Tropiq High quality, traceable and ethically sourced coffee Thu, 20 Jun 2019 07:40:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Tropiq 32 32 What does a green coffee buyer do – Part 6: Risk Management Thu, 20 Jun 2019 06:19:59 +0000

This is the final in a series of posts called “What Does A Green Coffee Buyer Do.” If you haven’t read the previous posts, we recommend you start here: Part 1: Planning.

Previously on “What does a green coffee buyer do”

I have spent several frantic weeks babysitting the coffees I selected from the 2018/2019 Ethiopia harvest. Working with our team at Tropiq Ethiopia, we have shepherded each lot through the convoluted maze of paperwork and approvals, from warehouse to mill to ship. Finally, they have arrived in our warehouse in Belgium.

I order arrival samples (ARS) to be sent to our lab in Oslo and I cup them to determine two things.

  1. Is this the same coffee I booked in Ethiopia?
  2. Is it in the same great condition as it was when I cupped the PSS?

This is the most anxious moment for a green coffee buyer at an importing company. If the answer to either of these questions is no… well… we’re kinda screwed.

Who carries the risk?

It depends on the terms of your contract and your position in the supply chain.

The most common contract term for shipping coffee internationally is Free on Board, or FOB. This is an Incoterm, an internationally recognised commercial term defined by the International Chamber of Commerce which oversees international commercial law. (The FOB price is the amount paid to the exporting company for that coffee.)

FOB is a term in a contract between the seller and a buyer and it refers to the moment the coffee crosses from the dock onto the ship. At that moment, responsibility for the coffee is transferred from the seller to the buyer. Who are these two actors in the supply chain and what are their responsibilities?

The Seller:
Usually an exporting company.

Seller’s responsibilities

  • Providing sample material so the buyer can make their selections
  • Ensuring the selected coffee is reserved with the supplier (which could be a farmer, a washing station, a cooperative, an agent or another exporter), and processed according to the buyer’s instructions.
  • Following the document and shipping instructions and ensuring the export documents are correct. (For more info on these see Part 5: Shipping and scroll down to the subheading, Documents.)
  • Delivering PSS for approval.
  • Once PSS is approved, booking transport to port.

The Buyer:
A roastery buying directly from origin, or an importer. Nordic Approach is an importer, and therefore the buyer in these contracts.

Buyer’s responsibilities

  • Carefully monitoring and recording all quality parameters like moisture content and water activity of the PSS.
  • Supplying the document and shipping instructions.
  • Approving all paperwork and ensuring it meets the customs requirements of the country where your port is located.
  • From the moment PSS is approved, the present and future quality of each lot.

Some less than ideal scenarios

As importers, Nordic Approach acts as the buyer in these coffee transactions. In all origins, especially in Ethiopia, we rely on people we trust to minimise risk. Through strong relationships built over many years, plus our own hard-earned experience, we have significantly reduced the issues described below. However they do still happen. So, who is responsible and how do we deal with these problems?

The coffee was rejected at port

There was a problem with the paperwork. The bag marks don’t match the bill of lading, there are errors on the phytosanitary certificate, or the bag tags are missing.

While the seller was responsible for most of these issues, they are not always so eager to solve these problems. Often we, the buyer, end up taking the loss.

Problems with certification

There was an error on the organic certificate and the coffee can not be sold as certified organic in the market where it was imported.

Again, the seller was responsible for getting this right, but sometimes they are not so efficient at fixing the problem, and the coffee enters the country without the certificate. In some cases we have to sell the coffee without organic certification.

Defective or aged coffee

The coffee arrives tasting aged, mouldy, or generally not of the quality we purchased.

It is rare, but sadly it happens. Coffee sat too long after milling in Addis, or perhaps the coffee was simply swapped somewhere along the line for an inferior grade coffee. Corruption exists.

This is the fault of the seller and while there are international laws to protect Nordic Approach as buyers, enacting them is difficult. If a coffee arrives drastically inferior to PSS we approved, we will check the quality parameters like water activity and moisture content. We will also do a physical evaluation of the greens to assess if there are any primary defects, or if the number of secondary defects is higher than stipulated grade. If any of these quality parameters have changed, we have 28 calendar days to make a claim, as per the EU Coffee Contract.

Unfortunately, even when our case is rock solid, there is little chance of a full refund. This is especially true in Ethiopia where it is almost impossible to wire money out of the country due to government regulations. Best case scenario: We get a credit or a discount applied to coffee we purchase from the supplier for the next harvest.

There was a hole in the container and the coffee arrived damaged

This is the fault of the shipping company or exporter who oversaw the loading of the container. Again, we would have to make a claim to the shipping line or exporter, and hope we can reclaim some of the loss.

The buyer carries most of the risk

As you can see, under pure FOB terms, the buyer, be it an importer or a roastery buying direct, is the largest bearer of risk.

FOB vs Spot = balancing risk and cost

Many roasters want to work more deeply in the supply chain and forge direct partnerships with producers and farmers. All specialty roasters want to reduce the cost of green coffee, while maintaining the quality. For these reasons, roasters are often looking for ways to work more directly in origin. We want to help these roasters, which is why we turned our sourcing department into a separate company, which is Tropiq.

Tropiq relies on long-standing relationships, and many years of experience in sourcing and logistics to minimise the risks of buying on FOB terms. We have a good idea of which suppliers can deliver on their promises, which documents need double and triple checking, and which shipping lines are most likely to respect your coffee. In Ethiopia, arguably one of the most complicated coffee origins, we have people on the ground watching your coffee at every step in the process.

