We know you love getting your coffee from the best roasters in the country (that’s why you came to Trade!), but it’s also worth considering where those roasters get the beautiful green beans that become your special morning cup.
Sourcing coffee is a pretty complex process, the vast majority of which goes on behind the scenes. Not only is there the whole set of steps to grow and harvest the coffee itself, but then there’s also a long and winding chain of custody that it goes through before it reaches the roaster you’ll eventually buy it from.
Amaris Gutierrez-Ray, the director of roasting for Joe Coffee, sums it up best: “It takes a thousand small miracles for this coffee to get where it came from to get here.”
Yes, the mug you’re currently sipping is proof that miracles do happen, and we wanted to get to the bottom of how sourcing relationships make that possible. We recently spoke with folks from three Trade partner roasters to get a sense of what kinds of relationships they build, why they are so important, and what this all means to you: the coffee drinker.
Defining “sourcing relationship”
Roasters need to buy green coffee just like pizzaiolos need to buy flour and tomatoes: These ingredients are the core of what they do, and without them, there won’t be any product to sell. Just like flour and tomatoes, green coffee can come from many different sources: from a big wholesale supplier, a specialty importer, direct from the farmer, and everything in between. Roasters often have their own ideas of the kinds of coffee beans they’d like to offer, as well as how much they can pay for them; armed with that information, they will then make decisions about the connections they need in order to secure their supply.
Not only are there lots of different entities that sell green coffee, there are also regional variances in the journey that coffee makes to get to market. If we follow two coffees from distinct parts of the world as they make their way from the farm all the way to the roaster’s warehouse, we’d likely be looking at two very different maps. A coffee from Costa Rica, for example, might be grown and milled by the same person, and exported and imported by the same company; a coffee grown in Kenya, however, might be the result of thousands of farmers delivering cherry to a mill, which processes and delivers the lots to a marketing agent, who brings the samples to an auction for open bidding by exporters, importers, and roasters.
If the thought of navigating a whole collection of these different maps makes your head spin, then you probably understand why Amaris considers it a “miracle,” but she also acknowledges that it doesn’t just happen by chance. “It’s a lot more work than the word ‘relationship’ conveys sometimes,” she says.
It’s true: Anybody can be “in a relationship,” but it takes a lot more effort and intentionality to make a relationship truly healthy, sustainable, and successful. It also takes a lot of planning, compromise, listening, and learning. That’s why many coffee roasters go the extra mile with the other actors along the supply chain, making investments of time and energy and really getting to know the many people who make those miracles possible.
For Gabriel Boscana, founder of Máquina Coffee Roasters, the term “sourcing relationship” needs to imply “that you make a concerted effort to get to know your partner producer as a human being. What this means is knowing their struggles, challenges, and successes with their farm and crop, but also truly cultivating the sense that this is not a one-off deal, that you intend to grow alongside them and support them when they need it.”
That means for Gabriel, it’s not enough to simply look on an importer’s offering sheet and pick a coffee or two that look good on paper: He needs to have a closer connection to the product, and to know more about where it comes from. Gabriel says that his mission at Máquina is “to have 100 percent of all of our coffees sourced in a meaningful, relational way. In a way that takes into consideration the country’s culture, people, and relationships to their own land.” While he naturally wants to buy great-tasting coffee, he believes that making long-term connections and becoming a reliable buyer for the producers he partners with is key. “The whole point is to find great relationships and make them last as long as possible,” he says.
“I aim to operate in a way that honors the relationship with the producer and uses the importers as logistical partners,” Gabriel explains, especially since the financial risk of handling imports can be potentially ruinous for a small company. “I cannot take on insurance and financing for the coffees I am sourcing, so having a trustworthy relationship with a great importer is important. I don’t think at my level it is viable to do direct-from-farmer model because then almost all of the risk is put on the farmer, which isn’t fair. I would much rather use the mechanisms already in place and think of creative ways to work alongside a farmer and importing company to make sure they are getting a fair and just price for their product, but that Máquina is also protected if something happens to the coffee along the way.”
Amaris from Joe also sees the importance of having different relationships for different offerings — like a chef might decide between going to a wholesale market versus going to the farmers market — and she and her green-buying team have a clear set of sourcing values that they seek to maintain no matter what kind of coffee they’re buying, or from whom. For example, she says, “For single-origin coffees it’s more likely that we’ll work with individual producers, and then we’ll work with importers who share our value, and they’re the mechanism that allows the coffee to get here.”
While Joe buys green coffee from a wide variety of sources, Amaris says that every purchase is required to check the boxes on that list of values. “If you find a person or a company who really shares your values, that is worth so much because your perspective, everything that you do, you know that we align on those things and you’re going to be able to do really great things together.”
For co-founder and head of café at Greater Goods Coffee Co, Khanh Trang, “finding the right company and the right person, the right dynamic, is huge—especially having an importer understand your needs and be able to help you and constantly have your back.” Khanh and her team invest in the relationships they build with their importer partners, “because without them, we’re not able to get the green samples, and we don’t actually get to connect with the farmers,” she says. “We meet a lot of producers because of them, and they’re just a great connection for us,” she says. Khanh utilizes her strong connections with importers to access their producer networks, which allows her not only to meet farmers whose coffees and values meet her needs at Greater Goods, but can also create a bridge of communication during times when it’s not possible to meet face-to-face — say, due to a global pandemic.
