Cat & Cloud Coffee Podcast

When Jared and I started our blog in 2010 it had always been a dream of ours to do something more. Something that we could both proudly call our own, but also involved the entire coffee community at large. As with many dreams it’s easy for things to get in the way and steer you off course – other opportunities, money and lack thereof, and just the scary uncertainty of not knowing if something will pan out or not. Well we’ve decided it’s time to check our inhibitions at the door and wander out into the great unknown.

Welcome to the Cat & Cloud Coffee Podcast. We’re here to bring you a weekly dose of audible coffee magic featuring your two tightest bros, plus industry guests from all over the globe. We’ve started things off with a two-part episode from Ian Levine – Operations Project Manager for Equator Coffee & Teas, and the first of a three part series from current United States Barista Champion: Charles Babinski.


We also have a favor to ask of you: 

If you take a quick minute to log into iTunes, rate, review, and subscribe to our podcast on iTunes we will be forever grateful. This will allow us to keep bringing you awesome regular content. Even if you hate us, or don’t have time to listen to an entire episode, a review will still help! Click the banner to open the podcast in iTunes or go here: Cat & Cloud on iTunes.


We want to hear your thoughts and ideas…if there are topics that are near and dear to your heart you’d like us to discuss, or if you’d like to sit down and chat with us, drop us an email at info@catandcloud.com and put the word “podcast” in the subject line.

Additionally next week we will be re-routing the blog to live over at catandcloud.com. We’ve already uploaded all our existing content plus a few other fun summer offerings so go check it out. As always comments will be left on, and we’ll be addressing the comments we get at the end of all the yet to be recorded podcasts. We genuinely love to hear from you, so talk it out with us and we’ll get back at you.

We really appreciate all the love you cats have given us here, and it’s hard to express how excited we are to just ratchet it up a notch for you. So to all who make it a point to come here:

Thank you. You’re the reason we love working in coffee.

-Team Trubaca

Chefs, Bartenders, and Baristas

The following is a transcription from a text message thread that was inspired by an earlier draft of Jared’s latest post on service. Particularly in reference to a comparison between bartenders, chefs, and baristas that the draft contained. The particular comparison in question didn’t make it into the final edit, but it did spark some incredibly interesting conversation.

I must admit that cross-industry comparisons have always made me cringe, although I understand how they are sometimes applicable. There are indeed similarities between being a bartender, chef, and a barista – but at the end of the day we are in our own unique industry, governed by its own unique set of economic and social forces.

One of my personal hopes is that one day we (baristas) will be comfortable and confident enough in what we do to not have to compare our industry to any other; and we can instead just focus on taking the next best step for our industry.

My points of view on this topic may not be the most popular in Specialty Coffee, or with the people reading this bog but that’s ok. I think in order to move forward we need to be really honest with ourselves when it comes to what we do, what we hope to do, and what steps we need to take to get there.

In any case, we thought it might be interesting to get a little insight on the stuff we spend our spare time talking about, and how our thought process works. For your reading pleasure I’ve conveniently transcribed our conversation back into nice little text bubbles without fixing any grammar or spelling, so you can really get into the moment.

Begin transmission:

textthread

Why indeed is the world so hard?

At the end of the day I believe that many of these struggles come out of our industry being so young. The relative newness of Specialty Coffee combined with the uphill battle of getting people to recognize that there is something  truly special about this thing that for decades has been seen simply as a commodity, makes for a tough fight.

But I’m with JT…we can win the battle, and excelling at service is a must if we plan on doing so. Earning the same level of respect as some of the worlds best chefs and bartenders is of little consequence to me as long as we continue to put our best foot forward – the rest will fall into place over time.

-Chris Baca

Excelling at the Basics – by Adam Metelmann

Many years ago in a past life, my band was all prepped and set to record the all important second album.

(Disclaimer: This was the period of time before the advent of itunes, where live shows and CD sales attributed to a band’s measure of success)

It was almost 2 years since the first album release and during that time we luckily achieved a fair amount of independent success through sales and national radio play. We could pretty much play up and down the East coast of Australia basically whenever we wanted to hit the road.