However, roasters buying direct from origin still carry a much higher risk than customers buying Spot. With this risk comes reward: Buying direct means paying the FOB price.

There is a significant difference between the FOB price of a coffee at origin, and the Spot price of a coffee located in a warehouse in Europe. Risk is one cost factored into the Spot price. Other costs include sea freight, the transport from port to warehouse, warehousing fees, plus staff costs and overhead. To put it plainly, you pay more for the coffee, but you don’t have to worry about going broke because of a mistake in the documentation, or coffee spoiling while en route from origin.

Some risk, some reward

For customers who want to go deeper into the supply chain, but are not ready to carry the full financial risk of FOB, there is a middle ground, which is to forward book higher volumes of coffee using Nordic Approach as your importer. More on this option in the next blog post.

Nordic Approach transparency reports

If you would like to know the exact breakdown of costs from FOB to the price you paid for any coffee you purchased from Nordic Approach, we can provide a personalised transparency report. Contact your sales rep to request yours.

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What Does A Green Coffee Buyer Do – Part 5: Shipping Thu, 06 Jun 2019 08:01:37 +0000

This is Part 5 in a series of posts called “What Does A Green Coffee Buyer Do.” If you haven’t read the previous posts, we recommend you start here: Part 1: Planning.

I have cupped through thousands of coffees, and selected the best possible lots to meet our customers’ needs. Now it is time to book those coffees and get them on the water.

Someone once told me, you have to babysit your coffee. Follow it everywhere it goes and make sure that it has what it needs to get out the door, so that is my main goal in this part of the season. Of course, every other buyer is doing the same, so Ethiopia is absolutely buzzing with anxious coffee professionals trying to be at the front of the line at each point in the process.

Every day is a race against time and deterioration.

So what could go wrong?

In Ethiopia, anything.

Tribal conflicts can have a huge impact. Different groups might prevent coffee from leaving their district so it doesn’t arrive in Addis when you expect. They might block the roads from Addis, so our coffee can’t get to port.

The power may go out due to poor electrical infrastructure or government rationing. They might block the internet or the 3G network for national security. The government’s rules and regulations are always in flux, amendments, big and small, happen all the time so contracts and documents might need to be reissued. Machines can break down. Workers may strike. Containers, trucks and ships are all in high demand, and may not be available when you need them.

There’s a reason we have a team on the ground in Ethiopia. They constantly navigate through bureaucracy and unforeseen issues. At no point can we sit and wait for things to happen, we have to make them happen. We also have a team in Oslo of logistics and finance experts, and together we weave all the necessary pieces together to get the coffees shipped.

If everything goes right, this is what it might look like…


Coffee is so crucial to the livelihoods of millions of people in Ethiopia, and the government has some strict regulations to protect their people and their interests in this industry.

The first step in ordering a coffee is contracting. Tropiq creates a contract for each lot of the coffee which will be confirmed and signed by the importer (for FOB clients), followed by us and the supplier, then submitted to the National Bank of Ethiopia. The bank reviews the contract, and if both the supplier and the client appear able to deliver what they promise, the bank will issue a Letter of Credit, one of the many documents required before the supplier can prepare for export.

If the contract is amended after it has been signed (for example if volumes change), the national bank needs to be notified and given time to approve the new contract. This can delay the process a few weeks or even months, depending on how busy the bank is.


Once approved, the supplier needs a raft of documents to get the coffee moving. These are generally grouped into shipping instructions, document instructions and bag markings.

Shipping instructions are issued by us to our supplier. Instructions will specify exactly how we want the coffee to be bagged, the kind of container, plus other details e.g. if lots need to be separated by plastic, if we need a cardboard lining to protect the bags, special bag marking requirements and more.

Shipping instructions also specify how much coffee should be removed from a lot for pre-shipment samples (usually 500g), the allowed moisture content of the coffee (in our case, between 9.5% and 11.5% at the time of shipment), and maximum water activity (we specify 0.6). Shipping instructions include photos taken throughout the loading of the container, and the front and back side of each lot to show us the bag marking on the sacks.

The bag marks can be as simple as the name of the lot and our logo. Sometimes importers need certain codes, or it is essential to ensure the name of the lot on the bag exactly matches the name in the contract and the bill of lading. It depends on the country importing the coffee, and what they require. Whatever goes on the bag, nothing will be printed until we issue instructions, and no coffee is milled until we print bags.

Coffee bags lined with Grain Pro, as outlined in the shipping instructions

Document Instructions include information relevant to the country where the coffee will land. It is crucial that we get these things right, as it is next to impossible to amend them when the coffee is on the water. For example, this year we bought a lot of coffee from a certified organic producer. Sadly, there was an error on the organic certificate which means we can’t sell the coffee as certified organic. The coffee hasn’t changed, the paper work just wasn’t one hundred percent correct.

For containers we import into the EU we usually require the following:

  • Three original copies of the Bill of Lading with consignee
  • The Invoice
  • The ICO Certificate of Origin  
  • A Phytosanitary Certificate
  • A non-GMO Certificate
  • A Weight Certificate


While we are compiling all the relevant information and chasing people to provide the documents we need, we are also trying to get the coffees milled. This process removes the parchment of the coffee beans, making them ready for export.

It is a bigger challenge than it sounds. The timing is crucial. We want our coffees milled as soon as possible, and we need to make sure everything else is in place, so our coffees don’t age and deteriorate while we wait for them to leave Africa. It’s a complex juggling act, and it depends largely on the size and operations of our suppliers, the exporters and washing stations who sold us coffee.

