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.