We again enlisted the help of the talented producer who recorded our first release. He saw our vision and became another member of the band, motivating us to make something that was proper world class. We went away to write our material, a few months passed and pretty soon all the logistics involved in the project were set to start recording.

I remember the hour long drive to the beautiful recording facility very well because I was on top of the moon. We’d just finished a run of awesome shows, and I truly believed I was ready. We worked hard on the songs and had grown as musicians. The other band members had put down most of the beds and now it was my turn.

All I could think about was that I was about to record vocals to music that would send us on our way to stardom. The booth was set, warmups were done and I was exploding with excitement to get it on.

In the coming few hours, I couldn’t even get the first verse down.

“Not quite there yet Adam, let’s do it again…” the Producer said through the headphones, and I’d try again with all my might. Singing only 8 lines for close to 5 hours, I was at breaking point when he asked me to come and sit with him in the control room.

He basically told me that I didn’t know my own songs. I didn’t know my instrument (my voice), my breathing or how to control my tones. He didn’t believe that  I  believed my own lyrics nor did he feel moved by any of the story I was trying to convey.

How could this be?

Didn’t we rock every show we played?

Didn’t we completely destroy any band who played a show with us by blowing them off the stage with our musicianship?

Didn’t we have punters screaming and dancing in a state of adoration during every show, with every sung note and every outpouring of emotion?

How could this be that I couldn’t even sing my own first verse?

Instantly I felt like we had made a huge mistake investing time with this so-called Producer. Who was he to tell me that I didn’t know my own instrument?! As I sat there listening to those terrible 8 lines of verse, I knew I wouldn’t be recording anymore. He told me to go home and learn my own songs. To be honest I don’t even remember the long drive home.

The fact of the matter was that he was completely right.

As a band we were told/perceived/believed we were successful, but in truth, I couldn’t even perform the most basic of skills for my chosen craft. I was devastated, and the next few months we some of the hardest of my life. I questioned whether I actually could do the work required. I questioned whether I actually had any talent, and pretty much wiped the slate clean of what any person had said to me in my years of music career up until that point.

This situation highlighted that I truly did not understand or believe in my heart what I was doing.

I very nearly walked away from music entirely.

Needless to say, in time I worked hard and overcame this situation going on to record some of the best vocal performances I have ever performed. We never ‘made it’ as a band, but that doesn’t matter.

Why am I telling you a back catalogue of my rock bottom moments?

I hadn’t thought about that day in the studio for a long time until I was reminded of it recently when a question was asked via a local social media coffee group.

“What advanced subjects would you like to learn, and as a score out of 4, how would you rate your knowledge/skill as a coffee professional?”

I didn’t write a response as I wanted to quietly peep what people would write as to where they thought they stood in their career. There was some colourful responses about of the very pointy end of education and some very high numbers regarding abilities. I have to admit that even though I’m many years now into coffee, with career jobs/competition results/industry peer group acknowledgement that I should be proud of, I would never write scores for myself that high.

Admittedly I don’t know most of the people that responded and I’m not pointing the finger at these people for writing what they wrote. It must also be said I have absolutely no issue in wanting to further one’s knowledge. It’s an important step that absolutely must be taken. And more than ever now, employers are stocking up on all the latest and greatest equipment fuelling many oohs and ash from both workers and consumers alike.

That posted question instantly spurred my memory of that talk with the Producer many years ago.

Why are so many in our industry are solely focussed on that pointy end of the spectrum of knowledge when they don’t focus on the basic skills right in front of them, meaning the things they do every day?

If your job in coffee is like most of us where your main role is to operate the tools and do your part to produce the coffee beverages for a business…

  • Can you TRULY and HONESTLY say your technique is at the point that you need no further work on the basics?
  • Do you TRULY and HONESTLY understand your machine, tools, coffee, milk, service motion, flow and customer service to say that it’s operating to the point of perfection?
  • Can you TRULY and HONESTLY say to yourself that you know everything there is to know about the grinder you use daily on the job or at home and the resulting extractions (as examples) that you can now bypass it and move forward on to the high end advanced sensory/green training?