A large supplier for us would be one with thirty or more washing stations, and maybe eight or more dry mills. They have the longest lead time as they have  to comply to more government regulations. They also have other challenges. Their dry mills were built for huge volumes and usually mill a few containers a day. Our small lot of grade 1 specialty coffee needs special consideration. Usually they wait until the machines are cleaned and calibrated, which might happen once a week, and mill our coffee then, to ensure it is not contaminated with coffee remaining from the lower quality milling. Waiting a week might not seem like a big deal, but every day counts in the race to get the coffee on the water.

A small quality focused supplier might own two stations and one dry mill, and they would likely source parchment from other marketing agents. They do smaller volumes and have their own dry mill, so they can process the coffee faster, and they are allowed to amend contracts, even after the coffees have been processed.

We also buy coffees from suppliers who don’t own any washing stations, rather they source directly from smallholder farmers. Their coffees are very exciting, and often traceable back to a single farmer, which is rare in Ethiopia, but they face different challenges. They rely on other dry mills to remove parchment, and have to trust that those dry mills have their best interest in place. Coffees might be milled early and sit in a warehouse, before our supplier or customer is notified. The coffee might be accidentally mixed with other coffees. It might also be processed immediately after a lower quality lot, mixing poorer quality coffee with their high quality beans. These suppliers have to watch carefully.

A dry mill in Ethiopia.

The final approval

Let’s assume that all has gone smoothly. We spent four to eight weeks following up on paperwork and ensuring our coffee has been milled according to our high standards. We now have approval from the national bank, all document instructions sent to the supplier, and all the physical bag marks have been approved. It’s finally time to cup the pre-shipment sample (PSS). This sample represents the coffee that sits in the container.

Let’s say that we have three lots of 100 bags each. If one of the samples tastes deteriorated, I will have to reject the 100 bags and find a replacement. I pray this doesn’t happen because it means starting the process again: cupping offers, selecting lots, amending contracts, getting document approval from the bank, printing new bags, getting a milling slot and tasting the PSS again.

Get the coffee to Djibouti

As Ethiopia is landlocked, we have to put our coffees on a truck to Djibouti, where they will be loaded onto a ship and sent to our warehouses in Europe and the US.

It takes about a week to get the containers to Djibouti and, if all goes well, we have a shipping slot pre-booked. Of course, everyone is rushing to get their coffee out, so sometimes our coffees are bumped down the list, and sit at port. This is a nail biting scenario. Our coffees are milled already, which means the process of aging has begun. We want our customers to have the maximum amount of time to roast this coffee, so we want that coffee on a ship ASAP.

Tropiq Ethiopia Lab Assistant, Sisay Weldeamanue, oversees the lining of a container. This paper lining is an extra layer of protection for our precious coffee bags.


It’s done! The coffees are on the water!

I can relax now, right? Ah… not yet.

It takes about a month for the coffee to get to Europe, and as soon as it arrives we organise for arrival samples to be sent to our lab in Oslo. There we cup and score them to ensure each lot is the same quality coffee we selected and purchased in Ethiopia.

What happens if the sample arrives different or deteriorated? Whose responsibility is it? Find out in Part 6: Risk Management.

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What Does a Green Coffee Buyer Do – Part 4: Pre-contracting Wed, 29 May 2019 05:47:23 +0000

This is Part 4 in a series of posts called “What Does A Green Coffee Buyer Do”. If you haven’t read the previous posts, we recommend you start here: Part 1: Planning.

What you taste is not necessarily what you get.

I previously gave a small insight into cupping fresh coffees by comparing the experience to that of tasting wine, and the questions I ask myself in the process. As a buyer though, when starting to select coffees, flavour is just the beginning. There are far more layers to making a decision than just flavour. The value chain contains many checkpoints and several things can happen along the way. We’re dealing with a fresh moving product after all.

While in Ethiopia on this first trip to cup the fresh coffees, I have to be aware of what kind of sample is on the table.  

Type samples

Type samples represent the general flavor profile of a region, station or private farmer. Often they are a parchment sample of the first grade 1 of the season and they begin arriving in Addis in mid-to-late January.

This sample is provided to give buyers an idea of the overall quality and potential of the supplier. Even though I am cupping the coffee in Addis, it’s possible that the coffee is still on the drying beds at the washing station or farm.

I cup type samples to get an idea of the coming harvest. Some years the cherry development is great, the trees produce a good yield and farmers deliver high quality. Other years heavy rains prevent proper development of the cherry, yields are low, farmers are desperate and quality fluctuates enormously. Type samples gives me a good idea of what kind of year this is.

In a challenging year, type samples will typically contain more defects: quakers, unripe cherries, phenols and other problems. Coffee will taste more astringent and gritty with an unripe character and without much sweetness or acidity.

In a good year coffees will show more depth, have a good level of fruit, a clear acidity, high level of sweetness, positive tartness as described in the last blog post, and consistent cups throughout.

For me, the common denominator when cupping type samples is structure.

Type samples could represent coffees that are still on the drying table. We cup them to get an idea of the harvest, if it is a good or bad year for the region or washing station.

Offer samples

Offer samples arrive in late January and continue throughout the season. They represent lots that have been dried and bagged, but they haven’t yet arrived in Addis Ababa. Instead they are sitting in a warehouse close to the farm or washing station.

Exporters are pushing me to make a decision on this coffee, but no matter how exciting these samples may be, I have to exercise some restraint. The offer sample gives me a clearer indication of the final coffee, but offer samples can also be deceiving.

