The Coffee Trader

April 2, 2011

I started working for a small coffee roastery recently. For the first four weeks that I was there our green buyer was traveling in Central America. When he returned he came back with a ton of energy and a bright red sun burn on his face. For the first few days that he was back, he seemed to spend most of his time on the telephone, getting in touch with contacts whom he had been out of contact with while traveling. The conversations took place in the small cool basement where most of our green coffee is stored. Usually calm and quiet it became loud and tense at points. Most of the tension revolved around one individual, a person who in person seems personable enough, who had suddenly become elusive, just as crucial buying decisions needed to be made.

“A Dollar Fourty! Why does he need to take that much for himself!” I am vaguely familiar with margins in coffee, for instance, I know that fair trade gives the co-op about 1 dollar per pound for green coffee, I know that specialty coffee (coffee cupped and scored in the 80’s and higher on a scale up to 100) typically fetches between 2 to 3 dollars a pound for green coffee (sometimes as high as 6 dollars a pound and on rare occasions over 100 dollars for hyped up specialty auctions). I also know that the commodity market prices for coffee (most commodity coffees score below 80, they come in large generic lots, and are listed in the financial section of a newspaper) which are typically somewhere under a dollar have recently been as high as 3 dollars a pound green.

Our green buyer was having a problem with a middle man, this is the point at which my specific knowledge flattens out. I know that people are paid to transport coffee on motor vehicles, on boats, there is insurance to be paid, and various other costs associated, but I do not know the subtleties of these links in the long chain of coffee. I am however quite intrigued by the mystery of it all, and have been looking into what it is all about.

“The old familiar style of hand labor is still in evidence—men of all nationalities, but largely Spaniards and Portuguese, take the bags on their heads and carry them in single file up the gangplanks and into the hold of the ship.”

– All About Coffee, Chapter 23, Page 313

In addition to piecing together the story that our green buyer is in the midst of I decided to pick up a fictional account of early dutch coffee traders called The Coffee Trader by David Liss. It is based on the early coffee trade that began in Amsterdam with the Netherlands East India Trading Company. A factual, straight-forward history of The Introduction of Coffee into Holland can be found in Chapter 7 in Ukers All About Coffee, but I would recommend The Coffee Trader for a better snap shot of what that period perhaps felt like.

How Green Coffees are Bought and Sold, Chapter 23 in All About Coffee gives a pretty interesting account of the coffee trade in various exporting countries. Each region has its own often confusing set of customs and regulations, various roles are in place to see that this commodity gets bought and delivered. This account however interesting is quite dated describing systems in place during the early 1900’s when this book was published.

Some things will have changed, specifically the growing specialty market and a push for separate and specific quality lots, better storage and packaging of green coffee such as vacuum packing and grain-pro plastic bags, as well as training persons at origin to cup for the specialty market. These are new developments that have happened within the past 10 to 5 years. It is exciting to hear about these things and learn from the knowledgeable people that I work along side.

Other things, however, seem to stay the same. Our green buyer asked me to help move about a dozen 150 pound bags of green coffee from the ground floor of the roastery down to the basement storage level. We both grabbed two corners of the heavy bags and slowly walked each down the flight of steps, stacking them five or six high along the wall on pallets. He described to me how in Central America it is common to see bags being hoisted onto a single mans back, the man sprints a short distance with the heavy load, while the next man in line is loaded up and sprinting right behind him with his 150 pound pack. Quite the work out.


Jabez Burns & Sons

February 20, 2011

I was able to track down some old coffee equipment manufactured by Jabez Burns & Sons. The large picture above of a cup testing outfit is from Chapter 24 in All About Coffee. The other photos below it I took while touring the Dallis Brothers Roastery in Queens, New York courtesy of Byron Holcomb. This turn of the century equipment is made from solid cast iron and granite, amazing quality, just Hear the sound that table makes!