Truly? Honestly?

If you are real with yourself, then the answer to even these 3 questions would be no.

The good news though is that much can achieved if you just focus on one thing, rather than many at a time.

There will be plenty of opportunities to take the next step with the high end knowledge. And it will be easier to understand when you can excel at the basics.

Be that person to tell yourself that good enough is never good enough. Or to be cleaner in your work area, to be more gentle with your equipment, or be aware of your work flow, surroundings and workmates. Do not compromise on the product you serve for any reason.

Be the person who will listen to criticism from others (listening the voice inside as well) and do what it takes to come out on top of the situation.

The rate in which you will grow and learn will be exponentially faster.

-Adam Metelmann

//

This is part two of a two part series from Adam Metelmann. To read part one click here:  Adam Q&A

To read our previous guest post from Noah Namowicz, click here: The Direct Selectors, by Noah Namowicz

-Team Trubaca

Meet Adam Metelmann (Part 1 of 2)

adam metelmannThis week our quest for unique industry perspectives has taken us all the way to Australia –  home of 2014/2015 Queensland Barista Champion, and creator of the BigStep tamper:  Adam Metelmann.  Adam has been involved in the coffee industry in one form or another for the past two decades, and began competing in 2012 when he placed 3rd in the Queensland Barista Championship on his first go-around.

I had the pleasure of meeting Adam at the 2015 SCAA show this year, and I asked if he’d like to contribute something to our blog – and he was into it!

Adam wrote a great piece about focusing on the things that really matter, which we’ll post this coming Monday the 6th.

In the meantime, we focused on poking Adams brain so you could get to know him a bit better.

//

Where were you born and where did you grow up?

Born in Kingaroy, a country town in Queensland but spent most my teen years on the Gold Coast, Queensland.

What was your first coffee job?

I dabbled on coffee machines during my teens in various hospitality jobs, but it was ’96 when I got my first real coffee role. I started hanging out at a relatively unknown cafe that was managed by a Canadian guy. He served the thickest Caps and Lattes I’d ever seen… And really up until that point, I’d never seen anyone freepour before (locally everybody was spooning their milk into their beverages).

All the staff seemed to be adored by their regulars and I wanted to be a part of that. A position finally came up, and the interview was a series of questions about what books I was reading and what music I was into, not really about my previous hospitality experience or what I expected. Thankfully I guess he connected with my wide music tastes and they offered me the job.

How long have you been competing for? 

I only started in 2012, placing in my first regional. Looking back I cannot believe I placed in this first attempt. Even though I thought I was prepared, I really knew nothing about the Comp frame of mind or understood the scoresheets.

What made you fall in love with coffee?

In my childhood, I adored spending time with my Grandfather as he went about his morning ritual. In later years, it was more about the lifestyle and the way people were so drawn to their favourite coffee shop.

The coffee certainly wasn’t memorable in those days, but the having your favourite barista (who magically knew your name and your order) serve you, the ‘family’ environment that you shared with other regulars, the feeling of sitting in your favourite seat and watching the world go by… This ritual that so many people of all ages and walks of life still mesmerises me.

Tell us one thing about yourself that most people probably don’t know. 

In ’82, I was selected as one of 3 kids in my school to take part in a secret Apple computer programming course, apparently because of my high IQ for my age. I don’t know what happened since then because now I struggle to remember where I put my keys.

Introvert or Extrovert?

Kinda in between, an intro-extrovert. I can turn the extro on if needed, but prefer the quieter volumes of the intro lifestyle.

What do you do when you’re not making coffee?

Hmmm. I selfishly admit that everything seems to revolve around coffee at the moment. I’m trying to educate myself further, testing and future competition scheming. Music, movies, cooking, spending time with my wife as we prepare for our first child!

Whats one piece of advice for someone new to coffee who has aspirations to turn coffee into a career?

I wish the huge amount of resources now available was around when I started… You cannot ever read or learn enough. Even though my first job was basically running beverages and washing dishes, I soon realised that this was the most powerful position. From here you can see exactly how any business runs. Watch, study, listen and always take note of whats happening around you. Hospitality is not for the faint of heart, but if you can work hard and stick with it, it can be a hugely rewarding path to take.

