Tropiq High quality, traceable and ethically sourced coffee Mon, 07 Oct 2019 11:06:46 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Tropiq 32 32 Alexander Lenouvel Hansen appointed GM of Tropiq Ethiopia Thu, 19 Sep 2019 08:57:53 +0000 We are proud to announce that Alexander Lenouvel Hansen has been appointed as General Manager for Tropiq Ethiopia. He will be responsible for the day-to-day management of the Tropiq team in Addis Ababa, overseeing quality coffee selection, milling, logistics and QC services.

Alex Lenouvel Hansen, GM of Tropiq Ethiopia

We are very confident in Alex’s capacity to oversee our operations on the ground in Ethiopia. He has extensive experience in both sourcing and sales, and has been the East Africa Buyer for our sister company, Nordic Approach, for the last year. He began his specialty coffee career working for an importer in its lean start-up days, where his role covered many responsibilities including logistics, lab, sales and buying. To better understand the origin side of the supply chain, he worked stints in Nicaragua and Burundi, before joining the Nordic Approach team in 2018.

For Alex, a move to origin is the natural next step in his career. “When it comes to maintaining quality and traceability throughout a coffee’s value chain, there is no substitute for being on the ground,” he said. 

The Tropiq Ethiopia team work on the ground in Addis Ababa, in partnership with the Tropiq management team based in Oslo, Norway. Ethiopia is the cornerstone of our business and one of the most complicated origins for specialty coffee. Having people on the ground, shepherding our coffee through the complex and bureaucratic process of milling and transportation, ensures we get our coffees to port as soon as possible.

Morten Wennersgaard, founder of Tropiq and Nordic Approach said “We’re excited to have Alexander in this leadership role for Tropiq Ethiopia. He excels in the crucial task of building relationships with coffee professionals at origin, plus he understands the needs and expectations of specialty roasters.”

Alex is already in Addis and preparing the team for the upcoming harvest. He will be hosting Tropiq clients this November from the 22nd to the 29th. Get in touch with Alex to join this trip, or arrange another time to visit.

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Cold weather in Brazil forcing farmers to adapt on the fly Fri, 16 Aug 2019 06:13:15 +0000

There is no doubt that this year has been a tough year in Brazil for most coffee producers. With frost and dramatically cold temperatures, as low as -9 degrees in some cases, producers are uncertain about the impact on their production as a whole. We also see a lot of speculation internationally on the production volumes expected from Brazil this year and how this will affect price globally.

In Sul de Minas earlier this month I saw that volume is certainly affected, but it is not as bad as predicted. The bigger impact is in the maturation of the cherry being prepared or processed and on the post harvest drying of coffee. 

Impact on cherry maturation

Farmers in Brazil have to manage their farms very differently to many other coffee producers in the world because of the size of their farms, the cost of labour in Brazil, and the generally lower price of Brazilian coffee in the international market. This has a huge impact on the way they harvest the cherry. 

In other origins it is common to make several passes of the trees, picking only the ripe cherries each time, but this is prohibitively expensive for Brazilian producers because of the scale of their production. Instead the coffee is picked at the best possible time to capture as many mature cherries, and as few green or overripe cherries as possible. In most cases farmers will pick mechanically or at least a combination of mechanical and hand picking. These cherries are then processed together and the sorting is done post processing at the dry milling stage. The fewer mature cherries you begin with, the lower the overall quality of the coffee.

Producers in Brazil are always weighing up how long to leave the cherries on the tree to ripen, due to the impact that the rains can have on their production. There can often be heavy rain in July, which is also a period where you start to have good amounts of cherry ripening on the tree, and if it rains heavily the ripe cherries are damaged in two ways. They can fall to the ground and start to ferment, and hence lose a lot of their value. The cherries that remain on the tree are also damaged by the intake of too much water at once. This causes the cells in the skin of the cherries to be forced apart and you get splitting through which mucilage is lost. This results in the beans having a lower weight and cup score. Farmers have to carefully manage the risk of waiting longer to pick and allowing more ripe cherries but also the risk of rain and losing money in coffee on the ground.

Andre from Jaguara shows the damage the frost did to their trees

The earlier cold temperatures across Brazil has slowed the maturation of the cherries on the trees, and now producers are faced with green cherry on the tree when they expect to have cherry on their patios. This also gives the impression that volumes are reduced because the volumes are still on the tree and not in the market yet. It is not a comfortable position for a farmer, as there are more risks with coffee in the field than with coffee in your warehouse. There is also a feeling among farmers that they will lose out on the market that exists if they are delivering too late.

