Sourcing coffee

Dec 13, 2013

We often get asked how we source our coffee, whether or not we source directly from farms or whether our coffee is Fairtrade. The following post aims to outline the process we go through when selecting coffees.

We can probably condense the decision making process down to four key questions:

1. Is the coffee in season?
2. Are we clear about the provenance of the coffee?
3. Does it taste good?
4. How much does it cost?

Coffee is a seasonal product and we tie in our coffee purchasing to the harvests around the world. As I write this post (December 2013) we are currently roasting coffees from Ethiopia, Costa Rica and Guatemala. We’ve literally just finished our stock of coffees from Kenya and await in eager anticipation for next year’s crop due around May/June 2014. If we buy coffee in the next couple of months we’re going to be looking at Brazil, Rwanda, Bolivia and Colombia.

Provenance of coffee is very important to us. We need to know exactly where our coffee comes from, and this has to go way beyond the country of origin. We want to know exactly which farm the coffee comes from and we want to know about the welfare and environmental conditions on the farm. We work with coffee brokers who spend their year visiting farms and developing relationships with the owners. Sometimes provenance will relate to the processing mill – last year we bought a coffee from Rwanda, Koakaka, which was a result of the collective effort of around 1,700 small holding farmers, each contributing a few sacks of beans to the mill. At the moment we do not buy direct from farms.  I’m not sure if we’ll ever go down this avenue as our business is still very young; at the moment it doesn’t make sense to source direct but who knows what might happen in the future.

Provenance of our coffee is important for another reason. We need a certain amount of information to help us in the roasting process. For example, the altitude at which a coffee is grown has a bearing on its density; this in turn determines how is responds to heat. We’re also building up our knowledge base with respect to coffee varietals, and we’re beginning to look at how this impacts on how a coffee roasts.

The deciding factor as to whether or not we use a coffee is all about taste. Ultimately the coffee has to taste good and before we commit to a purchase we will make sure we get hold of samples. Each sample we receive is cupped and scored against different criteria. A cupping session takes around an hour as we’ll score the dry grounds for their fragrance, before brewing the coffee; we’ll then taste the coffee repeatedly as it cools scoring characteristics such as acidity, flavour, sweetness and body. We’ll then have a discussion about the coffees before deciding which to purchase, if any. You can read more about how we cup coffees here.

A final consideration has to be price. We’re running a business and as such need to make decisions based around costs. Our seasonal espresso blend is sold at a set price. When we change components we have a maximum price point which we have to work to. However, when it comes to single origin coffees, the price point is more varied, as the price we pay for the green beans is reflected in the retail price of the roasted coffee. We’ve used a couple of coffees from Kenya and because they were of a high grade, this was reflected in the price.

Thus far there has been no mention of coffees which hold a form of accreditation, such as Fairtrade, UTZ Certified, Rainforest Alliance, or more recently Bird Friendly.  We see these as part of establishing the provenance of the coffee, which is only a small factor in our decision making process.  Even if a coffee holds an accreditation, we still need as much origin information as we can get.  We are always aware that these marks are not necessarily an indicator of quality.

The world of coffee trading is a complex place and we’re only scratching the surface on this.  Even the supply chain itself has its complexities.  People often discuss the price paid to farmers, and while this is obviously important, getting coffee from the farm or mill includes many links, each of whom need to earn a living.  A coffee grown in Burundi, for example, has to be transported overland to the port of Dar es Salaam; it may need to be stored here for a while before being transported by ship to the UK.  On arrival in the UK, the coffee needs to be stored until a roaster like ourselves purchases it; we then need to transport it to our Roastery.

It’s also important that we don’t paint all parts of the coffee roasting world with the same broad brush.  Pick up a bag of coffee from the supermarket and you’ll get very little information about the provenance of that coffee (although this has improved slightly).  You will probably get country of origin, but it’s unlikely you’ll get more than that.  You won’t know when the coffee was harvested (was it this season or last?); you won’t know exactly who roasted the coffee; you may not even know when the coffee was roasted.  Choose coffee from one of the growing number of speciality coffee roasters in the UK and you’ll be provided with a very different experience.

We feel strongly that coffee sourcing has to be built on real relationships.  Our brokers have a real relationship with the farmers and mills who produce the coffee; we in turn have a real relationship with our brokers and even more importantly, in our opinion, with our customers who are the consumers of the coffee.  It’s about real people in real places earning a living through a shared passion for good quality coffee.

Read more:

Our coffee broker has just posted an interesting blog about their pricing structure for purchasing coffee which you can read here 

There seems to be a common view that many coffee farmers are poor, exploited individuals from third world countries who need ‘protecting’.  Watch this video of Adolfo Vieira Ferreira talking about his farm Fazenda Passeio,which we used in one of our espresso blends during 2013.

Our Nyawira AA from Kenya was sourced by Anette of Square Mile Coffee Roasters – you can read her blog post from her sourcing trip back in February 2013 here