Depending on your coffee quality target, buying green coffee can be either easy or one heck of a lot of work.
If you’re roasting very dark and/or flavoring your coffee, your job might be as simple as selecting a coffee based on price.
Sourcing higher-quality specialty coffees is more rigorous. The first step is to source and evaluate samples from a veritable galaxy of vendors and their numerous offerings. You’ll need to decide on a vendor, make a purchasing decision, take delivery, and develop roast profiles that do justice to the work someone put into that green.
Types of Importers
Working with a traditional importer offers real advantages. Importers typically have long established relationships with producers at origin. Professional importers do not only “major in middleman.” To ensure quality, successful importers often bankroll growers years in advance of delivery. They also bankroll roasteries by extending them forward purchase contracts for large quantities of “reserve” coffee and then Net 30 terms on delivered green coffee.
The liquidity and expertise traditional importers provide is a huge benefit to our industry. They deserve much more respect than they are sometimes accorded.
Smaller “boutique” importers typically specialize in coffee from specific countries or regions. They too provide expertise and financial backing to growers and roasteries, but their selections lean towards “story” coffees that highlight their strong personal relationships with producers and highly specific regional coffees. This isn’t in any way bad. It just means that their selections are slightly more seasonally limited.
Direct to roastery relationships made via the internet or trips to origin can be rewarding and profitable, but inexperienced buyers frequently misunderstand how coffee at origin is sold.
Amateur importers frequently underestimate the complexity, expense and legal and financial exposure of direct importing coffee.
The Best Coffee in the World!
When I speak with people who want to start roasteries because they’ve got some kind of awesome direct trade connection, it’s often because they’ve had some kind of “amazing” coffee experience at origin characterized by the claim it’s “the best coffee in the world.”
I’m sorry to burst your “best coffee in the world” bubble, but all harvested coffee is sold.
That means that ripe and unripe, moldy, and mildewed cherries are harvested from bushes and picked off the ground and, ideally, sorted out later during processing. In a lot of cases, the way you get a small pile of 87-point coffee is to start with a much, much bigger pile of 83 point coffee. Basically, you strip out all of the best seeds.
The bulk of green coffee is produced in less prosperous “developing” countries. The highest-rated green coffees are almost exclusively sold at a premium to richer countries. The middle grades of coffee are sold and exported to large-volume corporate operators. What’s left behind, the lowest quality product is consumed at origin. There are exceptions, but most of the coffee a visiting tourist will consume on the streets of a country like Nicaragua is probably a relatively low-quality green.
Forewarned is forearmed
That doesn’t automatically make it bad. A fresh low-quality green carefully roasted and carefully extracted might be pretty darn good. It is unlikely to hold up to the rigors of export, like baking for weeks and months in an equatorial stranded shipping container, and it’s probably a relatively poor cup in the care of an amateur roaster.
I am not a hater. In my world, all coffee is good. I’m just saying that every time I’ve evaluated the “best coffee in the world” smuggled in from origin, it’s been a poorly sorted, poorly processed, bug-bitten, and not infrequently infested mess.
This is all to illustrate that, for the amateur importer, direct trade is fraught with peril where the biggest peril is not knowing what you don’t know
If forewarned is forearmed, now you know.
Importers do not lie
Contrary to one of the more deeply held fictions of the mostly very amateur online coffee roasting community, green coffee importers do not manipulate their cupping scores.
Importing is a trust and relationship-based business exactly the same way commercial coffee roasting is. No one succeeds in this industry for any length of time misleading customers that don’t want to be misled.
It’s more often that amateur operators don’t have the equipment and/or skill to professionally evaluate green coffee.
Specifically, if you haven’t been professionally trained to use the SCA Greens Grading form and you haven’t passed the Coffee Quality Institute Q-Grader test you should probably assume that there is something you don’t understand about coffee grading before you accuse an importer of inflating an 83 point coffee to 86 points.
Anyone who tells you otherwise is completely full of goose grease.
When I’m scanning a trusted importers website looking for something good, I’m probably most interested in recent imports of fresh crop coffees. I do this because the shelf life of fresh green coffee is 6-12 months. If I’m putting in the work to develop a winning roast profile, I need to be able to sell it long enough and often enough to make the effort worthwhile. Fresh-crop coffee allows me to purchase more and gives me more time to sell it before it ages out.
