The Challenge: Coffee buyers for roasting companies should be doing much less travel and much more cupping, quality control and customer education.
Kevin Knox writes:
I’d put this another way. The most important tools for buying great coffee are a well-trained palate, a well-equipped cupping room, relationships with the best importers and – last not least – sufficient capital to afford to buy top coffees in season and keep them in inventory for extended periods.
I think it’s great that people in the trade want to know where coffee comes from, but I do see many small roasting companies allocating large sums of money, relative to their size and volume of coffee bought and roasted, to extensive origin travel that is clearly in lieu of – or at least at the expense of – much-needed attention to things at home.
Wanting to have, or claiming to have, a personal relationship with every farm you buy coffee from makes for great marketing but it isn’t good business, nor is it actually possible unless one limits one’s buying to a handful of farms in a couple of countries.
More important, if the goal is having the best coffee from each origin, the way to get there is to cup samples extensively and intensively in season from as broad a cross-section of farms as one can access, rather than limiting purchases to farms you bought from in previous years. In other words, “relationship” coffee or multi-year exclusives and having the best coffee are antithetical ideals. A more open approach also delivers much better value, allowing one to reward new and unknown farms doing a great job rather than over-paying for “name” coffees from farms bent on using the roaster as a vehicle to build their own brand with consumers.
Cupping, QC and customer education are the responsibilities of roaster-retailers, while producing high quality coffee at origin is the domain of farmers and agronomists. From the point of view of delivering coffee of high quality and value as well as that of being environmentally responsible and minimizing one’s carbon footprint, I would suggest that buyers for all but the largest companies would indeed be much better off spending much more time doing their jobs while letting their partners at origin do theirs.
For another perspective on this challenge, click here to see how Kenneth Davids responds