Here’s a scenario: Starting in late December, huge quantities of parchment have been delivered to the local or regional warehouse on a daily basis. Every day the piles of bags in the warehouse get bigger. What was a 100-bag day lot is now a 500-bag week lot, to save space and administrative work.

By late January we have five week’s of coffee piled up. A staff member at this warehouse is asked to get an offer sample of this lot, so they take a sample from a random bag on the edge of the pile. The offer sample is marked “Lot 1”. Let’s assume I fall in love with this coffee, and commit, then and there, to buy it.

Week’s later, when the enormous pile of bags arrives in Addis, it is divided into three lots. One ends up in my container, the other two are sold to different buyers. Which of those three lots did my sample come from? Did it come from a bag that ended up in my container, or someone else’s?

What if the coffee that arrives is not the same as the offer sample I cupped and fell in love with? Can I cancel a contract based on profile only?

Obviously this is a situation I want to avoid, which is why we prefer to make our final buying decisions based on the stocklot (see below). However I can still make a commitment to a supplier based on the offer sample, which will also put us first in line when coffees arrive in the main warehouse in Addis Ababa, that is, I can pre-contract the coffee.

Every day new coffee is delivered and these piles grow. Which bag did your offer sample come from? Did this bag end up in your container, or someone else’s?


Pre-contracting is making a commitment to a supplier to buy a certain volume from a region or washing station managed by this supplier.

Tropiq has several long standing relationships with exporters and washing stations in Ethiopia. With these companies we go straight to pre-contracting at the beginning of the harvest, as we are confident these suppliers can provide great coffees. The advantage for us is that we have the first right of refusal for the supplier’s coffees as they arrive in Addis.

However we are always looking for new partners. Ethiopia is constantly changing, laws are tightened or relaxed, and new opportunities bring new players to the market. Type and offer samples are a great way to discover new potential partners. If these samples look promising, we might decide to pre-contract with a new company. Again, this gives us first access to the arriving stocklots.

Stocklot samples

A stocklot is a sample from the warehouse/dry mill in Addis. It hasn’t yet been processed for export, but it will be a more accurate sample representing, for example, a 100-bag lot. These samples are a more accurate representation of the coffees we buy as the sample is often drawn from multiple bags representing the 100 bags in that lot.

These samples start arriving our lab early February. We prefer to make our final selections based on stocklots, rather than type or offer samples, but I have to move quickly. The coffees these samples represent are rarely available to buy for more than a week.

The time I lost the stocklot race

I once fell in love with a washed coffee from West Arsi. It was unlike anything I had ever tasted before: black currants, blueberries and tons of purple plum. It was Friday afternoon when I first cupped this sweet creation, and I planned to book the coffee immediately, but my flight home was leaving that night and I was rushing to pack all the samples I needed to bring back to HQ.

I landed in Oslo on Saturday, crashed and slept until Monday morning. First thing in the office that day I re-cupped the coffee — I wanted to show it off to my colleagues and they all agreed I should book it. On Monday afternoon I called the supplier, a little giddy with excitement, but my beloved coffee was gone. The entire lot had been sold to another buyer the day before.

I learned my lesson. If I like a coffee and it fits our quality standards, I book it, mill it, bag it, and ship it. The longer I wait, the greater the risk of the coffee being replaced with another lot. This would mean restocking all my samples and going through the whole selection process again, not to mention the work of mending my broken heart.

Pre-Shipment Samples (PSS)

The PSS represents coffee that is in an Addis Ababa warehouse, bagged and ready to ship. It is the exact same coffee as the stocklot sample, but the supplier has milled, screened, graded and sorted the coffee according to instructions that we agreed to in our contract.

Incorrect processing of the coffee can seriously affect the final profile, so I cup the PSS to decide whether or not the coffee will go in our container. If I’m not happy with the PSS, I may ask the supplier to re-process the coffee, that means they must mill, screen, grade and sort again. In the worst cases, I reject the coffee.

Knowing what the sample represents is crucial to a buyer

Getting the coffees on the water

It might seem like the hard work is done. I have cupped through hundreds of samples, beginning with the type samples back in January and February, through to the PSS which I have approved. The coffee is ready to ship, so I can relax, right?

Ah, if only it were so. In other origins this can be relatively straightforward, but Ethiopia is unlike every other origin. Now that the coffees have been selected, the real hard work begins.

Read Part 5: Shipping

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What Does A Green Coffee Buyer Do – Part 3: First Selections Wed, 22 May 2019 08:03:59 +0000

This is Part 3 in a series of posts called “What Does A Green Coffee Buyer Do”. If you haven’t read the previous posts, we recommend you start here, Part 1: Planning.

It’s time to start finding the first coffees of the season.

Since it became legally possible to hold both a production and an export license two years ago, many producers have become their own exporter. Unlike in Kenya where there’s a rush to find the best coffees early in the season, good coffee is everywhere in Ethiopia, and companies are pushing hard for a sale! My aim is to find the right people with a similar mindset to Nordic Approach, and a willingness to work according to our values. These relationships often start at the cupping table.

I usually plan my first cupping trip for early February. I book meetings with all exporters we work with, plus other suppliers who have great potential. The days are spent tasting, but also understanding export timelines, and analysing the human aspect of the businesses.

The Challenge of Fresh Coffees

Cupping the first selection gives me an idea of what the harvest will have to offer and what regional profiles to expect. But it can be challenging. Coffees this fresh can be closed, meaning the flavours can be muted or hidden and the mouthfeel can be very astringent. Ethiopian coffees are renowned for this — they need some time to open up and express themselves fully. An essential skill of a coffee buyer is learning how to cup through the astringency and understand the potential of a coffee.