Rather than risk rain damaging their cherries, producers may choose to pick the cherries, even if the majority haven’t ripened yet. Even if the coffee is sorted after processing, too many unripe cherries will mean smaller volumes of quality lots.

Impact on drying

When you are in the middle of something you are not always able to see how to take actions that are adaptive to the new conditions presented. Unexpected climate conditions require producers to adapt their normal way of doing things. In many cases this is achieved with ease but sometimes, where farmers are less experienced, they struggle to evolve quick enough.

I saw on the cupping table many coffees that are not being dried well, and I believe there will be some issues on early coffees from Brazil on humidity and water activity. The colder conditions have also made drying coffee more challenging. If coffees are not well dried but remain in parchment or in dried cherry state, they can be dried further until they reach the correct humidity. Once they are milled and prepared however, this is much harder to do.

Great coffees to be found, they just require some searching

This does not mean we won’t find great coffees in Brazil this year, but it will be harder to find good volumes. Even though the NY market is at 98.15c per lb, the differential for good coffees from Brazil is high due to the climate issues impacting the volume of quality. That means cupping through a lot of coffees to find the great ones, which is what we’ve been doing. I feel confident in the first round of selections we have made. 

Securing volumes of unique traceable coffees in Indonesia Mon, 05 Aug 2019 10:11:09 +0000 Our first container of Indonesians has been booked for a Tropiq customer, and future containers will be delivered to Belgium for spot sales through our sister company, Nordic Approach. Current volumes are limited, however we are working to increase both volumes and variety. 

To that end I visited Indonesia in June for an extremely packed itinerary including cuppings in Jakarta, a quick visit to Sumatra to meet a cooperative we think has great potential, followed by a trip to Java to check in on Wildan Mustofa of Frinsa Estate.

With both new and existing partners, we hope to build some serious volumes of distinctly flavoured and fully traceable coffees from Indonesia. 

Potential of Indonesian coffees 

Indonesia is definitely a place with very distinct and unique cup characters. I believe their competitive advantage will be on coffee profiles and cup attributes, more than high volumes at lower prices. There is enormous diversity in Indonesia based on its geography, climate and the varieties grown, but it is still an underdeveloped specialty market. It’s not like you can go there and buy off the shelf. If we want higher volumes of anything other than the non-traceable regular quality, we have to specify our exact needs and pre-book customised lots. This is what we’re doing with Frinsa Estate, pre-financing special preparations in order to increase volumes.  

Success with Java washed coffees

Our focus continues to be in east Java with Wildan Mustofa at Frinsa Estate. We have had great success with washed coffees from his farm, and this has been extended to surrounding outgrowers. In this case Wildan buys cherries from the smallholders and does the post harvest processing on his estate. These are sold as Frinsa Collective coffees.

Huge potential for naturals and special preps in Java

Unlike many places in Indonesia where harvest coincides with the rainy season making conditions very humid, it is pretty dry in Java during the harvest. This makes it perfect for naturals and honeys.

We also have the great fortune of working with Wildan, who is an extraordinary farmer. He doesn’t have that much coffee experience, but he makes up for this with a very progressive mindset and eagerness to learn. He almost never says no to our suggestions and requests, instead he is constantly looking for solutions to any potential issues that arise.

On this trip we convinced him to start processing naturals on scale. In addition to the traditional washed process coffees, we are now experimenting with fermentation with bacteria like lactobacillus in washed, naturals and honeys. Wildan has adapted our bag fermentation technique (basically anaerobic) and we will also apply the above methods for the traditional wet-hulled process where the coffee is dried in the green state. To create the volumes necessary for these special prep coffees, Wildan has partnered with nearby medium-sized estates and their outgrowers.

Just days after I left Wildan in Java, he sent me photos of the changes he had already made, new equipment he has invested in, new processing methods underway as well as the new smallholder producer group. If all goes well we will invest more in the community of smaller farmers in the next years.  

Potential in Sumatra

We will also start doing trials of small volumes from a cooperative in Kerinci in Sumatra. This will be a range of washed, naturals and improved wet hulled. We have a young and ambitious coffee professional by the name of David working for us on the ground in Sumatra. He is engaging with farmers and following up with the cooperative during harvest and processing. 

Future plans for Tropiq in Indonesia

I think this can be a very exciting year for us regarding the Indonesian coffees. Volumes are limited, but if planned well we should be able to step it up next year to a couple of containers.