How did you come up with the Big Step?

I first discovered Pullman when I decided to buy my first tamp. I had just moved from a huge Commercial coffee company to a Specialty coffee focussed small business. It was time to buy my own tools, and learning their concept of fitting the tamp base as accurately as possible to the baskets blew my mind. It made perfect sense.

After my first purchase, I consequently harassed the folks at Pullman to know more about the effects and consequences of tamp sizes but also saw past the ‘sales’ pitch of this idea, seeing the true quality of their product. As with everything now in my life, its all about the details. I later met Mark from Pullman at a coffee event, we hit it off both personally and professionally, and the conversations always turned to my obsession with details.

Asking him to specifically make larger base sizes for me hit a point where we couldn’t go any further, so he suggested we come up with a new design. What if the Binding and Vacuum issues associated with my big surface (but standard design) tamp base tolerances were countered with a larger diameter stepped ridge extending from the base, coupled with less surface area on the main body of the tamp base?

When I received the first prototype, I literally couldn’t believe it. It worked like a charm and the Bigstep base was born (I named it both from its appearance of the bigger step section, and also as a play on words that Mark was taking a Big Step both working with me as well as releasing such a different design). What started out really as something that was intended as personal use, I still now can’t believe that the BigStep is being shipped and used around the world.

Tell us a little bit about your sneaker habit?

Hahaha! WHAT IS A SNEAKER HABIT?!? It’s true, I do love sneakers. Primarily Nike. I’m not as crazy as I used to be in the purchase department, but I certainly cannot help myself, especially if the stores are on sale. And the secret of a good collection is having your rotation sorted, making them last a long time. I’m still wearing kicks I bought over 5 years ago. I always said I would never be that person to go crazy spoiling my soon-to-arrive child, but with the selection available now for tiny feet… SERIOUSLY?

My bank account is in big trouble.

//

If you want to know more about what makes Adam tick, you can connect with him on Instagram @adammann14, or on twitter @adammann14.

Have a great weekend everyone, we’ll see you Monday.

-Baca

Big Step Tamper Review

Big Step Tamper

Confession: I love my barista tools. I’m a full-fledged gear geek; especially when it comes to tampers. Just like all gear-heads, I need my tools just the way I like ‘em. I was never really satisfied with off-the-shelf tampers, so in my early days I  gained a little reputation for bugging manufacturers about tweaking this, and fixing that , or what if we tried this… (it’s fully my dream to have a “signature model” tamper one day – nerd alert I know). I’ve been using oversized pistons on my tampers since around 2007 or so. My first one was made by Terry Z during his Espressoparts era –  it was a 58.6mm old school Lava Tamper with the Ritual logo branded on it. Since then I’ve had probably no less than 25 tampers of various shapes and sizes to do my dirty work. My latest go-to was a 58.4mm that seemed to have a good mix of enough piston size to cover most of the basket surface area, without creating that pesky vacuum I’d experienced with my really big boys (it’s no fun to get your puck sucked back out of the basket.) Overall I was pretty happy with my 58.4mm piece.

Fast forward to SCAA 2015. I was wandering the trade show floor and stumbled across the Pullman booth, which was being manned by Australian barista boss extraordinaire Adam Metelmann. I’d always seen the Pullman stuff floating around the internet but had never caught a glimpse in person. Being the oversized piston fan that I am, the BigStep caught my eye. I chatted with Adam about it for a bit, held it, wanted it, but was too poor at the time to buy it. Luckily for me through the matrix of friendship, camaraderie, and fast international shipping – one magically landed on my front porch.

So I’ve been using it for  couple of weeks and here are my thoughts:

Fit and finish is solid. This definitely feels like a custom piece. I’m not sure if it is; but everything is dressed well and doesn’t feel/look like it’s a random assembly line job. It’s a really beautiful tamper.