So, how do you cup fresh coffees? Let me use the analogy of wine.

Wine can be consumed now, in five years, ten years or be kept for more than twenty years. Wine experts judge the longevity of a wine by paying attention to the acidity and layers of fruit (aromatic compounds). They assess the concentration and freshness of white wine, and the added level of tannins in reds. A wine will be categorised into sweet, semi-sweet or dry, but this doesn’t indicate that a wine is of high quality or that it will age well.

Coffee is quite different from wine, but there are some similarities. The principal difference is the longevity: coffee can be consumed now, in a few months when coffee arrives port, in six months when the coffee has had enough rest, or in a year from now (typical for Ethiopias) if the coffee was exceptionally processed and carefully stored.


If a wine has clean, well integrated aromatics (no apparent smell of ethanol), with no defects, a good level of freshness and fruit, and high level of intensity, you are off to a great start.

Defects in coffee are greater in number, and have a bigger impact on the final cup.

Defects can arise due to problems with picking (ripeness of cherry), fermentation or drying. Coffee buyers look for primary defects such as phenol, sour beans, and mold, and they pay attention to the astringency. It could be from secondary defects like ageing, quakers or other issues.


If the wine is clean, has tonnes of freshness and acidity which are supported by body and sweetness, the wine has potential of ageing well for five to ten years. For a wine to age well for twenty years or more, it has to have a perfect water to sugar/aromatic compounds/acidity ratio with the added structure, alcohol integration and primary, secondary and tertiary flavors.

In coffee the perfect ratio is measured by water activity and moisture levels within the physical green bean. It’s not easy to understand the potential of a coffee as every batch, variety and harvest-date of green coffee behaves differently when roasted and extracted. Some coffees may reveal all of their aromatic compunds and sweetness at this early stage, giving you a clear picture of its potential. Others will not. Some great coffees can start out tasting herbal or of green grape. They may have some flavour but it is muted or lacking complexity. It may have higher levels of astringency. This doesn’t mean it is a bad coffee, it’s just not showing you its full potential yet.

The art is to be able to look past these issues.

Is it just the roast?
Is the herbal astringency a defect like dustiness or earthiness?
Could it be a natural characteristic of this coffee or just freshness?   
What’s hiding in those muted flavours that might reveal themselves with time?
How is the acidity? Might it support more fruit flavours as the coffee opens?
Does the body in the cup suggest an integrated, well fermented and well dried coffee?

Cupping requires concentration. Sample roasting requires dancing.

Risk and Reward

It’s a risk. We use our experience to carefully assess each cup, then we take a bet on those we think show promise and could be winners in a few months time. Sometimes we make mistakes and they peak earlier than expected. Sometimes they don’t open up as fully as we hoped. Fortunately, those losses are rare, and we usually manage to secure a great selection of well structured, amazing coffees – the really good stuff.

Read Part 4: Pre-Contracting

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What Does A Green Coffee Buyer Do – Part 2: Reporting Thu, 16 May 2019 11:59:30 +0000

This is Part 2 in a series of posts called “What Does A Green Coffee Buyer Do”. If you haven’t read the previous posts, we recommend you start here, Part 1: Planning.

It’s November and I’m in Ethiopia, doing the on-the-ground-planning for the upcoming harvest. On my way to breakfast I heard gunshots in the distance.

We don’t talk about it much in this industry, but firearms and violence are part of everyday reality in all the countries we travel to. That morning two tribes disagreed on the borders of their respective tribal lands, someone opened fire and eleven people died, just a few kilometres away. Sadly I wasn’t shocked, it felt almost routine. It is a risk that coffee professionals have to accept, along with our duty to stay informed, understand our surroundings and communicate the reality of what we see.

Capturing the reality (aka taking copious notes)

Understanding the realities of origins involves constant note taking. If I skip this, I lose the small details that make every farmer, every washing station, and every coffee professional unique. This would diminish the coffee I buy, for its story is as valuable as the liquid in the cup.

I take notes in two ways. Firstly I have technical sheets with detailed fields for altitude, size, variety and processing. Additionally I note the following:

  • Will the harvest be early, as expected, or later this year?
  • Is it a small or large harvest?
  • Have our partners made any improvements?
  • What is the market price?
  • What are suppliers paying their farmers?
  • What premiums are we able to pay?
  • Are farmers and employees treated with respect and given a fair wage?
  • Are we willing to pre-contract to secure volumes and ship earlier?
  • Are we partnering with new suppliers?
  • When are we going to see the first washed coffees on the cupping table?

Qore Washing Station.
Are farmers and employees treated with respect and given a fair wage? This is one of the questions I hope to answer when visiting any washing station.

Secondly, I keep a personal journal to log the cultural and emotional experiences of each day. Events can start to blur as almost everyday goes something like this:

Fell asleep in the car — air conditioning never works.
Washing station floated cherries and did carbonic maceration.
Visited a family close by.
Was sick last night, dreamt of coca cola and white bread.  
Left for Addis, stomach still wobbly.

Fortunately, thanks to copious note taking, this is not all I have to report. Every station has its own signature, region, village, soil, varieties, climate, tribal groups, manager, attitude, processing facility and methods, water, drying and storing facilities, among other details. I write it all down.

