Interview with Freda Yuan, author of the coffee sensory book Sip ‘n’ Slurp
After years in the coffee industry, Freda Yuan has focused her career on coffee tasting and sensory skills. A 3 times UK Cup Tasters Champion and professional taster and coffee buyer with Origin Coffee; Freda has distilled her considerable knowledge into a fascinating sensory awareness book; Sip ‘n’ Slurp. The book has proved enormously popular; with the first run selling out quickly & the second print hotly anticipated.
We interviewed her to hear her views on the coffee industry, the world of sensory skills and her journey into coffee.
Sip ‘n’ Slurp
Shop Freda Yuan’s coffee sensory book
Tell us about you and your career in coffee
It’s been 8 years since I started working in coffee, I’ve been working in many sectors across the coffee supply chain. I started as a barista, the reason I wanted to be a barista was I lived and worked in Australia for a few years and I wanted to be a barista to learn how to make coffee to then go back home to open a coffeeshop in Taiwan. That was the pure plan when I arrived in the UK, I wanted to learn to make coffee and go home to open a cafe. But in the process I realised there was so much more in this coffee industry, I decided to volunteer with different roasteries which I did and then I got a work visa from Caravan. I started as a coffee production assistant and then Quality Control Manager for both green coffee and roasted coffee. Then I worked for Raw Material as a Green Coffee Importer - importing green coffee from Rwanda and Colombia and selling to other roasters in the UK. And then Origin came along, so I became Head of Coffee at Origin Coffee roasters where I manage all coffee operations.
What gave you the idea for your book; Sip n Slurp?
It was my second competition for Cup Tasting, I won. When it was over and everyone went home that was it, I personally felt lonely as all my time was focused on competing and training. I didn’t know what was next, I was lost. My friend Cat said ‘Why don’t you write a book?’ I didn’t know who would want to read this but I thought more and more about it and I felt I didn’t have enough challenges in my life. I looked at the market and there weren’t many coffee tasting books available and at this time I became an SCA trainer in Sensory as well so I knew there were academic books. However, these aren’t accessible so I decided to write a really accessible book for the audience and share my personal experience.
How I became an expert in coffee tasting is because of my past - I had bulimia and depression and my recovery was whilst I worked in coffee as a barista. Learning to dial in and taste the coffee plus the competitions, I realised I needed to live for now, so only by living the now can I taste more;. The more I taste the more I am present and being present is a really important thing in life which helped me recover from my condition. It was a great transition and I really want to share this with people. I understand that mental health struggles have increased in this last year and people still don’t talk about it. People never talk about it. This is why I wanted to write something to help people understand that through tasting coffee you can elevate life as well.
Who would enjoy your book?
I think most coffee professionals, there is information about fundamental sensory physiology stuff but also connections for something that is outside of what we understand. For example in coffee we mostly talk about flavour notes but I’m trying to highlight whether we should focus on this as we all come from different backgrounds, we have different audiences coming from different countries and whether these flavour notes are relevant to them and make them feel more associated. Or we can make something different, with more intuition for example.
In one chapter it’s about crossing the senses so using different senses to elaborate on what we taste. So sometimes the coffee can be a person with an interesting personality, it can be emotional, it can be colour, it can be weather….these are things we all experience globally. Removing the barriers of difference, and reference. This is not just for professionals, it’s also for people who’ve just got into coffee and interested in sharpening their sensory skills and eventually understand the fundamental bits and work to a better level. A book for people interested in developing their sensory skills.
What are the crossovers in learning to taste coffee and other food and drink, like wine or cheese for example?
Definitely relevant! Being able to taste more nuance in coffee helps me to taste any other things better anytime. I think coffee is more complex compared to wine and also other products. It definitely can cross over, eg I’ve been to olive oil tasting, honey tasting, micro-salad tastings and when I talk to the taster or buyer sometimes they understand what I’m trying to say as I’m able to constructively describe what I have tasted and they can feel associated with that. It’s really powerful.
Tell us about what it takes to qualify as a Q grader
A lot! There are 20 exams I think, sensory exams that you need to pass 100% then you can get the qualification. There is a lot of challenges about your senses and testing your ability to identify defect or different products. It’s full on!