Exploring biographical information on William Ukers, author of All About Coffee, revealed a connection with Jabez Burns early on in Ukers writing career. I was thrilled to find some JB&S equipment in use at the Dallis Brothers Roastery and I imagine that there may be more old coffee equipment hiding in Queens, Brooklyn, and the surrounding area since New York City has had a long history with the coffee trade. The complete story of New York coffee is scattered through out the book, but well worth digging for.

One of the first things I noticed upon re inspecting All About Coffee is Ukers association with the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal. The name of the Journal makes its appearance in the title page of the book, however I did not recall reading that much about the organization or Ukers association with the journal in the book. Upon further inspection and a quick stop at “Tea and Coffee Trade Journal” in the index I did find the history there, quietly tucked away under other mountains of historical data and factoids.

Ukers originally worked as the editor and later editor-in-chief for Jabez Burns on an in house publication called the Spice Mill. He and Burns disagreed about the need to publish as a trade magazine so Ukers went on to start the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal by himself, it was his single vision to write this journal, his lifes work, providing an outlet for a career of tea and coffee writing. He was responsible for the International Tea and Coffee buyer’s guide, still published annually. His other works include, All About Tea, The Romance of Coffee, and The Romance of Tea as well some other books mentioned in this excerpt from an interview with James Quinn, a colleague of Ukers who took over the journal after Ukers passed away in 1956:

“When he was researching he often traveled extensively, sometimes staying a month or longer in each place. That spawned another series of books called the Little Journey Series. Each book in the series focuses on his visit to a specific producing country. There were many – one on Brazil, another on Colombia, India and Japan. Late in his life, he even attempted a work of fiction based on coffee, called Rosemary and Briar Sweet. All the other books were successful, but that one was not.”

It is without doubt Ukers was a prolific, driving force behind the Journal. James Quinn, subject of the above mentioned interview, mentions his wish to have been involved with the forming of the SCAA and his involvement with the National Roasters Association during the latter part of his time with the Journal. The Journal paved the way for organizations such as the SCAA which have become a prominent force in the coffee industry today, making it easy to forget the importance of these earlier institutions.

For all practical purposes, Ukers was the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal. His name still sits proudly and prominently as “Founding Editor” in the issues published to this day. There is a rich history of coffee in his work and as I dig deeper into his writings Ukers appears more and more to me as a vital link between ancient coffee lore, and the exciting coffee landscape that is available today. He was a prolific man of coffee and I am excited to revisit his life and work.

All About this Blog

January 28, 2011

I read William Ukers All About Coffee in 2009, the actual book. I used the interlibrary loan system in Atlanta, I had to wait a week and a half to have it sent to the main library branch, I had to sign some paperwork, and I had a limited amount of time with the book.

The process was quite enjoyable, the reading of the book that is, the size and weight of it alone conveyed a feeling about the caliber of information contained within. It is an immensely informative, interesting book, jam packed with amazing photographs and illustrations. The best part is that there is not a single picture of latte art in the whole thing! (for all you talented or aspiring baristas, I do appreciate the presentation, just sick of all the pictures, nothing personal)

Recently I was looking to reference some material in the book and realized that it was available in electronic formats on and for sale on other websites as the book was released into the public domain April 4, 2009. As I was searching for information, I was disappointed at how uncomfortable it was perusing the book in its various electronic formats on my computer. I began to wonder what that book might look like in a different format. That is when I dreamt up this project.

This may not be the most ideal format, but the only way to find that out is to give it a try.Essentially this blog will have two lines of thought. The original linear book format will be preserved as pages on the site, making it easy to access, like an interactive table of contents. The actual blog posts will be pulling out interesting relevant information from the book, and re-presenting it with commentary.

For all of you casual coffee drinkers all the way up to the hyper enthusiastic coffee nerds I hope to hear from you all, the interaction will most likely be some of the most interesting content here. Hopefully the experiment is successful, and some interesting new bits of information can be shared in an interesting new way.