Capturing the emotions (aka taking copious notes)

My personal journal is also a tool for processing the many emotions I feel when sourcing in Ethiopia, especially when meeting farming families. Some are poor on the verge of losing their livelihood, some had their house destroyed by another tribe, some are desperate for change, some seek clarity around the trade, some want to create a long term relationship, some just want to share a few words with a foreigner, some want to show their pride which is their coffee farm and animals and some want to pitch their latest business idea.

Being offered a chapati and warm milk straight from the cow, when you know that the family has nothing, is one of the most heartwarming, humbling and human experiences one can imagine. I write it down.  

Like most coffee buyers I desperately want to give back to that family, but I know it is politically and culturally complicated. Maybe as an individual I could affect some change, but what’s really needed is an industry-wide change. For now, I simply write it down.

Elphenesh is a smallholder and she delivers her cherries to the Bokasso Washing Station. She is one of several farmers who invited me into their home and shared their hospitality with me. It is immensely humbling.

Back in Oslo for reporting and more planning

It’s December. I just got back from Ethiopia and my first task is to share my experience with the team. Once the reporting is done, I can start planning the origin trip for the main harvest when customers will join us. Before I get on that plane, we need to decide which suppliers we will work with, so I review my notes and consider their practices, like:

  • Are they selecting only ripe cherries?
  • Do they float the cherries?
  • How dedicated is station management?
  • Is the pulper clean?
  • Are the fermentation tanks clean?
  • Do they monitor time spent in the tank?
  • How do they grade the coffee after fermentation?
  • Is the water they use clean?
  • Do they soak the parchment before drying?
  • Do they have a filtration system for the waste water?
  • Drying beds?
  • Is there any child labour?
  • What is the average workload of an employee?
Qore Washing Station.
How clean is the pulper? In what condition are the drying beds? This is what I aim to find out on this first visit to origin.

It’s the Christmas rush for our customers so the whole team is madly working to get their coffees to their roasteries. Amidst this I am confirming our itinerary and helping the roasters who will join us on the next trip with their travel plans. Things are hectic in the Oslo office but the team is on top of things. Still, I can’t wait for that Christmas vacation!

Read Part 3: First Selections

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What Does A Green Coffee Buyer Do – Part 1: Planning Mon, 13 May 2019 11:37:13 +0000 Part 1 – Planning

This is Part 1 in a series of posts called “What Does A Green Coffee Buyer Do”. See also Part 2: Reporting.

Many coffee professionals listen to a coffee buyer talk about travel to exotic countries, and dream of doing the same one day. It is a fantastic job and I feel so privileged to be able to do this work, but there are many misconceptions about the life of a green coffee buyer. It is a role that carries a lot of responsibility, there are many sacrifices, and often the coffee buyer leaves origin disappointed they couldn’t support more producers, or buy all the delicious lots.

In this series of blog posts, I will take you through the Ethiopia 2018/2019 crop, and all the tasks involved in getting coffee to your door. I hope to give you a glimpse of what it means to be the physical link between two very different realities in specialty coffee: origin and the market.

Pre-trip Planning

Months before I book my first flight to Ethiopia I get started on planning. This is the stuff that few people see. It isn’t glamorous, but it is absolutely essential to ensure the success of any buying season.

The rainy season is coming to an end, cherries are starting to take form, and in some areas they are already changing color. Some farmers, those who know their land and trees well, are already picking the first cherries so they don’t exhaust their trees’ nutrient storage. The first delivery of cherries to the washing stations is always an uncertain time. Farmers often don’t understand why the price is so different from harvest to harvest. Questions arise: is it the government, the exporters, the managers at the washing stations or the buyers who dictate how much they earn?

Coffee buying: where most of the magic happens

In August and September I start to really focus on the upcoming harvest. These are crucial months to get a sense of the current situation in Ethiopia and all the countries/markets that we supply. We need specifics: specific volumes, profiles and prices from specific suppliers for specific clients with specific timelines.

Exporters are preparing their washing station teams for the first deliveries. Production goals have been set. Some stations are being refurbished, some are still in construction, everyone is frantic to have them completed as soon as possible. The clock is ticking.

Defining the buying strategy

Back in Oslo, I begin the buying by reviewing the data:

  • How much did we buy last year?
  • What profiles sold well, what didn’t?
  • Where did the different profiles end up in the world? Can I expect the same this year?
  • Are there any new trends that we need to be aware of?
  • Have senses and preferences changed in the market?
  • Have any customers grown in volume to the point they could do direct shipments?
  • Did all shipments work out as expected last season? Why not and what should we do about it?
  • Will any customers come to visit our partners this year?
  • Are all producers/suppliers still supplying?
  • What is the current political situation in Ethiopia?

One foot in each world

By October the harvest has started, and so has the Christmas rush for all the coffees we have in our warehouse! I am split between two worlds. I spend much of my time on the phone or email with customers, supporting them in their busiest time of year. I am also on the phone or email to our partners in Ethiopia, and the Tropiq team in Addis, to understand if it will be an early or late harvest this year and if the political situation is stable enough to travel to the regions I need to visit in November.

In October I have to confirm:

  • Meetings and visits with all partnering suppliers;
  • Our customer expectations for volume and quality this year;
  • Our company’s purchase projections for Ethiopia;
  • Which customers will travel to Ethiopia with me in November? Do they have their travel itinerary? (Green buyers are also travel agents!)

I am still reasonably relaxed at this stage. My customers have clarified their needs, I have the latest information from our Tropiq team on the ground and I’m feeling good about the upcoming harvest.

But my sense of calm won’t last long.
My life is about to get crazy.