Interested in Indonesian coffees? Contact our sourcing team.

Huge Potential in Uganda Thu, 25 Jul 2019 06:12:57 +0000 I am back in Uganda for the second year, following up on a project we started last year, and visiting the west to see the potential there. We believe that Uganda in the future will play a significant role in the specialty coffee industry. First of all because we now know there are great coffees here. But even more importantly, it is the only other country in Africa, besides Ethiopia, where we can develop a range of naturals on scale at a consistent level. 

Sunset in the Western Region, Uganda

Exploring West Uganda 

Currently I’m in the west, in the Rwenzori mountains, which in the local language translates to “The Mountains of the Moon”. The landscape is stunning. Just a few kilometers away is the Queen Elizabeth National Park. We saw loads of elephants, warthogs, buffaloes, and other game driving between one farming zone to another. Our supplier in this region recently had elephants walking into their plot of land where they have their post harvest production and drying space, just outside the city of Fort Portal.

They are starting the harvest in this area as I write. 

Ugandan smallholders grow mostly SL varieties like SL14 and SL28. Check out the height of those trees!

We began buying coffees from Mt. Elgon in the east, close to the Kenyan border. Our coffees there are harvested November to January. The Rwnenzori mountain range has a different rainy season and an opposite harvest cycle which starts now, in July. This makes it a perfect addition to our portfolio and helps us keep fresh coffees in our offering all year around. There are farms at altitudes above 1800 masl, and a good biodiversity with several different varieties growing. The concept is the same as for the east. We have committed to a program for improved prep of naturals and we may buy small amounts of washed. 

Cupping with the team in the new lab in the west. I am the first guest there as they just opened this lab.

The system in the Western Region

The supplier/exporter is just starting with collection centers for cherry purchase from smallholders. Farmers have about 600 trees on average, each produces approximately 0.5 kg of greens. They work in community groups, where each community has a lead farmer with a demonstration plot where they will train 30-50 farmers in their community. 

The cherries are delivered to a collection centre with an additional premium if they arrive before 17.00 so there is still sunlight enough to sort and float the cherries before purchase. Later in the evening these coffees are picked up by a truck and brought down to a central drying space, called the Yard. The coffee is evaluated there, and if it’s up to standard it will be fermented in barrels or bags up to 36 hours before it’s carefully dried on raised beds, undergoing further sorting. 

Brand new cherry collection centres in the west

Our sourcing strategy in west Uganda

We have prebooked coffees of different preps and of different flavour profiles. The goal is to have the lots separated by collection centre and preparation. The supplier also has an impressive traceability software where every purchase from every farmer is registered, and the purchase comes with a transparency report. We will write more about this and the coffees later. The coffees are due to ship October/November. We just can’t wait to get these coffees presented to you guys. 

They are building a new drying yard for increased capacity, more micro-lots, experiments and higher quality overall
Internet is down, and other stories from Ethiopia Thu, 11 Jul 2019 07:12:00 +0000

Internet is back up in Ethiopia

Last week I was using a Telegram application to communicate with our team in Addis Ababa. The week prior to that, we were limited to the trusty old landline. Internet was down for two weeks.

First it was shut off by the government during the national school exam period. This reduces opportunities for students to cheat, for obvious reasons. Shortly afterwards there was an attempted coup, so the government shut down the internet again, reducing opportunities for further anti-government incitement. 

In the race to get our coffees on the water, the internet stoppage cost us two weeks. But this is Ethiopia. Internet outages are common enough that we simply factor it in as part of our timeline for getting coffees shipped.

Other expected unexpected delays 

Political tensions, conflict and violence

Last December I was in the south, visiting the different washing stations partners. I was there to understand the general quality of the upcoming harvest, and to gather information for our sales and marketing team. The harvest had been going on for a few weeks already, and it was apparent there was conflict on the border between different ethnic regions. I passed villages and houses that were completely destroyed and empty. Where were all these people? I quickly learned that over 1.5 million people had been displaced by violent clashes between two ethnic groups. Those caught in the middle had mostly fled to the south, far from their homes, where they waited for answers from the government on a relocation plan. This is a difficult reality in Ethiopia, one with far deeper human impact than an internet outage.

From a professional perspective, it means several things. Foreign aid agencies will relocate their resources to the south, and they will need containers to transport food and supplies which will reduce container availability for export of other goods like coffee. This year, because of NGOs mobilising in the south, the container shortage started in May/April. Regional borders are going to be more difficult to cross, so parchment from the washing stations warehouses will take longer to reach the milling warehouses in Addis.

