Interview with Loïc-Marco Guélat – Global Coffee Quality Coordinator for LDC
What goes into making an outstanding cup of coffee? Apart from the obvious (high quality beans and hot water), it turns out that behind every cup of LDC coffee lies a wealth of experience, a good deal of science, a host of highly trained taste buds – and a great nose. Loïc-Marco Guélat, our Global Coffee Quality Coordinator, took a break from tasting coffee to tell us more.
You have an unusual job. Can you tell us how you came to discover your gift?
To be honest, unless you were born without any sense of taste and smell, I think everybody can do this job. What matters is training. I personally train every week with my personal set of Le nez du café de Jean Lenoir. It’s my calibration tool.
How did you end up a coffee quality expert? Was it a natural decision?
Having studied oenology in 2011, my first job was actually in a Swiss mountain winery, the second at a wine bar in a ski resort. This experience was like paradise! I was skiing all day and working all evening, talking wine with locals and tourists, often with disco music blasting. [Smiles broadly]
Still, one season in a bar was enough. And although I love wine and music, I quickly realized I wanted something different. Something that would better suit my skills and aspirations.
That’s when it occurred to me: COFFEE!
I soon had the good fortune to meet with a Geneva-based roaster in 2013, who offered me my first job in coffee.
After some time, I decided to move on and go deeper into the coffee business, by taking the Specialty Coffee Association pro barista course, which ran for the first time in Switzerland in September 2014.
That’s when I met a marketing director who later became a friend and helped me move to a bigger roastery. Later, I attended a Q-grader course, a highly demanding sensory certification, before joining LDC when the company was looking for a new green coffee quality manager in 2019.
Coffee quality experts have sometimes been likened to wine sommeliers – they are sometimes even called coffee sommeliers. How do you feel about this comparison?
I’m not really comfortable with the term ‘coffee sommelier’. To me, a sommelier is someone with a great knowledge of wine, who is expert in recommending them to accompany a wide variety of dishes. Their language is extravagant and poetic, with adjectives such as ‘silky’ or ‘foxy’, ‘austere’ or ‘elegant’, to describe wines.
Of course, in coffee we also use analogies to describe different tastes or flavors, but we try to be as objective as possible. If a coffee has strawberry notes, it smells ‘strawberry’, not ‘gushing strawberry with an impudent dash of pencil shavings’. But you can give secondary information, about the intensity of the attribute.
If you’re comparing my work with a job in the wine industry, I’d say I have much more in common with an oenologist than a sommelier. I’m more scientist than artist!
What does a typical day in the office look like?
I have my own laboratory at LDC’s office in Geneva. I arrive around 9am and take half an hour or so to go through my emails. I then roast something nice and prepare a filter coffee for anyone who’s around. Sharing coffee with colleagues is something I very much enjoy.
Then I check coffee samples from all over the world. I taste them, make notes on them and share those with the inventory team, who keep an updated summary of everyone’s comments. As I mentioned before, my job is not poetry – it’s more ‘pass or fail’: Does the coffee in the bag match what is described on the label? Does it meet the quality level ascribed to it? Does it match the original cupping notes?
Sometimes I also receive parcels with specialty samples, which I cup with a 100-point score sheet to evaluate fragrance, aroma, flavor, acidity, body, uniformity, balance, cleanliness, sweetness and finally an overall assessment.
Do you mainly work alone?
Yes – and no!
I do work alone in my lab, but when I make a cupping (i.e. coffee tasting), I call around to see if any of my colleagues want to taste alongside me.
And of course, I work daily with other quality control managers across the world – we are very much a global team.
Tell us more about the quality control team – how do you work together?
In total, we are 13 managers across the globe. Working and sharing experiences with colleagues in Brazil and Indonesia, in Ethiopia and India, is one of the things I like most about this job. And my coffee quality ‘fellows’ in origin markets don’t work alone – they have their own teams. In total, we are more than 100 people working in coffee quality within LDC.
But although this diversity is amazing, it’s vitally important that we speak the same language when we talk about coffee. That’s one of the reasons I have been made global coordinator, to help evolve and unify the team’s approach to quality control. It’s a huge task, but I see the positive effects on my colleagues’ motivation.
Can you expand on the need for a more unified approach – what practical steps do you intend to take?
We are all tasting coffee, sharing and combining our opinions, but cultural differences mean that the same words can have different meanings in different countries, with distinct diets and unique plants. For instance, the term ‘chocolate’ might evoke a different response in Brazil than in Vietnam.
It’s important to understand that when we speak together, ‘chocolate’ means a very particular taste and/or flavor – whatever the word ‘chocolate’ might also mean in any other culture – and to develop and unify all the different words and phrases that we use to describe cup profiles.
That’s why we began to use calibration aromas to have a common language about coffee: if I tell my colleague in Brazil, I smell the number 26, dark chocolate, from Le Nez du Café de Jean Lenoir, he will know which reference it is even if this aroma is not exactly what is known as dark chocolate for Brazilian people in general.
How did the Covid pandemic affect your work?
As soon as I heard that one of the symptoms of Covid was a loss of taste and smell, I was extremely concerned. Then I caught it – and sure enough, my sense of smell disappeared overnight. Not good.
Luckily I was on leave, because I wouldn’t have been able to work. I kept testing myself daily with my Le Nez de Café calibration set. At first, I could only smell about 10% of what I could previously detect, but over the course of a week, it gradually increased and I was finally back to normal. I consider myself extremely lucky!
What country produces your favorite coffee, and how do you like to drink it?
Now that is a tough question! I can’t choose, but if pushed, it would have to be a tie between Ethiopia, Kenya or South America.
Many Ethiopian coffees have superb floral tones, and sometime Earl Grey notes, which I love. Kenyan coffee is more about body, with phosphoric acid and berries! The same kind of acidity found in colas. The phosphoric acid is the only inorganic acid found in coffee, which means it’s not produced by the coffee tree itself. The soil in Kenya is apparently rich in phosphoric acid, which produces full bodied coffee. Detecting phosphoric acid has a slightly bitter taste. In fact, the very first specialty coffee I ever tasted was a Kenya filter coffee – on that day of October 2012, I knew I had discovered something for my whole life!
As for how I like to drink it, I prefer either filter coffee or espresso. Black – and not decaff!
What about sugar in coffee – are you ok with that?
When I see someone put sugar in coffee, I flip out! [laughs]
No, I’m joking of course. Sugar affects the coffee’s taste, but not its aroma or flavor. And as I often say, it’s important that people drink the coffee the way they like it. Black, white, sweet, strong, hot, cold – it’s all good!
Having said that, if I’m with my wife or friends in a restaurant having coffee after a meal, and they see me reach for one of those little sugar sachets and pour it into my cup, they don’t need to ask me if I like the coffee. They already know the answer.