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Part of a Process, Chapter V: Buying Green Coffee

“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.

Part of a Process, Chapter IV: Sourcing Coffee

“The real treat is finding coffees that are unique and colorful which I know our customers will love and also the story tied to those coffees. That is, in my opinion, the epitome of relationship coffee.”

Xavier Alexander, Co-Owner of Metric Coffee 

After a coffee cherry is picked and processed, it needs to be tasted, purchased, and exported. As we continue the journey that coffee makes from farm to cup, we pass through a very important stage that represents the bridge between those two shores: sourcing great coffee. In an effort to demystify what goes into this step, Xavier Alexander, Co-Owner of Metric Coffee offered his insight and perspective. Xavier has traveled to the likes of Colombia, Guatemala, and Honduras during his coffee-seeking travels. Here is a quick summary of what the sourcing and buying process entails from start to finish for a small company like Metric Coffee according to Xavier Alexander:

“Metric Coffee has several relationships that we have forged over the years with producers in Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, and Ethiopia, so once the harvest season is in motion, we visit these countries, cup early harvest samples of our coffees, and approve or reject which coffees we are interested in purchasing. We also build blender lots according to our desired flavor profile. After that, we wait a few months until we receive the pre-shipment samples that are cupped and approved or denied before contracts are drafted. Once our coffees are selected, our importer handles the financing and logistics for these coffees and sends them directly to our closest point of contact which in our case in New Jersey.”

After the coffee arrives in New Jersey, the palates stacked high with burlap sacks of coffee are put on a freight train across the country and arrives in Chicago. It’s loaded onto a truck and delivered to 2021 W. Fulton, unloaded with a palate jack, and rolled victoriously into our roasting works.  This is the nutshell version. But let’s rewind, and start with what occurs when a buyer travels to origin. 

At Origin

When it comes to traveling to origin, there is a lot to consider. Flights are booked and buyers are suddenly dropped into a different world. If they are smart, they will have a contact when they arrive, somebody to help them navigate from the airport to the appropriate region or specific farm. 

“The decision to work in the countries that we work in is due to the quality of the work these countries are producing, which makes it that much more of a pleasure to be invested in them. Take for example Colombia. The different microclimates in that country which means that you can varied flavor profiles all within one single country, from more tropical notes out of Nariño, or heartier, sweeter coffees out of the Huila region,” says Xavier.

Mornings can include a hearty yet simple meal followed by cupping coffees. Farm visits involve hiking the hills and valleys where the coffee grows, and visiting with the folks who run the mill. Perhaps there is yet more coffee tasting. Often enough, there are shared meals with producers, hospitality that is always unique yet somehow surprisingly familiar. We’re all just a bunch of humans, after all. If a buyer is not totally exhausted, the night life may have something worth exploring, a local bar or restaurant worth visiting. 

“Besides finding that perfect coffee, my favorite moments are after the cuppings when we go try the local fare,” says Xavier.

But tomorrow promises more hard treks in the mountains, a few mysterious bug bites, endless cupping tables, and long discussions about coffee and pricing. The trip will ideally end with handshakes all around, and perhaps the promise of samples to come. Sourcing coffee requires a great deal of communication, not to mention a firm basis of coffee knowledge and a trained palate to make the kinds of buying decisions that will set a company apart. The journey is just about halfway through, and making the actual purchase will be the subject of the next chapter of this little miniseries.