The tamper itself is height adjustable with several little insert rings you can stack on the handle. For me it’s not about overall tamper height but the distance between the top of the handle to where your fingers rest on the top of the piston. I used one small ring and was good to go.

The rubber on the piston is great for me. I’m a finger heavy kind of guy so I had much less fatigue after a shift with this tamper vs. my normal all metal pistons. If you use your palm more than your fingers this probably won’t matter as much to you.

The handle on mine is American Walnut, and is one of the first wood handled tampers I’ve had in years. If you like a lighter overall tamper – the wood is good; if you like a bit more weight or even balance – aluminum handle is probably your jam. I admittedly thought it was a bit too light for my liking at first, but after a couple days all of my all metal tampers started to feel heavy. It’s all personal preference on this one obviously.

The base is savage! This thing covers pretty much all the surface area in the basket (which I expected it to do). But the standouts are the sharp, non-radius edge and absence of vacuum. I was a bit scared of binding issues and really scared of vacuum issues, but as I plugged along I noticed neither. The sharp edge has quite a different feel than your standard radiused edged tamper…it feels a bit more aggressive and intense where the standard tampers feel a bit softer or plush in comparison (I’m not sure if that even makes any sense). Apparently the absence of vacuum and having this big boy not suck your puck back out at you is a result of the stepped design. I don’t get it, I have no idea how it works, but it does.

//  If you want to read more about how a non-radius edge can make your life better, check out Matt Pergers blog on the Pergtamp (also a Pullman piece).  //

Below are some tests I ran using a few tampers and a 20 gram VST basket. I didn’t measure extraction or any of that – I was just looking for excess (untamped) grounds, and feel.

58mm is a total wreck; I’m not sure why people make tampers this small anymore. 58.2 – 58.4mm will easily fit in a non VST basket (if you are for some reason using those), so somewhere in there should probably be the standard, but oh well. To my dismay my 58.4 proved to be only marginally better! I was so sad about it that I gave it a second try (so much for consistency and the scientific method) which yielded better results. Try number two seemed to be more representative of  what I normally get with this tamper. The BigStep obviously covers the most ground and the sharp edge makes short work of basically every shred of ground coffee in the basket, all while making for a squeaky clean basket…the pictures below basically tell the whole story.

BigStep

Note: You will not like this tamper if you are one of those smash and grab, sloppy tamping baristas. I see you everywhere and I see what you’re doing. I know it’s busy and you’re in a hurry but you’re really not doing anyone any favors. That being said If you insist on riding dirty, maybe stick with that standard 58mm. Using the BigStep definitely requires precision (i.e. paying attention).

So as you can tell I have a new go-to coffee weapon, and have to retire my 58.4 back into my collection – we had some great times buddy! If anyone out there is in the market for a new tamper, give the BigStep some consideration; you’ll probably be amped that you did.

-Chris Baca

Regionals Rejected

I thought I had a lot to say surrounding the SCAA’s pulling the plug on the regional competition circuit and perhaps I do…but my mind is just a bit too jumbled right now to write something incredibly thoughtful and expressive. So I’m just going to focus on one aspect of the situation and let everyone else flesh out the rest. At least for now.

The SCAA seems to be making the claim that by pulling the plug on the regional barista competition circuit, they’re able to free up funds and reallocate them on other barista driven events. While this may be well and true, I assure you: Nobody really cares.

The SCAA is hardly relevant to the barista community if it doesn’t sanction regional and national barista competitions. Cutting out regionals is just another step towards their eventual irrelevance. Sure they host other events – but camps, meet and greets, and other networking events will never replace barista competitions.

I mean, what is the NBA to the basketball community if it discontinues having games or championships. “We’re still going to have shoot-arounds and events where people can come talk and learn about basketball.” Yeah, no thanks.

People love competition, there’s just something about it. Even the people who hated the barista competition format, rules, and scoring – still showed up to each and every one, watched people go at, and had a great time (myself included).

Competitions are also a better learning tool than any class, certification, or workshop.

Why? Because the burden is on the barista to improve. Knowing you are responsible for your own success and/or failure, and knowing that you have to stand up and give this presentation in front of all your peers, with a microphone on, while being projected onto a jumbotron…well, that makes you up your game just a bit.

