“The truth of the matter is, if you know a thing or two about connecting with people, chances are you will get to work with people that will make positive contributions to the buying process.”
Xavier Alexander, Co-Owner of Metric Coffee
Being able to connect with people and discuss what about each coffee is preferred or less-than-preferable allows true collaboration (and calibrations) to take place. Importers can understand what coffees might suit your needs. When buyers are cupping at the farm level, producers can present lots that are more to a buyer’s specifications, and get buyers to bid for the most alluring coffees on the table. When organic relationships grow into partnerships, there can be a beautiful exchange of information that can help both sides develop their coffee knowledge.
There are two major methods in purchasing coffee: Buying spot coffees, and buying direct. Buying spot coffees, or coffees that have already been imported and are resting in a warehouse in the States, is something that is pretty common among small- and large-scale coffee roasters.
“Most folks, especially in the beginning, can’t dole out thousands of dollars to build relationships at the farm level, which is why it is industry standard to seek out reputable importers for quality green,” says Xavier.
Quality spot coffees, those that score well above specialty coffee’s minimum of 80, exist in abundance via big-name importers, and working closely with professionals who import those coffees is a sustainable way to get a roasting business off the ground.
The other way to buy green coffee is direct trade, or working with farmers and producers to taste and purchase coffees. This typically results in a financial benefit towards the farmers, and a quality and personal benefit towards the buyer.
“The best moment is tasting a cup from a producer no one has ever heard of and the flavors are magical and isn’t committed to another roaster,” says Xavier.
After locking down a great coffee, a buyer like Xavier will start working on determining a price. Often, a fair deal is what can make the difference between continuing to grow coffee, or being forced to sell the land of pursue some other crop. It can mean that the farmers are able to send their kids to school, that a family can eat a little more, or can simply invest in themselves. It is not to be forgotten that farming is not an easy or high-paying job. It is difficult and often the best way for folks to live in objectively less-affluent regions than where buyers tend to hail from. Ideally, in paying higher prices for a luxury beverage like coffee, companies can unite under the ideal of doing everything possible to pay as much as possible, and to raise the quality of life for all humans involved.
“The single biggest reason why buying directly, knowing the dollar amount that lands in the producer’s pocket, matters is because you know without a doubt that producer isn’t operating at a loss that year which often happens when producers are paid commodity pricing,” says Xavier. “The term ‘Direct Trade,’ while somewhat loosely defined, is still the way our industry, collectively should strive to accomplish buying,” says Xavier. “To me, Direct Trade means paying a higher price for quality coffee and knowing the producers by name.”
For Xavier, everything returns to the importance of building relationships. From personal partnerships within large-scale importing entities like Ally and Olam, to friendships with farmers like Juan Carlos Chen in Guatemala or Denis Enamorado Moreno in Honduras, buying great coffee involves a commitment to understanding one another, and to hopefully mutually benefit from that understanding. Buying coffee is an exchange of resources, but it is so much more than that. It’s educational, it’s a growing experience. It’s respect and understanding and compassion coming forth in unexpected ways. It’s an experience worth having, worth remembering, and worth sharing.