If I’m clocking off something like 100 pounds a month and I want to scale, I should be investing in at least a couple of full bags of each coffee. If I’m doing 500 pounds a week, I should be looking at a minimum of 6 to 10 bags of each.
That doesn’t mean I have to take delivery all 10 bags today. I can contract for 10 bags, take a couple now, pay a minimal storage fee monthly for the balance, take delivery, and be invoiced for maybe 2 per month for 5 months.
This is a terrific way to ensure your coffee is available over time and safely stored and a good way to manage your cash flow.
Did I mention that professional importers are pretty dope? Their whole job is to help you succeed and help you scale. Be a human and make it a point to show them a little love.
The Tyranny of Choice
The first challenge I have is choice. At any given time during the harvest season, I might be faced with 50 different fresh-crop coffees to choose from.
This is where a good relationship with a professional importer is golden. Buying from someone I like and trust saves me a lot of uncertainty, anxiety and risk. If my relationship is solid, I'll ask them to suggest coffees that might work best for me. That means maybe 3 samples instead of 9 or maybe just purchasing the coffees they recommended.
Relationships like this are built up over time and with experience, but they all start when you start asking your importer "What can you recommend?" or "What do you think?"
If you have trust issues or feel like asking shows too much vulnerability, build up to it by asking restaurant servers and baristas "What's your favorite?" and then risking it all by going with it. Eventually, you'll learn something about yourself and others.
It may sound nuts to you, but I actually do this myself because I do the exact same things every day on a nearly metronomic schedule, and I think life is too interesting, exciting and precious to not leave some human experience to chance.
Sample Roasting Teaser
What you sample roast on and how you roast samples matter a lot, but we’ll skip sample roasting as its own subject. For the nonce, we’ll assume you managed a successful series of sample roasts at least 8 hours ago and you are now ready to analyze the results.
Price vs Quality vs Quantity
Purchasing green coffee is an investment and the investment decisions you make are not academic. As an owner, whatever you don't spend you keep. In nearly all cases, you’re investing in coffees that stand out in terms of flavor relative to price to help you stand out from the competition.
The single biggest driver of price is scarcity. High-quality microlots are priced more on the “micro” part and less on the intrinsic flavor quality of the green. This is the precise reason Jamaican Blue Mountain, Hawaiian Kona, and Panamanian Gesha coffees are frequently premium-priced.
Coffees like this are frequently good and not infrequently great, but priced up by demand relative to supply.
Countries like Brazil, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and Colombia all produce massive quantities of coffee. Generally speaking, you’ll find higher quality coffees at lower prices from countries that produce more coffee than countries that produce less.
Sensory Analysis aka “Cupping”
For people new to professional coffee, cupping can be intimidating. Cupping requires the development of some basic sensory analysis skills. First, you’ll learn to actively focus your senses on the tastes of coffee. Then, you'll systematically build an internal library of industry-calibrated descriptors that are meaningful to yourself, your industry peers, and maybe your customers.
Avoiding Dead-End Sensory Analysis
As a professional, I need to find the value in every cup. Amateurs make all coffee a binary choice between “good” and “bad” which eliminates the possibility of additional experience, insights, or creativity.
To find the value in every cup, approach every coffee with the idea that “all coffee is good.” We do this because a lot of “like” and “dislike” is about intensity that can be manipulated in the roast profile or solved in extraction. There is something worthwhile in every coffee. Stretching your imagination to find it will only make you a better roaster.
Analyzing coffee quality in terms of 'good' and 'bad' is the prognostication of stillborn craft.
Sweetness is #1
The first thing I’m looking for in the cup is sweetness.
Coffee is characterized by an innate bitterness and weirdos that don’t like coffee are often extremely sensitive to bitter flavors. The first way we ameliorate bitterness in coffee is choosing coffees for maximum sweetness.
Coffee is about 13% carbohydrate. Of that percentage, about half can be roasted into some form of soluble sugar. Of that amount, about half can be extracted in water. This makes the maximum sugar content of coffee about 3% of the total seed. Brewing 50 grams of coffee at a 16:1 ratio will dissolve a maximum of 1.5 grams into 800 ml of coffee. That’s about ⅛ of a teaspoon of sugar in a 9 oz cup of coffee.
