Cuatro M’s Emilio Lopez Diaz. (Photo: Dan Leif.)
[A]s a coffee professional, a relationship to origin is a very important element to telling the complete story of coffee. And yet, it can seem like one of the most difficult pieces of the puzzle to put in place. What do suppliers value, and how do you go about connecting to origin in a clear and effective way?
In 2011, I moved to El Salvador because I wanted to connect to coffee farms. I thought showing up at a farm gate would warrant a welcome invitation to come volunteer. I was motivated and passionate about learning more, and my efforts seemed logical at the time. Looking back, I’m surprised I never bothered to take into account that I had nothing to offer a coffee farmer; my background was not in agriculture, I spoke little to no Spanish, I didn’t work in coffee, nor had I cupped or evaluated coffee—ever.
This sort of naive mindset shows how easy it is to become distracted with the romantic nature of coffee and overestimate “passion” as a contribution to the supply chain, taking very little consideration of the practical things a coffee producer actually wants and needs.
This also explains why I was met with such skepticism, and—despite countless e-mails—received few responses, other than kind rejections to my offers.
Most surprising to me, perhaps, was the priority coffee suppliers placed on relationship strength over coffee price.
Thankfully, despite my lack of qualification, I received a response from a coffee grower and exporter named Emilio Lopez Diaz. We met up at a Pollo Campero (a fast food fried chicken joint) in the middle of San Salvador, and he agreed to take me on as a volunteer. Over the course of the next four years, he trained me to become the commercial manager of his company, Cuatro M, and oversee quality control and the relationships with his partners around the world.
During those years, I experienced relationships with hundreds of coffee suppliers, importers, roasters, and baristas. These relationships were my life. Most surprising to me, perhaps, was the priority coffee suppliers placed on relationship strength over coffee price.
While fair pricing is important, coffee suppliers seem to place significantly more emphasis on the knowledge of where their coffee is going—who will handle it, how it will be presented—and ultimately that their partners empathize with and respect their work at origin.
In my experience living in El Salvador, the best relationships to origin were not those yielding the highest premiums for coffee, but those with people who made an effort to truly understand what a supplier values.
Perhaps the simplest way of developing a stronger relationship with origin is through clear and consistent communication. Social media has dramatically changed the way we can interact with suppliers. Finding opportunities to follow, like, and comment on happenings at origin not only increases our awareness of suppliers’ work, but communicates appreciation. On a more complex level, finding ways to better understand and communicate the volumes of green coffee that you’re looking to purchase—as well as the price you’re willing to pay for each individual origin—will only help a supplier plan their harvest and exports accordingly, and secure financing for yearly operations.
Having never worked in agriculture, it can be hard to understand the challenges experienced at origin. Showing an understanding and concern for what a supplier goes through to produce high-quality coffee will go a long way. Baristas pull tens of thousands of shots, roasters roast thousands of batches, and importers transport millions of pounds of coffee; suppliers have one harvest. A coffee is not twenty-five seconds, fifteen minutes, nor one month of work—it’s an entire year. Placing this understanding on every cup dramatically changes the way you give feedback and communicate with your suppliers.
Relationships are naturally subject to good years and bad years, and coffee is no exception—suppliers need to be confident that your loyalty is to their partnership and not to their cup score. Partnerships with origin ought to be based on the country, region, farm, producer, accessibility to certain quantities, and chemistry between the buyer and seller. A great cup score is the icing on the cake. Buying a coffee based solely on its cup score is like dating a person based solely on their annual income. A strong relationship is based on mutual commitment and effort given to producing the highest quality coffee within a farm’s potential, year after year.
You’d be amazed how far a kind word and gratitude goes with a coffee supplier—often even further than the money paid for their coffee. A coffee producer’s pride and passion does not come from their bank account, but from hard work, their product, and family name. The value in premiums pales in comparison to the feeling of knowing their coffee landed in the right hands with an importer, roaster, or barista who truly values their coffee and presents it proudly to the world.
Strong, committed, and effective relationships to origin are, in my opinion, a coffee professional’s greatest hope at guaranteeing that our supply partners feel like they’re truly rewarded for all their hard work, and that’s a feeling money can’t buy—a story anyone would want to be a part of.
—Michael Kaiser is a green coffee trader for Bodhi Leaf Coffee Traders.