Ethnic groups in Ethiopia, from PHD thesis Determinants of Child Wellbeing and Human Capital in Ethiopia by Yonatan Dinku

General insecurity

Desperation leads to conflict and different rebel groups might seek to take advantage of the general insecurity. Suppliers trying to get their parchment to Addis are sometimes hijacked en route, the driver told to get out of the truck and leave its cargo on the side of the road. Alternatively they might be denied passage through a region because of ethnic or regional power struggles. Driving around the disputed areas can add weeks to the coffee’s journey to port.  

Power cuts

Last year low rainfall in parts of the country led to a dried out dam, which led to a shortage of hydropower. The government decided to shut down the power supply to Addis a few days a week starting mid-March. A few days a week meant that exporters could not mill enough volume to have a balance between incoming coffees and exportable coffees in the warehouse. This resulted in overflowing warehouses and related confusion. Some of our coffees dropped to the back of the line and missed their milling slots, causing more delays. 

Malfunctioning Machinery 

Malfunction of the milling machine is a recurring problem. Things break down, especially machines that run 24/7 without any break other than a few hours a week for cleaning. This happened twice this year in May and June, and delayed our shipments by five days each time. 

Loving the challenge

Some days sourcing in Ethiopia feels like a game of whack-a-mole, no sooner is one issue solved than another appears, or two or three or four. And, for the most part, it is equally fun. We wouldn’t do it otherwise. 

Ethiopia is the cornerstone of our business. It is where our sister company Nordic Approach began sourcing, and the first place we opened an origin office for Tropiq. It is also a very complicated place to work, and I love it.

What is it About Guji? Tue, 02 Jul 2019 09:47:04 +0000 What is it about Guji?

It is a zone and an administrative area. Yes.

Do they produce amazing coffees? Yes!

Is there a lot of future potential? Yes!

Does it represent a specific flavour profile? No! At least not in our opinion.

If you’re looking for a specific cup character that you associate with Yirgacheffe or Sidamo, you could just as easily find it in Guji. Or maybe you discover something totally unexpected and unusual.

A new vocabulary for Ethiopian coffees

We have stopped expecting specific profiles based on the zones/regions in the south and we no longer communicate about these coffees this way. To me, every zone has a huge variety of flavour attributes. You can find similarities across coffees from Guji, Sidamo and Yirgacheffe, as much as you can find a huge variation within one zone, depending on micro climate and local varieties. The difference is Guji has greater variation in terrain, including some extremely high altitude areas and other unique places where they grow coffee, There are also new areas where they are just beginning to farm coffee.  

Adola Washing Station, Guji

What has changed in Guji?

When I started in coffee sixteen years ago there was some mystery related to Guji. People talked about the area as something wild and excotic, but the coffees didn’t impress me. Most of what was presented in our market was, to me, kind of rough and nutty. The fruit was there, but the prep was pretty bad. Of course there was great coffees around. I especially remember some nice ones from Shakiso, and my first purchase from Guji was from that area, but generally I found it much easier to access great coffees from the neighboring zones like Sidama and Yirgacheffe (Gedeo).

But this has changed the last few years. Of course, all three regions have amazing coffee, but Guji covers a huge area and they are producing more specialty coffees than ever before.   

I believe there are many reasons for this.

  • The altitudes, environment, soil and climate conditions are great.
  • There are many more washing stations than previously, and many of them are focusing on quality and traceability.
  • Our suppliers are offering farmer support for smallholders, helping them to increase yield and quality in the fields.
  • There are areas where they are changing from other crops to coffee, and the plants in these new areas are young.

The many Guji profiles

The last few years many of our favourite coffees have come from Guji, and we see profiles of all kinds. The washed coffees can be everything from bright citrusy and tea-like, to wild, jammy with a lot of depth and layers of fruit. And it’s not uncommon to find funky coffees reminiscent of a well-processed honey. The naturals produced in the higher altitudes stand out with so much brightness and structure combined with complex fruit and candy-like flavours. In other words, lose any preconceived notions, cup with an open mind, and check out Gujis.

We are sourcing several coffees from Guji including:
Uraga Washing Station
Adola Washing Station
Kilenso Mokonesa Washing Station
Anasora Washing Station

Anasora Washing Station under construction; one of the many new washing stations in Guji

Washed and natural coffees are still being shipped. Contact our sourcing team to discuss your Guji needs.

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.

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.

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

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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