Not much, right?
If I can find a coffee that cups like 3/16 instead of 1/8, I’m in fat city.
Acidity is a close 2nd
Acidity is vital because acidity magnifies the perception of sweetness.
Literally every soda worthy of the title “soda” lists the first three ingredients as water, sugar, and citric acid.
Okay. Got it. I’m looking for sweetness with supporting acidity sufficient to balance out the bitterness.
Sort of yes, but it’s coffee so we’re not even close to being done yet.
The Body Slam
We haven’t discussed “body”. That mysterious viscosity or mouthfeel plus aftertaste that makes coffee almost totally unique.
We can get a bit of sugar and a titch of acidity out of tea, Kombucha, soda, and maybe even buttermilk. Coffee has a texture. Long chain molecules that sit on the surface of our tongue with a highly satisfying lingering tactile experience. The best coffees have a body and coating mouthfeel a bit reminiscent of something like potato chips. No matter how much you’ve had, you almost always want more.
Or maybe that’s just me.
If you’re having a hard time understanding body, maybe try chewing your coffee and focusing on the aftertaste. Is it thick, lingering, and pleasant, or thin, astringent and sour? If this idea feels excessively mysterious and vague, find someone who knows more than you do to practice with and/or take a professionally run cupping class.
Balance and Intensity for the Win
A winner coffee is a coffee that presents an interesting and satisfying balance of sweetness, body and acidity AND a marginally higher intensity of all three.
A coffee with more “coffee” in it will present as sweeter and more balanced at a light roast, creamier and richer at a medium roast, and more successful as a dark roast.
A winner coffee will make you look like a genius at the roaster.
What about the flavor wheel?
The SCA Flavor Wheel is a set of 110 descriptors published by the Speciality Coffee Association organized into a specific sequence of patterns from lower to higher intensity. These include origin flavors unique to the varietal, processing, origin and terroir, processing flavors and defects such as ferment and mildew, and roast flavors ranging from caramelization to char.
Specific descriptors provide coffee professionals with a calibrated vocabulary to describe specific flavors in coffee. If I describe a tasty “Meyer lemon” or “stone fruit” or a horrible “medicinal” in a coffee, everyone else has a pretty good idea of what I’m tasting.
These descriptors are important. All other things being equal, a more clearly differentiated flavor set means a coffee is more cleanly processed and vice versa. Then too, a greater clarity of flavors in the cup points to marginally higher intensity of those flavors.
This is important because the elevated temperature of post-first crack development time depletes these flavors. Starting out with more good stuff ensures you end up with more good stuff at any roast level.
Identifying flavors in coffee like this is a physical skill, but you do have one huge advantage. Your brain is hardwired for pattern recognition. Once you have associated a descriptor with a flavor, your ability to differentiate that flavor is enormously greater.
The more you practice, the easier it will be and the better you will be at it.
It is common to describe coffee in terms of these descriptors to customers and peers, but our coffee choices are often weighted more on their balance of sweetness, acidity, and body and their relative intensity in the cup.
Ultimate Cupping: Q-Grading
A Q-Grader is a person who has passed the Q exam and is professionally qualified to grade Arabica and/or Robusta coffees. A big portion of the Q exam is a sensory skills evaluation test. Basically, applicants are tested on their ability to identify a set of defects, flavors, and intensities with a high degree of accuracy.
This training is great and a professional understanding of how and why green coffee is graded is a valuable skill, but being Q-Certified doesn’t automatically make you an expert roaster. As a matter of fact, that higher understanding and appreciation of coffee sometimes blinds highly trained people to the roast level and the flavor profile the majority of their customers most highly value.
What’s the Point?
The point of all of this is to simply do your best.
The only path to real mastery is sustained effort over time. No one starts out fully formed. Craft is developed by small insights and victories over years. The amount and quality of work you put into your coffee will dictate the rapidity of your professional development and the ultimate level of your skill.
Too many people labor under some version of imposter syndrome. My message is to cut yourself some slack, embrace the process and do the best you can with what you have to work with.
Who knows? Coffee might even become fun again!
Ultimately, the only real measure of your success is your ability to source quality greens, develop successful roast profiles and sell enough coffee to enough people to support and grow your business.
The most important decision you will make in coffee is whether or not to put in the effort.