I’m sure coffee companies around the world have their own way of working and managing their Labs. Our lab at origin started pretty simple back in 2016. We didn’t have the best tools like a Probat sample roaster, an EK-43 or Aw meter (water activity meter). We started with a very humble gas system sample roaster, a bad grinder and a moisture meter that I never trusted. To be honest the first year we started the lab in Costa Rica, I didn’t feel very confident with the cuppings in general. Kaya Carretta, the lab manager at Nordic Approach, came to help me set up the Lab in Tarrazu. It was an interesting experience, all I had as a system to collect data was an Excel sheet. We created a system like what we use in the lab in Norway and adapted it to origin. I learnt so much the first year. All samples we thought had potential we shipped to our lab in Oslo, where the buying team made purchasing decisions.
As we developed and grow our sourcing project in Costa Rica, we continue to create better systems and invest in better equipment. Last harvest we improved how we organised our quality control systems. This harvest we have continued working on improving the trace ability and quality control of each sample we received.
Let me explain how it works to manage a Lab at origin in detail.
- First we go around the farms and collect samples from the micro mills. It is very important that we get representative samples, which is a sample that represents the whole lot, not part of it but actually the entire finished lot. We tried as much as possible to take the samples ourselves, this has been one of the most challenging parts. Farmers usually take and prepare the samples themselves, because of this most of the time they will have the parchment or green samples ready for us to take to our lab. We want to change this practice, and next harvest we will be more strict on taking the samples ourselves, this is because we want to make sure that all the samples we are offering to our clients are actual offer samples.
- Then we separate the samples in 3 different kinds:
TYP (type sample): Type Samples are all kind of samples that are not necessary representative of a lot. Often we try coffees, without them actually being available for buying. We are always interested in trying new coffees and giving feedback.
OFS (offer sample): These samples represent a finished lot. They can be in parchment or green. When in parchment the coffee still needs milling, sorting and grading.
We DO NOT accept OFS that are not representative of the lot. NA buyers and some of our clients take decisions based on representative OFS.
PSS (pre shipment sample): These samples represent a finished lot that’s milled and ready for export. The reason why it is named Preshipment sample, is because is a sample to approve the shipment. We depend a lot on these samples to be able to find a market for each coffee and thus to sell the lots. When NA/ Tropiq approves this sample, the lot is being export and the producers get paid for their coffee.
- After we collect samples and classify them by TYP, OFS, PSS, we register them with our code, e.g 180001, by experience from our lab in Norway it works for us to have a 6 digit code.
Learning by experience.
This past harvest we improve our systems and now we are using Cropster Lab in Costa Rica as well as an Excel sheet that we run every day to save other information that we can’t add in Cropster. These two tools, together, have been of huge help. A lab can get pretty messy without efficient systems!
Nowadays we are able to be more organized, we have more information of all samples compared with the years before. To give you an idea, last harvest we registered in our CR Lab around 400 offer samples from more than 30 producers and coops. We know that traceability and information is crucial. We collect as much information as possible about each lot.
- We hull the samples and then screen and sort them, next step is to measure the moisture content and Aw.
- Once we have the most important information about each lot, we weight out samples and roast them in an Ikawa. Most of the time we are roasting the day before we cup them. We use Cropster lab to score them and the ones cupping above 86 we send out to the Lab in Norway.
Sometimes, customers can ask us for specific coffees that are lower in price, higher in volume and not scoring as high as 86, we will then do our best to find a coffee for their need.
- Afterwards we pack and ship green samples to our customers. If they want us to send roasted samples we can also do it, but most of our clients prefer to roast the samples themselves. Shipping samples from our lab to clients shouldn’t take longer than one week, max 2 weeks. Usually they’re delivered to our customers within a week.
We also have roasters and buyers coming during the harvest to cup coffees with us. Some of them like to take decisions at origin while some of them take decisions in their own labs.
I tried to have each lot volume and price information from the producer before I ship samples, but in some cases producers take time to have this information ready. Some farmers are good at having prices and information prepared and some don’t! I’ve been having to educate them to provide at least the volume when they give me an OFS. After we send samples to customers, they tell us what coffees are of their interest.
By the time clients get back to us with their preferences, I try to have a price offer. In some cases it takes a couple days for us to get back with prices because we depend on the producers to have this information. Like mentioned above, it takes time for them to give me an offer price. Once I send an offer to clients they take a decision and usually they accept the offer or give me a counter offer. In general the negotiation process shouldn’t take too long.
As we establish long term relationships with our buyers and farmers, the negotiation process should be faster. It’s about trust.
One of the challenges I experience in CR is to not have a set price from all the producers as soon as they offer me a lot. This makes me think, that some farmers don’t know their cost of production or what margins they must have to have a sustainable business. The farmers are also affected by the grape vine, hearing what their neighbor got for their coffee.
Once the client takes buying decisions we send them a contract and at the same time we contract the coffee with our farmers. We schedule the shipping date, according to this date we tell farmers to dry mill and prepare the coffee for export.
As you might know coffee is a product that is changing all the time and that’s also why sometimes we have quality claims. Over the years, we have experienced that is very important to keep records and data about all the coffees we offer to our clients.
It’s crucial to always keep a reference sample or archive sample for every PSS and OFS we ship to clients in case we get a QC claim from a client.
In the past we’ve had issues due to change of flavor in the cup, e.g a natural coffee that was super funky losses some of the fruity notes and taste less funky. We don’t consider change of flavor a real quality issue.
A quality issue can happen when there are physical and sensorial defects. Like phenol, mold, black beans, deformed beans. If a client has a quality claim we will always take the dialogue with NA team and the Oslo lab.
We will research about the problem to avoid future claims, also we will ask for feedback through out the year from our clients to communicate to our farmers.
Importers and exporters play an important role in the quality control. They also take risks like quality issues and that’s part of the responsibility of being an exporter and importer.
How do we add value to our partners?
Part of the work we do at origin, is that we are in constant communication and dialogue with our farmers as well as with our customers. We are also doing events at origin to promote what we are doing, e.g Origin Approach. Origin Approach, is an event where we invite roasters and coffee enthusiast to come to origin and we connect them with our producers. There, they can learn about the coffee activity in Costa Rica. Through dynamic lectures, activities, cuppings and workshops, while visiting mills and Coops to learn from them.
If you don’t know what Origin Approach is, make sure to check it out here: https://originapproach.com/
Farmers have enjoyed these kind of events as well, we are also doing educational events with our producers every year. After the harvest we discuss important topics for farmers and ourselves, and update our farmers and partners on the latest market trends. We provide feedback every year with a report of tasting notes, scores, what kind of roasteries bought their coffee. This gives the farmers a great insight, and follow up to their product.
We want to support producers as much as we can, we are always inviting them to weekly cuppings.
We had a part time agronomist to help farmers in the field. And we want them to learn about sustainable practices, varieties, how to control diseases in the plantations. Some of the farmers have not adapted their practices to climate change and we believe it’s a very important to guide them in these areas.
We’re excited about our sourcing project in Costa Rica. And we know we can improve our lab operation every harvest. Nowadays there are so many things you can do at origin, but we have to go one step at a time.
The potential and opportunities are out there we have to look for them and make the most out of them.