What do you think is the biggest challenge in the coffee industry right now?
I think accessibility (approachability) and transparency. Accessibility is a challenge in specialty coffee because as an industry we can be snobby about what we do, close the door to normal people who are potentially interested about our product. Then by not serving sugar or milk in their product or talking about decaf being the worst will stop them from trying and that really doesn’t serve us to help broaden our audience.
Traceability is a bit mixed, roasters talk about direct trade coffee but whether it is direct trade or not isn’t verified to the customer - How can we make our context easier for customer to understand? But not just that; how can customers really feel associated and on board with the price we pay to the producer? These are things I think are hit and miss and we need to try our best to prove it and talk to customers about the traceability so they’re willing to pay more for a cup of coffee.
What changes/progress are you looking forward to seeing the coffee industry in the coming years?
I think similar to what’s challenging; hopefully people will understand why we’re doing this and why we’re trying to pioneer and provide more information to customers to show how we buy and what they’re drinking. This way customers will pay more for the coffee so the volume will increase and we can create a bigger platform for the producers to produce more coffee and increase their own savings etc and elevate their lifestyles and infrastructure, improve their farms etc.
What are your golden rules as a coffee buyer to make sure it’s both delicious and ethically sourced?
The golden rule for sourcing for me is….the first question I ask when I come across a new supplier is “Will the decision I make about buying this coffee be sustainable for the future?” I mean, regardless if I stay working at Origin for 5 - 10 years for example; the coffee sourcing program will be there for the rest of its life. I need to ensure it is there year on year. In terms who I buy from: Do they have potential to supply long term and improve together and grow together? This is the more pressing question I ask.
Quality - of course we need to try but it doesn’t mean if the quality isn’t good enough we can’t work together. We are looking at potential of growing a long term relationship. That’s my golden rule.
It’s like a marriage, it’s a long term relationship of working through good and bad- this was especially true during the pandemic, you can see how people really worked together-
What’s your favourite coffee & brewing method?
I love a washed profile in general, although the coffee I’m about to tell you is not washed... La Huella natural and pulped natural really stands out to me. It doesn’t taste like coffee, it tastes like juice. It’s from Nicaragua, it’s just so good & everyone loves it!
Kalita is my favourite brew method. Although I recently got a Sage precision brewer – It’s dummy proof! But it’s also possible to be as specific as you like.
What is your proudest achievement in your career?
I think it’s understanding my position as head of coffee, and creating a coffee program and also a good quality taste of coffee. I realise “Wow I can’t believe I’m doing this!” When I accepted the job I didn’t think I had enough experience and it was very tough it took several months to understand my role. Now I know what I’m doing and I’m confident in my ability.
The book is the second thing I’m proud of. The book is a completely different industry and putting it together on my own, finding my own photographer & my own designer was challenging. From printing to e-commerce; trying to sell the product and social media and marketing it’s all so different to what I do. I was so shocked when I received it, I could believe I made it!
What has been the biggest learning curve since you began working in coffee?
This is a tough one because every step I take I’m learning. I think it will be when I first accepted the role at Origin - I didn’t realise I could do it until I did it. My lack of confidence blinded me from being a better buyer, similar to when I launched the book; when I put it together I had so much doubt. I didn’t know how it would look and I was scared of the future. The uncertainty really confused me but only until I realised it would be ok and I needed to trust and believe myself. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learnt is that I can do this. I come across things I’ve never done before and my mindset now is “I can do this!”
I see from your website the book is already sold out – How has it been received since you published it?
It’s been great! I think people really appreciate another product about tasting coffee. Everyone was very happy and I’ve had orders from around the word like Puerto Rico, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa. People have really enjoyed it, some feel really associated and being mindful about tasting. It’s not just tasting, it’s self help. People have been telling me their own experiences. I’m doing a second print!
Shop Freda Yuan's coffee sensory book Sip ‘n’ Slurp
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Sip'n'Slurp: A Guide to Expert Coffee Tasting by Freda Yuan
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