In 1994, Spencer Turer '91 received a job offer that would change the course of his career — as a general manager and barista at a brand-new Dean & DeLuca location in Philadelphia, Pa.
“Starbucks wasn’t on the East Coast yet, and the word ‘barista’ was barely in the lexicon,” he explained to me over the phone from the Vermont headquarters of Coffee Enterprises, the independent coffee and tea testing laboratory of which he is vice president and chief coffee taster.
Turer studied culinary arts and food service management at JWU’s Providence Campus, and initially thought he wanted to be a chef. “I apprenticed for a chef in an Atlantic City, NJ, casino and worked my way through every single station. Halfway through the summer I thought, ‘I’d rather do food service management.’”
Upon graduation in 1991, he took a job managing a craft brewery and restaurant in Philadelphia. It was there that he started to pay close attention to the coffee program. “What’s the first thing you need at a restaurant? ALWAYS have enough coffee!”
But Spencer didn’t become truly intrigued by coffee until a friend — also a JWU grad — began telling him about how much fun he was having working at Harvard food service, where he was learning how to properly make coffee drinks. In parallel, he received two job offers: One for the under-construction Dean & DeLuca Café, the other for an established bistro in town.
He accepted the job at Dean & DeLuca — and just like that, his coffee adventure began.
Quality for coffee usually means consistency, because coffee is a very ritualistic product.”
“When I got hired I didn’t even know how to pull an espresso!” he told me, laughing. “The original founders [Joel Dean, Giorgio DeLuca and Jack Ceglic] were still running the business, and I was working with Jack on the store’s design and displays.”
No sooner did Spencer learn to pull proper espressos on the brand-new Faema semi-automatic than he’d have to turn around and train the staff. “I was working 70-80 hours/week with no assistant — the epitome of hire/train/fire just to get things off the ground.”
From there, Spencer jumped into managing coffee development at Melitta, where he learned sensory evaluation of coffee and how to be a coffee buyer, followed by work in product development at Dunkin’ Donuts, where he was instrumental in establishing the company’s espresso-blend blend quality (which was Fair Trade certified), as well as managing their coffee tree-to-cup quality program.
Always moving forward, he jumped to increasingly high-level positions at Hess Express, Kerry Food & Beverage, and global food company Mitsui Foods, where he learned about coffee importing/trading and commodity futures. In 2011, he joined Coffee Enterprises, a role he describes as “a culmination of everything I’ve done.”
What do you do at Coffee Enterprises?
Coffee Enterprises is one of the largest independent labs for coffee testing and chemical analysis. I am the chief taster and am responsible for lab operations; sales and marketing; and sensory panel training and calibration.
- Coffee & tea testing
- Product development
- Quality risk assessment
- Training for coffeetasters and coffee buyers
- Farm-to-cup consulting
- Coffee brewing equipment testing
We help best-in-class coffee companies audit their quality systems throughout the year.
Quality for coffee usually means consistency, because coffee is a very ritualistic product. Customers very quickly let [a company] know if a roast is off from one day to the next.
We often conduct independent arbitrations between traders and roasters: Are the buyers getting what they are paying for? Coffee has financial quality risk. Sellers want to get the highest price for the lowest acceptable quality, while buyers want the lowest price for the highest quality coffee. The difference for both is profitability. We provide unbiased quality analysis, free of financial and emotional connections to the coffee.
Describe a “typical day” at Coffee Enterprises.
Start with team huddle. “What are we doing?” We talk through testing projects, congratulate staff on any successes. Then we set up the sensory schedule for the day. On a busy day, we can do 8-10 sessions.
- All green coffee analysis happens first.
- Light-roasted coffee is tasted before dark. (It’s harder on your palate to go backwards.)
- Flavored and decaf coffee analysis always goes last.
- Tea is tested by itself. We completely upgraded our tea analysis capabilities in the last year.
We schedule the panels this way primarily for palate management and to avoid fatigue. On a busy day we taste more than 100 different products.
As for coffee trends, right now it’s all about making iced coffee + cold brew better.”
What qualities do you look for in tasters?
We look for people with a little bit of a science background who are enthusiastic about coffee. It can be tough to find someone with the right background — it’s a true niche career. The characteristics of a great coffee taster/cupper are:
- ABILITY: Skill to differentiate aromas and taste: sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami.
- MEMORY: Able to remember flavors (tastes and aromas).
- COMMUNICATE: Skill to articulate the flavors on your palate.
- QUANTIFY: Consistently score coffee quality and intensity on a numeric scale.
- ZEN: Ability to calm your mind and focus on the coffees you are testing without distraction or prejudice. This is a hard but essential practice.
What are the latest coffee trends?
The trend in coffee is for single-source origin and transparency — knowing where your coffee comes from.
As far as trends, right now it’s all about making iced coffee and cold brew better, including
- Nitro coffee is a new phenomenon only 18-24 months old. Nitrogen infuses with the liquid coffee, adding sweetness and effervescence. The cold, frothy beverage look like a properly poured Guinness and is super-delicious.
- Cold brew is an old brewing method from the 1700s and popular in Japan that is exploding in the US. Not your parent’s iced coffee, but coffee steeped in cold water for about 24 hours producing a sweet, smooth and intense beverage.
Advice to students who want a career in coffee or tea?
Get in, learn your craft. Persevere. Let your passion and enthusiasm guide you to what’s next. Smell and taste everything!
Follow Spencer on Twitter.
Tasting notes: Coffee analysts Spencer Turer '91, Gwen Russell, Dan Cox, David Morrill (in background) and Vincent Caloiero. Photo: Julia Luckett