then traders would say, ‘because it’s old-crop,’ or ‘we didn’t use Grain Pro to pack the coffee.'”
The best coffees are the result of each human in that chain being properly looked after.”
“And then you start asking questions like, why does this coffee cost so much less? And the trader says, ‘because we got a great deal’”, For Jono, this sounded suspicious. And while setting up Rosetta, both Jono and Rob learned of the inequality within the coffee market.
“We realized that it’s worse in coffee than anywhere else.” Jono says, “And so we started asking questions, like, how can we fix this? And that took all of us at Rosetta on a journey to realize you can’t get there without taking care of people.”
“If there’s someone who’s exploited, at any point, they stop producing their best work. And if they stop producing their best work, we can’t get the coffee that we need. It almost sounds selfish. But the best coffees are the result of each human in that chain being properly looked after. That’s why Ndaroini is so exciting for us.”
What we want is to have the coffee speak to us.
Price plays a secondary role within Rosetta. “What we want is to have the coffee speak to us. And if it happens to be the most expensive coffee on the cupping table, then we need to find space to be able to buy that coffee. Because that is the one that we need for our customers.”
“In South Africa, there’s this weird deep-entrenched public perception that coffee shouldn’t cost more than 25 South African Rand ($1.50),” Jono says, “We started charging 35 Rand (equals $2.10), or even 38 Rand for a cup.” But visitors were reluctant and skeptical about the high prices. Jono and Rob needed to justify why their brews were worth more.
“The only way we can make this coffee feel like it’s worth more is if the customer understands what they are drinking. And the only way to do this is to have team members who are excited about the product that they’re serving.”
Jono argues that the baristas should know the product inside out when serving. “You need to get to know the coffees, and that is part of being able to serve that product. You just want to get that muscle memory on the palate as much as possible.”
And that is why the entire Rosetta team is continually cupping coffee throughout the week.
Rosetta’s cupping structure is simple. They organize production cuppings, weekly blind cuppings with the entire team, and sourcing cuppings. And if they find the time, barista’s set up quick cupping sessions for incidental troubleshooting and checks. “We’ll do quick tastes, take notes, and discuss and see if we can draw any conclusions. So, we’re cupping all the time.”
“As the roasting team, we’ll cup coffee that is nearly three or four days old alongside one that is ten or eleven days old, so seven days apart. We’re making sure we aren’t drifting from week to week. Because it’s that slow drift that you experience when you’re not comparing from roast to roast.” Jono explains.
Then the team gathers to analyze each profile alongside the roasting graph. “So if we go, ‘oh this profile did lag slightly, and we hit the crack 15 seconds later.’ We’ll make sure that it’s still tasting how it should taste.”
And if Jono and his team of roasters doubt a certain roast, they organize troubleshooting cuppings to double-check the profile and the graph.
“We want the production cuppings to be blind. It’s not completely blind, because we always know which coffees we’re cupping. But we don’t know if the coffee is two or nine days old. We learned this trick from Solberg & Hansen. They cup coffee that is one week apart, and if they notice that the two-day-old coffee is better they’ll change their profile.”
Coffee is an organic product. It doesn’t stay static it’s a living thing.”
“I appreciate the freedom in which Solberg & Hansen acknowledge that coffee is an organic product. It doesn’t stay static it’s a living thing. So if the coffee is tasting slightly better, without changing completely, why not make that the new profile? I think there is a fluidity to our production cuppings.”
While cupping bowls and spoons decorate the table, forms stay in the drawers during Rosetta coffee cuppings. “You need to answer the questions that you were asking when you started to cup, you don’t need to answer all the questions,” Jono tells, “Is it still tasting as it did? We compared it one week on the next, and it’s still good. Check.”
The Rosetta barista’s don’t only pull tasty shots, they play a key role in the success of Rosetta too. “They’re not barista’s, they’re more like a sales force and explain about the coffee. Then, people understand why they should pay more.”
When you say this smells like citrus, bergamot, jasmine, you have to be able to know that it tastes like this because you tasted it that week. Otherwise, you are telling the customer something you read in a book two weeks ago.”
Every week, the team gathers to cup every coffee on the menu, blind. “At any point, every barista needs to be able to say, ‘this is our natural, this is our Ethiopian Golla Yirgacheffe, and this is our Indonesian’. Not everyone nails this every time. I also don’t. But we all try to get better.”
“I’m less concerned with that coffee scores 8 out of 10 on acidity,” Jono continues, “I want to know if a barista can assess a coffee on sweetness, mouthfeel, balance, acidity, and what origin it’s from. That’s a more important approach to me.”
“When you say this smells like citrus, bergamot, jasmine, you have to be able to know that it tastes like this because you tasted it that week,” Jono says, “Otherwise, you are telling the customer something you read in a book two weeks ago. That is why we do that blind team cupping.”
“If we do the blind sensory cuppings, we want to take them through a more formal kind of SCA determined process.” The barista’s, who don’t always master English, use the flavor wheel to refer to what they are tasting.
“I think that this is a really important skill,” Jono continues, “Because everyone can say, ‘oh it tastes like my auntie Hilde’s chocolate cake’. But they need to be able to say, there’s stone fruit, passion fruit, and coconut. I think this helps present a professional front in communicating.”
The blind cuppings also function as a safety net. Because, if the roasting team doesn’t discover the quality drift in the production cuppings, the barista’s get a shot at finding inconsistencies. “Let’s say nobody recognizes our Colombian Nariño, then we take a look at the cupping notes when we landed this coffee.”
“Perhaps it’s tasting flat and lifeless, and it may have aged a little bit.” The roasting team takes the sensory analysis back to the roasting machine. “Is there something we need to change in our roast profile to brighten it up? Let’s see if we can restore some brightness by developing it slightly less.”
Jono and Rob know how their coffees develop through the months because they have installed a structured cupping system, from production cuppings to blind tastings with the entire team. And they take a similar approach when selecting new coffees for their menu.
Jono and Rob choose distinctive coffees when sourcing. “If Trabocca sends us ten fresh Yirgacheffe coffees, we look at sweetness and brightness, aromatics, and very important, the distinctiveness of the region.”
Your customers feel like they’re going on a journey.”
“There may be a coffee that is sweeter and fruitier, amongst the selection of coffees, but it doesn’t have the same floral element, bergamot, and earl grey tea notes that we love in a Yirgacheffe. So we might pick a coffee that is more classically Yirgacheffe, to tick that box.”
“People like to taste the difference. Your customers feel like they’re going on a journey. If last month they had no idea what a Yirgacheffe was and a month later they can taste it blind, they’ll have loyalty for life. Because then you’ve taken them on a journey with you.”
As Trabocca, we deliver a unique range of green specialty coffee to roasters like Rosetta Roastery. From high acidity floral Ethiopians to juicy Kenyans and big-bodied Brazils. Sign up to our newsletter and receive the announcements of our latest spot arrivals in your inbox.