Classes and workshops offer a much more passive user experience with a reward nowhere near the reward you get from busting your ass for months and then letting it all hang out. Where you place on the scoreboard hardly matters; it’s about the process. As Billy Wilson (multiple time regional winner) said today: “The real value was in seeing your barista compete. Fall in love…The value was in learning the craft.

Forget about the idea of the competitions finding “the best in our industry” or “the one perfect representative for specialty coffee.” In my mind it’s about exposing our industry to as many people as possible. The regional competition circuit is how I was exposed to this whole specialty coffee world I now live in. Now with the need to be BGA level 1 or 2 certified, or have been active in competition within the past 2 seasons, the USBC circuit is a completely insular industry event…absolutely zero new industry exposure will come via the competition circuit.

Regional events (when hosted in the right cities) provided an opportunity for people to cruise in off the street and see what specialty coffee was all about. Cafe regulars would tell friends of friends “you should cruise by and check this out, my local barista is competing today.” It’s a very real opportunity for people who wouldn’t usually care, to take a peek at what we’re all about. No one walks in off the street to check out a level 1 certification test, or randomly happens to stop by espresso 101..it just doesn’t happen. It functions in the same way that people who don’t cook, and will never take a cooking class, will watch Iron Chef and get inspired by food because it’s interesting and accessible. Whether or not you think the rules and set-up of Iron Chef are the be-all and end-all of food hardly matters. Iron Chef (and similar shows) bring an increased level of awareness to high end food, that most people just wouldn’t be exposed to if these shows didn’t exist.

But at the end of the day the SCAA has certain limitations on what they can provide and what is sustainable for them and that’s ok. No disrespect to them, the BGA, or anyone else involved. They made the call they felt they had to.

So now if we want a regional competition circuit, or want the national competition circuit to not be tied to the SCAA, then the burden is on us to make it happen. Yup. Us. Everyone who’s complained that things could be and should be better, or had ideas for the perfect system.

What are we going to do about it? It’s easy to point fingers and talk trash from the sidelines – but do you actually care enough to ante up, put in the work, and build what you want?

Do I? I honestly don’t know. I know that for all the shit I talked about the competitions shortcomings, that I’m still really sad to see the thing that brought me into specialty coffee, and introduced me to 99% of my industry friends and peers, just not exist anymore.

So I don’t know what’s next. But if anyone wants to have a bit of conversation about it, or just needs a support group, feel free to drop a comment in and we can talk it out. I can’t promise anything except a shoulder to lean on, but sometimes that’s all you need.

-Chris Baca

The Direct Selectors – by Noah Namowicz

I have the opportunity to be in a position in the coffee industry which is intertwined with the coffee producing and coffee roasting world in an extremely unique way. As a green-coffee importer, I see the good and bad, the inspiring and disheartening, and the rewarding and discouraging ways that green coffee is bought globally.

Cafe Imports and a handful of other solid companies are finding, partnering, developing, and bringing to market some really exceptional coffees. For a long time (and probably still by some today), the importer was viewed as “the man,” a person to try and cut out or avoid. When I hear those radio commercials for Shane Company Diamonds, and hear him talking about “direct diamond importing” and “cutting out the middleman”, I have to give it to him; it’s an easy sell. I am thinking to myself, “Hell yeah, why pay all these extra markups if I can do direct to the source?” Then suddenly, for no apparent reason, I NEED diamonds. That pinkie ring is looking super attractive right now. But Tom Shane, how do you do this? And why I am so lucky to benefit?

Well, a similar thing can be true in coffee marketing to consumers. As a coffee roaster, and a coffee roaster selling a premium product to discerning consumers, the message that you are connected to the products you sell is increasingly crucial. Some consumers just come for a delicious drink, but others come to drink your coffee because of how that product’s soul makes them feel. It’s the whole package more often than not; that coffee has to have some integrity behind it. I have yet to hear a radio commercial from a coffee roaster talking about selling cheap coffee because they go direct, but the general tone of the marketing seems similar to me. “Why buy from that other guy, when you can buy from us because we did this thing ourselves, no middlemen, this is our direct trade”

I wholeheartedly believe that, when possible, coffee roasters should be connected to the coffee they buy, in a way that allows them to strengthen a sustainable supply chain. They should be taking steps to bolster their supply of excellent coffees in a world where we face global threats like roya and more financially lucrative crops because…hell, we are. So the question is, how does direct trade accomplish that, and what can be done to continue to improve it?

