Why quality control is about more than just good coffee

Esther Gibbs
December 13, 2022
Hard Lines Coffee: Quality control is about more than just good coffee

In the coffee industry, quality control is a procedure that begins at the seed, in the hands of the producers and finishes in the cup of the end consumer.

In essence, quality control is defined as a system of maintaining standards in manufactured products by testing a sample of the output against the specification.

Taking the time to check that products are consistent and continue to reach high standards can ensure customers have the same experience every time they purchase your coffee. 

When roasting coffee, the smallest change in temperature, between batch protocol, airflow, drum speed, or rate of rise, may leave a different result in the cup. While these minimal adjustments may not make the quality of the cup unpleasant, they may affect the solubility of the coffee.

Consistent quality control can help keep a brand’s reputation intact and increase customer loyalty by ensuring no mistakes slip through the cracks. 

In the third part of our Quality Control series, we speak to wholesale operations manager, Gareth Owens, and head roaster, Sam Thompson, of Hard Lines Coffee in South Wales, UK.

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An image of Hard Lines Coffee shop with custom printed coffee bags on display in an article on how Hard Lines Coffee conduct quality control checks

Building a business on roast coffee

Hard Lines Coffee began its venture in 2017 slot-roasting on a small, shared Deidrich roaster. 

Today, it is one of the fastest-growing coffee roasteries in South Wales, having moved onto a 5kg Probat before settling on a Loring S15 Falcon. 

Hard Lines’ unique branding has certainly helped the brand establish itself within the local coffee market. 

Their custom-printed coffee bags feature bold, bright colours and quirky graphics, while their festive offerings boast a bright red bags with an animated coffee cup character.

Hard Lines has two cafe sites alongside the roastery, a regular stall in the Cardiff Market, and a diner in the suburbs of Cardiff city. Additionally, the brand has one of the largest followings, supported by its regular newsletter and monthly coffee club subscriptions.

Hard Lines Coffee sells large amounts of coffee through both wholesale and retail means. Therefore, the brand’s quality control focuses more on replicating how the customer will brew the coffee themselves, and training their customers to do it well. 

“How do you know your coffee is as you expect it to be, if you don’t perform some sort of quality control?” asks Sam, the head roaster. “We’re building a business on roast coffee – we’d be mad not to check that it is fit for purpose.”

Sam says even the most rudimentary quality control process is essential. “Coffees should undergo quality control that is fit for whoever is going to receive it next.”

He explains that Hard Lines roasts coffee for both cafes and home consumers. As a result, his quality control process focuses on the coffee and roasts suitability to those brewing methods.

“When deciding whether a roast profile is suitable or not, I tend to give a stronger weight to a coffees performance based on how it brews. Filter roasts, I brew and espresso roasts, I pull espressos,” Sam says. 

Sam adds that he uses cupping as a tool to check roast consistency instead of the profile. “Cafe’s rarely cup coffees, they brew them for paying customers,” he says. “My priority is always whether our coffees will perform well when brewed.”

Image of custom printed coffee bags from Hard Lines Coffee in an article about quality control in coffee roasteries

What process does Hard Lines Coffee have in place for complaints?

Should Hard Lines Coffee receive negative feedback from a customer, they have a complete process in place in order to determine what went wrong. 

Sam explains they check the profiles of the roast day on Cropster and ask the customer to return the coffee if they have any left. “This is all done at our expense,” Sam adds. 

“Then, we immediately coffee that’s in the building of that roast profile and compare it against the returned coffee,” Sam says.  

Then it is a case of determining whether the coffee is genuinely bad, or if it is a case of the customer being unable to get the best out of it.  

Once they have completed that process, they either tweak the profile, which is the least likely outcome, or send the customer a different coffee

Sam says his biggest issue for the team is many people, including cafes and home consumers, are unaware of what is needed to brew Loring roasted coffees to their best. 

“They are very different to drum roasted coffees and need to be treated as such,” explains Sam. “But there’s a fine line between being informative and patronising.”

As a result, Hard Lines provide online brew guides, helping their customers get the most out of the coffees and brewing equipment.

These include guides for Aeropress, V60, Aroma Boy, French press, stove top, and espresso martinis. These guides are also sent out to the brands numerous newsletter subscribers.

Additionally, Hard Lines’ website offers recommendations for customers to brew their coffee 5 to 7 days after roasting, allowing for it to rest correctly. The team also refrains from sending out coffee that has passed 14 days from the roast date.

These are the standard set by Sam as through various shelf life and degassing assessments. The tests include brew each coffee after roasting and analysing when it reaches its optimum flavour. 

Too often, customers are quick to blame the roaster if a coffee tastes unexpected.Providing brew guides can be a good preventative measure for this. For wholesale customers, an effective option is to provide training.

An image of a Loring coffee roaster used at Hard Lines Coffee in an article about quality control in coffee roasteries

Why is it important for roasters to offer training to wholesale customers?

Grant Owens, the wholesale operations manager at Hard Lines believes it is beyond important for roasters to offer training and support in terms of brand quality control. 

“This is what helps shape the reputation and quality control of our entire industry,” he explains.

Just as ensuring customers brew coffee properly is important for a roasters business and reputation, it is also important for that coffee to reflect the hard work put in by the producers who grew it. 

“Our aim here is to ensure that we bring the floor up, to match the ceiling when it comes to quality control across a wide range of our customers,” Gareth explains. “The key to that is spending hands-on time supporting our wholesale customers.”

Hard Lines Coffee offers on-site training to customers, covering dialling in the machine, grinder, and machine maintenance, as well as recipes and milk steaming/pouring.

Additionally, they visit their wholesale customers and dial in the coffees when they first sign up as a customer, giving them the best start possible. Alongside selling machinery, Gareth offers support to customers with machine maintenance and servicing.  

He firmly believes that to give the best quality coffee, machines have to be clean and in full working order. 

Learn more about how different roasteries conduct quality control.

Read the second article in our Quality Control Series, or dive into interviews with our coffee community.

Photo credits: Hard Lines Coffee

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