Behind The Scenes of Target's Coffee With Coffee Scientist Emily Olson
I recently had the honor of meeting Emily Olson Target's Coffee Development Scientist and, as a coffee lover myself was entirely captivated by every word that came out of her mouth. With a career focused on developing the perfectly packaged coffees for mass audiences at one of the world's largest companies, the weight of her words was palpable. Oh, I had to share!
**Photographs taken by both Archer Farms Coffee and Jeff Thompson/Marketplace
MW. I know I love coffee, but you, you take the meaning of "coffee love" to a whole new level. Or, do you? If you had to set a relationship status for you and coffee, what would it be?
EO. I think fascinated is a good descriptor of how I feel about coffee. The coffee industry is just so interesting to me! I love that it is a truly agricultural product. Coffee has a long and rich history. It is grown all over the world, in some of the most beautiful places in the world and by some of the hardest working people. There are so many different ways to roast, brew and prepare coffee. And, people have so much passion around their own coffee consumption. Coffee brings joy to people, and I bring coffee to people…so in my own way, I feel like I get to bring joy to people. I love working in coffee, learning more about coffee and sharing what I know about coffee.
MW. How did coffee become your career?
EO. It has actually been an interesting journey to becoming a coffee product developer. As a high schooler, I shadowed a Chemical Engineer who was doing product development at Kimberly Clark and fell in love with the idea of taking an idea and turning it into a product that sits on store shelves across the country. At that time, I didn’t know what industry I wanted to do product development in, but I was actually leaning towards the skin care and beauty industry. Then I got my first internship at an ice cream manufacturer. I fell in love…both with the internship and the food industry! I still vividly remember standing on a catwalk watching popsicles being manufactured, completely fascinated watching each step build to make a final, frozen, packaged product. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to spend my career in food. I have worked on a variety of different product categories, but have spent the majority of my time in salty snacks (nuts, trail mix, chips, popcorn).
MW. What did you study in school?
EO. I received my Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin and then my Master of Engineering Management from the University of Colorado Boulder.
MW. What does an average day look like in the Target Test Kitchens?
EO. When I am in the Target Test Kitchens evaluating coffee, I am working on new product projects, quality improvement projects and competitive benchmarking. I have multiple drip brewers or multiple Keurig lined up so that I can standardize preparation methods and have anything I am comparing done brewing at the same time. During my evaluations, I analyze appearance, aroma, taste and texture/body. I use a clear glass mug so that I can get a good look at the depth of color and transparency of the coffee. When I evaluate the taste of the coffee, I review it both hot, warm and room temperature, as different flavors peak at different temperatures. And the real secret is that I use a spit cup! I try not to consume all of that caffeine…otherwise, I would be jittery all day long!
MW. How many people do you work with?
EO. I work on two different types of teams. My first team is the Product Development team, which consists of 21 food scientists. I then also work on a Coffee Cross Functional Team, which consists of 10 people that all work together to develop Archer Farms coffee strategy and then bring that strategy to life with new products on the shelf.
MW. How do you clean your palate during tastings?
EO. I generally just clear my palate with a drink of water. I also sometimes use a saltine cracker. I try to limit myself to evaluating 10-12 items or less at a time, as my palate can get fatigued.
MW. How many cups of coffee do you drink a day?
EO. I drink anywhere between 2 and 200 cups of coffee every week.
MW. Where does Target get its coffee beans?
EO. Target sources its coffee beans from the world’s four major coffee bean growing regions: Central America, South America, Africa and Southeast Asia.
MW. Where does coffee come from and how does it go from its origin, through your hands and into my cup?
EO. As you know, Target sources its coffee beans from the world’s four major coffee bean growing regions. In those regions, the coffee bean starts as a seed from a cherry-like fruit. It is then dried, roasted and ground to be brewed into coffee. Our beans are artisan batch roasted to maximize the quality of every bag of coffee.
Specifically talking about the coffee farms, we are really proud of our new assortment’s greater focus on fair and direct trade. We now offer 32 options, up from 4.
Direct trade connects retailers, like Target, to coffee from one farm. In partnership with our vendors, we build a relationship, provide support and are closely connected with that farm and those who work on it.
Fair trade directly connects retailers, like Target, to one organization that has a network of farms, all of which are able to provide coffee products to the retailers.
MW. Do you have an all-time favorite kind of coffee?
EO. This is a really hard question!! There are so many coffees to love! I am currently obsessed with our brand new Archer Farms Organic Cinnamon Coffee. The moment I tasted our final optimized formula, I instantly knew it would be perfect for a cozy day by the fire. It is warm and soft and inviting.
On a slightly different note, I am also really loving making coffee cocktails (of the non-alcoholic variety) with our Archer Farms Cold Brew Concentrate. You can mix it with sparkling water and then add lots of different things (like maraschino cherries or maple syrup) to get fun, unique drinks.
MW. How do you go about developing a line of coffee for a brand like Target where the variety of coffee consumers is so vast?
EO. We always want to stay on top of industry trends at Target. For coffee, the industry is moving towards higher quality and sustainable products. We know that these are the types of products people are looking for – products that are better for them, the environment and those who produce the products. With all of that in mind, we developed the line in three steps:
First, we worked with coffee experts, both internally and externally, to develop our strategy.
Then, we held flavor development workshops where we brought in flavor, coffee, and sensory experts to help create the flavors.
Finally, we conducted taste tests with hundreds of guests and Target team members, asking them to test and rate the cups of coffee for texture, aroma, and flavor.
MW. What kind of attention does Target pay to traceability and sustainability of its coffee beans?
EO. Our commitment to the farms we directly source our beans from has increased to help our partners improve the quality of their farms, provide education and support for farms and help to build neighborhood schools, medical centers, and transportation.
MW. Do you drink coffee outside of work?
EO. I do enjoy a morning cup of coffee! But I am actually a real tea drinker. I drink tea all day long. We have a new line of Simply Balanced Wellness teas that I am excited for the public to try. My favorite is Snooze and Snuggle. I drink it almost every night after getting my two kids in bed.
MW. What are your thoughts on iced coffee and cold brews? I know you mentioned that Target mixes a few coffee blends to make their cold brew, is that common amongst most cold brewed coffee?
EO. It is very common among cold brew to use coffee bean blends. Blending coffee beans from multiple regions allows you to have a consistent product. Whereas, single origin coffee can vary a little from year to year.
MW. If you were planning a trip around the world but could only visit places with amazing coffee, where would you go?
EO. This is a tough question! Coffee is grown in so many amazing places. I have always dreamed of going to Ethiopia, and Ethiopian is also one of my favorite coffee origins. But then I also think there are few places in this world that can compare to the beauty and adventure available in Costa Rica. I actually visited my first coffee farm while vacationing in Costa Rica 10 years ago, well before I had any idea I’d end up working in coffee. And, of course, I think it would be an amazing life experience to get to go to Indonesia one day.