For me, when I look at the way we at Cafe Imports buy coffee, versus other buying strategies we have seen, the problem is the combination of infrastructure-improvement requests, cherry-picking of lots, and unmet expectations within a given relationship year after year.

Generally, we see buyers who will buy a portion of coffee (microlot) from a producer at a very high price one year in a direct scenario, only to leave that producer with the remainder of their crop to be sold at the prevailing market level – and next year, all bets are off…good luck, buddy. That producer won the lottery that first year for a small portion of his crop, and now he holds the expectation that he should be getting that price for all his coffee, and that arrangement should continue forever. Who wouldn’t want that?

However, with coffee, its a difficult scenario for smaller buyers to commit to anything beyond what is in front of them, even if that is what the producer really wants. Our partners have told us time and time again that they want some stability in their lives. Some of their coffee can be great, some coffee can be very good, and a portion is just going to be flat-out bad from any given farm. We see unmet expectations all the time regarding what will actually be purchased. Coffee growers are hoping for long-term relationships, and too often (but not always), the direct trade claims by roasters are more like a snapshot of what I like to call “direct selection.”

Let’s look at this mathematically. Direct trade buyer approaches this one producer with this:

  • Producer X is asked to build elevated drying beds: $5,000
  • Producer X is asked to use different fertilizer: $8000
  • Producer X is asked to selectively harvest better (more labor, more hours): $5000
  • Producer X is asked to slow down their drying time, leaving less room on his patios: $5,000

-This producer is basically asked to invest $23,000 in this scenario in order to produce the coffee this buyer wants.

-Lets say he produces 37,500 lbs of coffee in the year. A full container.

-The market right now is at $1.50: This is roughly the rate at which the farmer’s commercial coffee will sell.

(If this producer sold his whole harvest without the infrastructure investments at this market level commercially, he would make $56,250 in revenue)

But lets say he does the investments, and produces 10,000 lbs of microlot-quality coffee 88+ points this buyer wants, and sells those for $3.50/lb, then sells the remainder at the prevailing market level. Follow me here:

  • 10,000lbs * $3.50 = $35,000
  • 27,500lbs * $1.50 = $41,250
  • Total revenue: $76,250
  • Additional investments: – $23,000

Total revenue minus investments: $53,250

WHY THE HELL WOULD HE DO THIS? He would make more revenue by not investing and selling everything commercially. More work, more risk, less revenue, and increasingly they are seeing less loyalty year over year with this “direct selection” mentality.

That is the question that every coffee producer faces, and the challenge every coffee buyer deals with…how do we make this scenario make sense for the people growing coffee, while also allowing us access to the best possible coffee that can be produced from them? How does this become mutually beneficial?

Yes, being a coffee buyer is sexy: It’s sexy to hashtag #directtrade, and it’s sexy to plaster photos of yourself next to your favorite producer on Instagram and in your shop, but honestly, if you are cherry-picking their lots and not developing a sustainable buying model and partnership for THEM first, you second, what does that direct trade even mean beyond those Insta-likes? Will there be more selfies in your future?

At Cafe Imports, we approach this a little bit differently, and this is where we return back to what “the man” can mean in these relationships when that man is a company that is independently owned, operates with integrity, and has the funding that, quite simply, most roasters do not have. The “middlemen” in high-end specialty coffee are much more than people just buying and selling a product. Sure, there are big importers that do this, but high-end specialty coffee by its nature takes a much more involved and invested buying approach. We are often villainized because it’s easy. Even Oliver Stand in this article states that direct trade opens up coffees “jealously guarded” by these nefarious middlemen (importers). But does that tell the whole story?

