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A GUIDE TO BUYING COFFEE

Last Updated on June 23, 2021 by Nick Baskett

If you’re beginning your journey into coffee buying, you could start with an education in accounting, agronomy, biochemistry, finance, geology, oenology, molecular gastronomy, microeconomics, macroeconomics, exporting, importing, social work, and logistics…

Or have a genuine interest to learn in any of these areas and find the right people to round out your skillset – in essence, your supplier network. While not discounting the value of this chain, as a coffee buyer you should appreciate that as you learn these functions yourself, you will become a better advocate for your farmer and customer when managing service providers.

Everything you learn that gets you closer to the crop helps you to be better at your job. – Jacob Elster, Crop to cup.

On your own, you won’t get far, let alone as far as you need to go to buy coffee.

After you build your team, your first step as a coffee buyer is to go to where the coffee is grown. If you are drawing a blank on where to start, pull out a map and locate the highest, most beautiful mountains located between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.

Many of these mountains hold black gold! The next noticeable step is booking a flight and go meet your first and most essential contact in your supply chain – the farmer.

While most of the world’s coffee comes from single-owner estates or corporate plantations, most of the world’s coffee farmers are smallholders with family garden plots. These farms are hours away from paved roads, so if you are picking a place at random the chances are that you’ll have to rent a 4-wheel drive truck from the nearest town and go up-mountain to meet a small farmer at their home.

Since you are trying to source from a new farm, you will need to go during the late harvest. If you arrive any earlier and you won’t have coffee to sample and any later and you won’t have any coffee left to buy. Yes, it’s too late to make an impact on the quality of the harvest and yes, going at this time usually means going during the rainy season.

So, if you want to go during harvest the chances are that it’ll be wet. In these climates, especially up-mountain, the rains usually start in the afternoon, and can completely wash out the roads. Leave early and bring a tent if you plan on staying past lunch.

As you mount the foothills, you’ll pass farms and see whole families out picking ripe coffee cherries, one by one. Every day a farmer can pick up to 175 pounds of coffee cherry. Don’t be surprised if you start to wonder if that much work is worth their meagre earnings.

Doing the Math on Coffee Farming

To save you from doing the math, it goes like this:    

Each season, 1 shade-grown naturally organic coffee tree (ie, rustic) can produce about 7.5 pounds of coffee cherry (which equals about one pound of roasted, ready-to-brew coffee). Coffee has to be removed from the cherry, inside of which there is parchment. This parchment must be removed before the ‘green bean’ is exposed and ready to mill. This green bean is what is eventually shipped and roasted.

It takes roughly 6.08 pounds of cherry to equal one pound of green coffee sold at export or 7.6 pounds of cherry to get you one pound of roasted coffee. This means that a price increase of 15 cents per pound at the farm leads to $1.14 in cost by the time this coffee gets roasted. 

The farmer who picked this cherry can sell it in the cherry to a middleman or washing station at the current farm-gate price, which can fluctuate daily. Coffee cherry is heavy– 4.7 – 5 times the weight of dried parchment, meaning that farmers have to work 5 times as hard to get this coffee to market.

It’s common for coffee farmers to live beyond walking distance of a washing station. So they might borrow a neighbour’s hand-pulping machine in order to remove the cherry. Then they ferment the bean in its own mucilage, wash, and dry it themselves. This means farmers need not only a pulper but also basins to wash and ferment the coffee, as well as patio space or raised drying beds to boot.

Then transport. In coffee, it always seems to come down to logistics. Even if coffee has been perfectly picked, prepared, and dried it needs to get to market somehow. Unless the farmer has a truck, this usually means the coffee goes through a middleman, whose business is to mix the good, bad, and ugly coffees together in order to get a truckload of export grade.

From a farmer’s point of view, you realise the cost and benefits of investing in quality are a total wash. It may prompt you to ask why more farmers don’t sell in cherry – why go to all the extra effort to process cherry into parchment if it all works out the same?  Here are some reasons why:

  • Coffee berries need to be processed within hours of picking them, or else they begin to rot.
  • Most farmers live hours away from washing stations, and lacking transport, don’t relish the idea of walking all day with a load of wet coffee cherry any more than you or I.
  • As much as the price of coffee fluctuates on the New York Board of Trade, the price of coffee fluctuates at the farm, which encourages entrepreneurial farmers to play the market. Drying coffee into parchment allows them to hold onto parchment like currency.
  • Lacking access to banks, many farmers literally store their coffee under their mattresses, drawing it out to sell bit by bit when the price is high, or the bills come due.


Good enough reasoning for you? If you are looking to source from a new area and aren’t willing to install a washing station (which would technically make you a coffee producer, not a coffee buyer) you will likely be getting coffee from the farmers in the parchment anyways.

So now that we know what we are looking for – premium parchment – let’s move on towards finding out what that looks like.

Well, here we encounter our first problem:  It turns out that all parchment – good and bad – looks the same. If you buy straight parchment, you have no way of knowing where the coffee came from, whether it was picked green or overripe, or how it was handled after harvest.

You see, growing good coffee is just the start – separating ripe cherries, pulping them promptly, washing and completely drying the parchment to Fair Average Quality (FAQ) all impact the quality of a crop. 

So, if all parchment looks the same, and there are hundreds of factors that influence the quality, the search turns from looking for good coffee to looking for the farms and farmers that produce good coffee. – Jacob Elster, Crop to Cup

Start by looking for well-kept, clean gardens where trees are intentionally spaced (optimum is with a 7’ radius), and where trees are properly stumped (4 stalks maximum). If you get to look closer, look to see if they are cross-planting (nitrogen-inducing crops like beans or other legumes are best), mulching (ideally with manure and organic compost), and picking only ripe, red cherries. These are hearty indicators of a healthy farm and of a farmer who both knows and employs best practices.

All this said you may want to show some leniency on the cross-planting. You may see banana trees amongst coffee, which is good for food security if not the most advantageous for coffee. Or you may see more underripe green beans being picked if it is early or late in the season – these tails of the harvest offer hungry farmers slim pickings.

FINDING THE COMMUNITY

Next, look for communities that are organized, proud, mobilized and motivated to make the most out of their coffee. This is because it takes a village to raise good coffee and an entire country to get it to the port. So, start with a strong network of farmers.

You’ll find that most farmers are already organized on some level. In East Africa, many farmers have between 200 – 4000 trees. It takes over 40,000 trees to fill a single export container of coffee. Coffee simply must be aggregated before it can be exported.

Ensuring the coffee you purchase is the coffee you get is a problem you need to work out without the help of middlemen. This is one of the reasons why you’ll need an organized community – to bypass middlemen by arranging the purchase, storage and transport of the coffee from the farm to the mill.

While farmers are not likely to have trucks, exporters do. The group must, at the least, be able to lower the cost of getting an exporter to pick up. This means they need a specific time and place for that truck to come for collecting. Therefore, it requires the farmer’s group to have a store, which they will use when collecting coffee from members.

To organize all this, they need to be able to recruit members, elect leadership, collect dues and access bank financing so as to pay cash to members upon delivery of coffee. Cash is king on the mountain (and elsewhere). Most associations or cooperatives simply cannot compete with poverty, and although new cooperatives may trade on a farmers’ high hopes, they fail due to their inability to pay cash at the time of collection.

Part II will be released shortly and continue the journey.

Jacob Elster is a sourcing representative for Crop to Cup. You can find out more about them at www.croptocup.com

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