Read Part 2: Reporting

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The Best Time To Buy Ethiopias Is Now Thu, 25 Apr 2019 08:57:10 +0000

Ethiopian coffees are known for needing some time to rest before they open up. Cupping coffees before this rest can be challenging, the flavors can be muted or hidden and sometimes it’s hard to see through the grape-like astringency. Once the coffee has opened up, it is easier to see the true profiles and attributes of the coffee.

So, we try to be patient. Even if there are coffees in the warehouses ready to be contracted and shipped in February and March, we know there will be beautiful coffees to cup during April and May. This is true for washed coffees, and even more so for naturals, as the better naturals usually arrive later in the season. It is pretty usual for us to offer coffees at this time of year and ship throughout June and July.

Ensuring representative samples

In the south, up at the higher altitudes, this season’s harvest was much longer than usual. Many of our producers were harvesting until the middle of February. It takes a while from the moment the coffees are harvested until they are in the warehouses in Addis, that is, until we will have samples that represent the actual stock lots of what we buy and offer to you. Even if we can sample coffees while they are in the washing stations, we know that to have a representative sample for the whole lot, it’s important to contract coffee based on a proper stocklot sample from the warehouses in Addis.

The Guji Revolution

We have really stunning coffees to offer from Yirgacheffe and Sidamo this season, but I also want to highlight coffees from Guji. This region has been going through a small coffee revolution. It has been long known for a singular flavor profile, but what we have found lately is much greater diversity of flavours. They can perform with typical Yirgacheffe and Sidamo notes, or they can be something unique that you have never tasted before.

Washed coffees available now

While these coffee began arriving in Addis in February, many of the coffees from our trusted washing stations did not start to arrive in Addis until March. Coffees are still coming in and more are expected in May, specifically the coffees we buy from Guji, where they harvest coffees at altitudes above 2000 masl.

If you’re looking for coffees now we have some great Guji coffees, Grade 1 in particular, but also fully traceable Grade 2 at a slightly lower price point.

Gr 1 prices range from 3,20 – 3,60 USD/lb FOB

Gr 2 prices range from 2,40 – 2,80 USD/lb FOB

Naturals available now

It is naturals season! We will be able to send you samples of a good range of rested coffees that have just begun to open up in the cup. We have seen a wide range of flavours this year for our traceable Grade 1 improved preparations. You have everything from the heavy, classic fruity coffees, to more bright, citrusy and stone fruit like profiles. There are several regions to choose from, but Guji is where we see the widest range.  

Price ranges from 3,20 – 3,80 USD/lb  FOB

Shipping dates

If you contract coffees with us during the next 2-5 weeks, we should be able to ship them June/July.

Book a consultation:

If you are buying volumes of 100 bags or more and you’re in a position to take on some additional financial risk, you stand to make considerable savings for your business. Book a consultation with a member of our sourcing team to discuss your needs.

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The Harvest Part 3: Ready For Export Tue, 19 Mar 2019 09:00:50 +0000 After the coffee has been grown, picked, washed (or not), dried and sorted it is now almost ready for export! When the coffee leaves the washing stations – if it is heading to the Ethiopian Commodity (ECX) it will be the ECX who grade the coffee prior to accepting the coffee for storage before auctioning. The grading system used by the ECX splits Ethiopian coffees into grades 5 main grades – 1-5 and Under Grade which is sold to the huge domestic market here in Ethiopia.  Many larger producers and co-operatives now export their own coffees and will sometimes give the coffee a different grade to what the ECX has given. This is because the ECX and its graders – although the one of the main authorities of coffee within Ethiopia – are sometimes considered not correct or inexperienced in their grading by private exporters – especially in terms of Specialty Coffee and so the producers may sell the coffee as they think fair depending on the quality of the coffee in question. But we will talk more about the ECX another time.

Smiles all around whilst searching for defected coffees at Kanketi’s Haru Washing Station in Yirgacheffe

Once Graded the coffee is ready for cupping by buyers, sourcing companies and exporters so decisions can be made on where it should end up. We, here at Tropiq Ethiopia will receive many samples from different producers, exporters and Co-operatives by which we will make an assessment and decide which coffees best suit our clients needs at the time. After approval from the Tropiq team we will offer our buyers samples of coffees we that we think would work well for them and their needs. This involves many coffees being sent abroad for people to cup as well as many buyers travelling to the Tropiq HQ in Addis Ababa to cup the coffees with us and make decisions on what they want to buy this season.

Cupping samples at our lab in Addis with customers

Once a coffee has been chosen it is then contracted with the exporter and usually paid for by by  a letter of credit (LC) or by a prepayment against contract. In most cases – all with us at Tropiq-  the coffee will be shipped on a free on board (FOB) contract meaning that the buyer is responsible for organizing shipping and insurance etc once the coffee has arrived at the port – Djibouti. The lesser used contractional option is costs, insurance, freight (CIF) whereby the seller will cover all of the costs to get the coffee to the destination but this method of sale is less often used now.

The final step before the coffee is shipped is processing and bagging. The washed coffees will first be hulled and then, along with the naturals, will be ‘cleaned’ at a dry mill in Addis Ababa. Coffee sorters are still largely employed in Ethiopia although many producers/ exporters are now using Dry Mills with computerised colour sorters which will remove defected coffee. This modernising change is not so much due to cost rather than speed and accuracy. Depending on the contract the coffee will be sorted to a particular level of defects (0-2 defects per 300g for example).

