If there's one factor about coffee that we would describe as inescapable, it's that the only way to consistently find quality coffee is by spending time in the countries where our coffees are grown. Every year our roasters spend hundreds of hours perched in plane seats as they travel to origin to taste and compare the best of the thousands of coffees produced each season. They make a point to spend time with farm owners and farm managers to establish a greater understanding of the growers' goals and concerns. When time affords, our roasters also hone their abilities and broaden their networks by participating as jury members in international coffee competitions like the Cup Of Excellence.
Delivering consistently high-quality coffee requires a long-term outlook, specialist skill, and good harvest and post-harvest practices. When we visit a coffee farm, we not only look at the coffee itself but also at farm management, how it responds to the myriad of issues around social standards in developing nations, as well as the whole processing chain. As you'll appreciate, the overall environment in which coffee is grown makes a huge difference, and this is what we try to take into account.
As intrepid as it might sound, directly sourcing coffee, as we do, isn't without some sizeable risks for a small company in New Zealand. We're sitting on a couple of diminutive islands in the middle of nowhere and a very long way from where any of our coffee is grown. To get to the stage where we can fill a shipping container with coffee (the equivalent of 80,000 small bags of coffee you'd buy from one of our stores) and duly write a sizeable cheque for it, we have to be pretty sure the coffee we've found has been produced in a way that we're comfortable with in terms of the human element (farmers and farm staff) and all agricultural practices.
One of the main issues we have to be vigilant on when sourcing a new crop is determining the relative shelf life of that coffee. A fresh coffee can profile well when cupped at origin but if it hasn't been processed, and in particular, dried, in a uniform and tightly monitored way, then its cup qualities can deteriorate faster than you could reasonably expect. Ideally, if the coffee has been bought as a blend ingredient (say as a component of our Supreme or Boxer blends), you would hope to use it throughout the year, right up until the next crop is available. In the worst possible case you can end up landing a container that fades rapidly and soon turns into a dull shadow of what you thought you were buying. Only being on the ground at the coffees point of origin can you learn how to recognise coffee that has been suitably processed.
Despite the financial risk, the huge upshot of importing directly from origin is that we can establish long-term relationships with growers, mills and exporters. We view this as an essential exercise to make our future access to quality and interesting coffee sustainable. It's on these trips that we can learn invaluable lessons about the agricultural side of the coffee trade and meet some of the most interesting and hardworking professionals in the business.
Just as we want to find quality coffees, producers want to fully understand what roasters want, and lift their quality to improve returns. Tasting coffee together has a mutual benefit for all parties. Exchanging information and building understanding between the grower and roaster goes a long way towards generating quality improvement. With insight gained from this experience, we can make informed decisions about the coffees worth handing good money over for, and the people we want to work with.
As coffee is grown in more than 50 different countries, our coffee will inevitably come via a range of sourcing methods. At its simplest, it's a matter of visiting a particular farm, tasting some coffee, discussing the how's and whys of the cup (flavour) profiles, choosing lots we would like the option to buy, and then returning home to await acceptance and pre-shipment samples. This is the case with individual farms who have the wherewithal to sell and ship directly to us, and who's coffee we use in sufficient volume to fill containers.
In cases where we aren't looking to fill a container from one particular producer or perhaps where we're looking at a new origin or market, we look to an exporter for help. The role of "middlemen" in coffee is largely misunderstood and somewhat tarnished by the concept of the "coyote". The coyote is the guy who drives from farm to farm and buys coffee cheaply from smallholders, exploiting the farmers' lack of access to market data about the value of their produce, or prey on vulnerable growers desperate for ready cash, taking whatever is on offer that day.
The exporters that we have come to trust and enjoy working with are quite a different prospect. They add value to the chain and, for a company as remote from origin as we are, are very much worth the few cents a pound we pay them.
The easiest way to define the role of a good exporter is to say that they sit squarely between the farmer and us and the farmer is treated as much as a customer as we are. The exporter will have support staff, agronomists and such, that farmers can make use of to solve issues, look to increase productivity, keep abreast of developments in processing, discuss new varietals, and so on. The exporter can play an important role in increasing both quality and quantity of production on a farm that they work with. In most cases, they do this as they have a vested interest in a farmer being able to charge more for their coffee.
The specialist coffee exporter we work with most is quite different to most. They do not contract farmers into exclusive relationships. This means that if this exporter isn't able to find a farmer the best price for their coffee, the farmer is free to sell to the party who can.
Finally, and perhaps of greatest benefit to both the farmer and the New Zealand coffee consumer, because we know the people who grow it, we can pass on the story behind the coffee, who produces it, where it is grown, why it tastes the way it does. The taste and the story are inevitably linked, and coffee becomes more than just a drink, it acquires a personality and provides a window into the culture, places, and people where it was grown.
So, rather than searching for bargains, we find great coffees, pay a sustainable price to their producers, and develop long-term relationships. That's how we source and buy coffee.