So lets look at what’s really done behind the scenes…

In many cases, we are pre-financing coffee for projects, producers, and groups with whom we have close partnerships. We could be paying that $23,000 ahead of harvest, before coffee is picked, so they can invest properly and still feed their families. We are cupping through over 5,000 coffees annually to give detailed feedback to our partners on what is working and what isn’t. We’re buying sample roasters for them and offering sample-roasting training to bolster our partners’ own sensory efforts. We are committing to buy crops year over year at fixed prices and offering trading support in terms of hedging coffee on behalf of our partners. We are willing to import and take the quality risk on small microlots. The amount of paperwork on one microlot in a container is about equal to the paperwork for a whole container, so most view it as a nuisance. We could write a whole additional blog post on what happens when we pay a premium for a microlot and it arrives below 85 points for any reason…but the short answer is we lose money (which unfortunately happens often), but we are willing to take that risk.

Finally, we are developing stratified buying models that throws the cherry-picking model of late on its head.

Let’s look at this stratified buying model, and now, this is the important part…

YES, we want every teeny tiny lot of amazing unique delicious coffee from a given producer, and YES we will pay very well for that quality. We are competing with handfuls of other buyers and need to pay farmers the best for their quality. Our goal is to find the most amazing coffees on the planet: That is why we are in this business, the unending curiosity of coffee’s potential. But, we also want that coffee from this producer that most cherry-picking buyers would discard, which is still above 84 points and delicious, for the sake of the sustainability of the relationship. Ideally, we want to have a home for every possible specialty grade coffee (within our own quality standards), and that wider scope gives a new home to coffees that would have been sold in the commercial market or internal market for these coffee growers. This is the only way that makes sense to us, and what our partners have told us would benefit them. They want to sell more coffee for better prices. I can say based on the amazing quality of coffees we have been seeing year over year from these projects and the loyalty of those partnerships, something is working in this model.

Lets go back to the drawing board:

  • Farmer produces 10,000 lbs of microlots and sells for $3.50 = $35,000
  • Farmer also produces 17,500 lbs of solid 84+ coffee and sells for $2.50 = $43,750
  • Farmer sells 10,000 of sub-80 point coffee internally at $1.50 = $10,500
  • Total revenue: $89,250
  • Less investments: -$23,000

Total revenue minus investments: $66,250

2nd year revenue: $75,000 since they won’t have to build beds again + hopefully more 88+

3rd year: $80,000?

This scenario is looking a little more attractive now to the producer. We are basically trying to say that we want all of their coffee to eventually be over 88 points, but we also want to reward those lots where they tried their best, but didn’t quite hit the mark. We need to make this a partnership and honor the fact that we asked them to do something for us, asked them to make investments for our own greedy desire to taste something delicious, so now we need to put our money where our mouths are.

The challenge here is: Can roasters also address this need in their business models? Are roasters who only sell the top of the top and have no homes for their partners’ other, yet still delicious coffees, going to continue to be attractive partners? I think that is the challenge we all need to ask ourselves as specialty coffee becomes harder to produce, and as we try to get more producers to plant more coffee and invest in producing truly exceptional coffees. We need them to know we are in this with them. We buy coffee from our solid partners if a bad year hits, but do you? How valuable is “the man” to helping this thing keep going when we deal in an extremely volatile agricultural product that we deem either worthy or not based on taste? Does that small or medium-size roaster have the means to do this? Again, what does that direct trade sticker mean for the partnership? Is that nefarious middleman hurting or helping the system when it comes time to make those hard buying decisions that have long term impact?

So let’s get real about why we do this and understand that seeking the most delicious things in the world and building sustainable partnerships do not have to be mutually exclusive. As a roaster, buy in to projects that make sense long term when possible, and make sure that structure addresses your partner’s needs. In fact, when it doesn’t, the entire coffee industry suffers, and suddenly all that delicious coffee we want may increasingly look more look like burden than a livelihood to those growing it.

And if anyone has a line on that pinkie ring and knows Tom Shane, shoot me his details.

xoxo – Noah Namowicz, Cafe Imports