That said, there’s no replacement for in-person relationships. “I think it’s great to see people face-to-face and know who you’re working with,” Khanh says. “For me, travel is about discovering and maintaining relationships, and it’s also humbling. Every trip that I get to take, I come back and say, ‘Wait a second, we need to charge more,’ or to my team when they say, ‘I’m just going to throw out the last 30 grams,’ I can say, ‘Don’t touch that!’ Once you understand that this all was handpicked, you can’t just toss it.” That up-close knowledge of what it takes to create the “miracle” of coffee is one of the reasons that Khanh insists on having strong sourcing relationships not only for single origin coffees, but also for Greater Goods’ lineup of blends.
Risk and reward
One thing is true about any kind of relationship and that is that, well, they’re risky. The only way to avoid occasional disappointment and heartbreak is to not have any relationships at all — but where’s the fun (and coffee) in that?
“The risks are real,” Gabriel says, and he offers a shortlist of some of them, such as “the producer not coming through on your mutual agreement due to lack of resources, climate change, structural issues within a cooperative or group or financial or personal stuff in their family.” Roasters may work for months on a contract with a farmer only to find that the coffee doesn’t perform as well in the cup, or that the crop simply failed due to weather or disease. These risks exist in any agricultural industry — that pizzaiolo may find that a tomato blight has impacted the supply chain for tomatoes, and have to come up with another solution.
Amaris says price negotiations (or disagreements) can be one of the most delicate parts of navigating truly healthy sourcing relationships. “It’s vulnerable and it’s a slow process, and maybe you’re saying something that’s not what someone wants to hear,” she says. “The reward is so good though, when you actually show up and you’re honest. That’s not something I really got until having some of the harder conversations. I said I wanted to be there for them, and this is what that looks like.”
While there are fewer risks in more transactional relationships (Ie, when a roaster buys coffee “on the spot” from an importer who keeps a full stock of green beans in their warehouse), the time and effort it takes to nurture longer-term connections and collaborations can transform not only the business model, but also the emotional and social value of the coffee itself, for everyone involved.
“The rewards are massive from a spiritual and personal level, but also from a business standpoint,” Gabriel says. “If a producer has a committed buyer year after year, in the good and the bad, they will produce better coffee, and you secure your supply chain and offer an opportunity for them and their own growth. The financial stability has positive reverberations throughout the relationships.”
Good sourcing relationships create “sustainability for both sides,” according to Khanh. “Once you establish that relationship you can say, ‘You know, last year’s was a little too fermenty, or it wasn’t fermenty enough. Can we try X, Y, Z for next year?’ Once you establish that relationship, there’s a trust.”
What does this mean for you?
While most of these negotiations and connections happen in the back-of-house, so to speak, they are all still significant for you and the coffee you love.
For one thing, strong sourcing relationships between your favorite roaster and their producing partners means that you might be able to find the same coffees year after year, allowing you to build your own association and affection for a farmer family or a growing region somewhere halfway across the world. Those repeat buys also give you a more authentic look at what goes into coffee farming itself: A roaster can share the story of what challenges the grower faced this year, and what triumphs — like a new plot of land or a new experimental process they’re trying out.
Knowing more about how roasters buy their coffee can also help you make informed decisions about your own values, and allow you to seek out specific information that might help you choose exactly what you want to put in your grinder every day.
“Just because you’re buying a coffee that you think is specialty coffee doesn’t mean it’s inherently good... Having a value system is a way to keep ourselves accountable.” — Amaris Gutierrez-Ray
“Just because you’re buying a coffee that you think is specialty coffee doesn’t mean it’s inherently good,” says Amaris. “Having a value system is a way to keep ourselves accountable.” Amaris and her team take their role in the coffee industry very seriously, and they want their customers to be able to see, understand, and, of course, taste that. “It’s a powerful thing to be a buyer at the end of a very long supply stream. Having the values in place help us ensure that we’re putting our money where our mouth is.”
For Gabriel, coffee is much more than just a cupping score or flavor notes: “For me, coffee is about humanity. It’s communal, year after year. It’s relationship-building with people and land. We wouldn’t have coffee without those two things. Every cup should transport you there, and give you a reason to breathe deep for a moment and feel that connection.”
What to look for
Interested in finding out more about your favorite roaster’s sourcing relationships? Don’t worry, it’s easier than you might think!
- Many roasters include stories about their personal relationship with the coffee or the producers on their bags, or in the descriptions of the coffee. Do they describe how they met the producer or first encountered the coffee? Do they mention a trip they took to visit?
- Some companies will indicate on the bag or in a coffee’s profile whether the coffee was purchased through an importer, but most will not: Generally, however, a greater level of traceability can indicate a relationship (though it also may not — it’s complicated).
- Coffees that carry certifications (such as organic, Fair Trade, or Rainforest Alliance) will have requirements about the sourcing protocol, along with the way the coffee is grown, harvested, and handled: Learning more about those certifications can help you understand the various impacts of those trade methodologies, and can provide insight into the coffee supply stream.
- Don’t be afraid to ask! Coffee people generally love to talk about other coffee people, and sourcing relationships are some of the most rewarding and exciting stories to tell: You may find out even more than you were expecting.