Natural coffee being hulled in Jimma – before it departs for Addis

FINALLY – after the months of growing, picking, processing, drying, resting, cupping, hulling and cleaning the coffee is now ready for bagging and shipping. The coffee is loaded into food grade jute bags which carry 60kg of coffee each and have the correct import/ export customs details printed on each bag – in the specialty market however sealed plastic Grain Pro bags are more often used. They also hold 60kg and are placed inside the Jute Bags as a safer way to to transport the coffee as the Jute bags are not very good at stopping alien liquids, smells and insects getting into the coffee. The final step is to load the bags of coffee into a lined shipping container that will hold 300 bags over all. After that, the coffee leaves the mill and heads to a roaster near you!

Full coffee warehouse – coffee resting until it is ready for export
The Harvest Part 2: Time To Rest Thu, 14 Mar 2019 15:02:16 +0000 Once the coffees have been delivered to the washing station, they are then sorted to be used as natural or washed coffees – or even honeys as discussed in Part 1. After they have been sorted and processed in their respective ways they are then laid out to dry on the beds. After the coffees have completed their drying it is then time for their ‘resting period’.

Washing coffee
The parchment is constantly moved and sorted, here at a washing station in Uraga in Guji.

The resting period will usually last anything up to 4 months but in some cases it can be longer. The coffee is taken from the washing stations to a (hopefully) well ventilated warehouse, washed coffees in and around Addis Ababa, and Naturals stay resting in their respective growing areas – this is due to certain regulations of the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX). It is a period of time which allows the coffee to mature and develop its flavours – If you are a green coffee buyer you will no doubt be aware of how the flavour of coffees can change from the first cupping to the end result, indeed many green coffee buyers have to learn to appreciate where a coffees flavour will grow and what they can hope to expect in the coming months as the coffee matures. Just before the coffee starts to rest, the first samples will be sent out to exporters and importers buying coffees in Ethiopia – these are known as Type Samples and although they can give a good idea of a coffees potential they are not seen as a 100% accurate sample of the coffee and buyers will not commit to a sale on a type sample alone although this can lead to people pre-contracting coffees.

Once the coffee has finished its resting period it is then time for it to be shipped. Whilst it has been sitting in the warehouse, exporters and buyers will have drawn samples directly from the Jute bags that the coffee is resting in, usually in specific lots or groups to help the buyers identify specific batches. These samples are called Stock Lots and will give potential buyers a better idea of what to expect from a coffee – this then leads to Purchase Orders and sales of the coffees. Once a coffee has been purchased it will then be hulled by a dry milling machine which rips off the dried skin and parchment covering the coffees.

This leaves coffee in its green bean state, the green beans then need to be sorted for defects – Each individual purchase order will dictate the level of defects expected in the coffee. The coffee can then be be put through a computer powered colour sorting machine which will remove defects such as insect damage, broken beans, foreign matter, sometimes peaberries and beans that have rotted. This is also often done by hand and eye, usually by a team of women – often their husbands will also work at the same mill and the seasonal work can be a good source of extra income. The coffee is now ready to be graded, sold and exported – or not! A Whopping 50% of coffee produced in Ethiopia is consumed internally!

Anasora Washing Station Tue, 26 Feb 2019 10:19:45 +0000 Having been under construction for the past five months and nearing completion Israel Degfa’s new washing station is just needing those few finishing touches that will make it a great example to other washing stations and the largest in the surrounding area.

The back of the washing house is almost complete, it is only waiting for the roof

Mezgebu Mokonen who is the accountant for the washing station and has been for the past three years, is showing me some of the new features at Anasora. He explains that they have recently put down 100 new drying beds with green shade netting to allow better ventilation as well as protection from the sun, they will be adding extra beds throughout the harvest.

Mezgebu Mokonen – The station accountant and my guide for the day

The station employs 70 regular staff all year round although in December and January they can have up to 300 workers helping with the harvest. The extra staff will help with the running of the wet mill and washing as well as the quality control of the coffee. Traditionally in Ethiopia, the picking out of bad, over or under ripe cherries and defected washed coffee is largely done by hand and so requires a large seasonal workforce, this greatly increases employment in the surrounding area.

Picking out some of the over and under ripe cherries from a natural lot, the cherries picked out here will likely head to the local market – Astonishingly Ethiopia consumes around 50% of its coffee produce domestically

Housing for the new pulping machine and the new fermentation tanks are just about finished. There is a large generator close by to keep power going through electricity cuts as well as to increase production at night time. This maximises the time available in a busy harvest as well as allowing more workers the opportunity to work night shifts.

Many of the farmers delivering coffee, some having travelled a number of miles, will only reach the washing station in the evening. This means that the sorting and pulping of the cherries at night time while still fresh is a crucial part of the quality control for the production of this and most stations.

They have recently installed large concrete drying patios which have been put down to experiment with the difference in profile from using the shade netting that they have traditionally used in recent times.

The new concrete drying patio gets its finishing touches. You can even see some early experimentation with a small batch of Natural and washed coffee to the left

Yohanis Harga and Tesfane Bunte proudly showed me some of the drying coffee they are working on, covered slightly by the shade netting to keep the hot sun off. As the production assistants for the washing station, it is their business to know the current status of all the coffees on the station, whether they are drying, in the tanks or ready to be washed. They tell me that good forward planning helps increase the quality and yield for the station.

From left to right: Mezgebu alongside production assistants Tesfane Bunte and Yohanis Harga

It is looking to be a large albeit late harvest at Anasora this year and we are very excited to cup some samples in January to see what sort of profiles they are producing this year. Watch this space.

A specialty natural lot that Tesfane and Yohanis have been keeping a close eye on.