June 13, 2016

Under The Microscope: What Does a Coffee Exporter Do?


Coffee exporters play a crucial role in the coffee supply chain, and yet we hear so little about them. So we spoke to Diana Acosta, a third-generation exporter from Honduras, to find out a little more about her job.

Read on to discover what a coffee exporter does, what their challenges are, and how they make a living even during the off season.

SEE ALSO: 8 Facility Observations a Green Bean Buyer Makes

coffee sack in warehouse

Bagging is only a small part of an exporter’s role. Credit: M. Fury

What Do Coffee Exporters Actually Do?

The life of a coffee exporter is hectic. In a nutshell, it’s their job to manage the producers, get the coffee processed, and then ship it, all while trying to get the best price. This means they must also monitor market prices from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed.

So where do they begin? For starters, exporters must establish links with the producers and obtain samples from them; only after this can the coffee be assessed and graded.

However, grading samples isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. Once an exporter has received the tasters, they must then go through a strict and lengthy cupping process. This means that the exporter needs to weigh the beans, evaluate their humidity, assess how long the coffee needs to rest, and determine any defects. Phew! And while cupping 20 coffees a day may sound wonderful to us, Diana insists that it can send you a little “coffee loco”.

Once all the coffee samples have been cupped and evaluated, the exporter will give them a quality grade and they will then be stored in line with their grading.

coffee cupping

The cupping process is lengthy but essential. Credit: M. Fury

Finding a Buyer: Cost vs Quality

After the cupping process is over, the exporter must then find a buyer for the product. This isn’t easy: the market is fast paced and it’s the exporter’s job to get the best price that they can. Moreover, achieving a fair price can sometimes be difficult as the coffee can cost more inside the market than outside it. This can lead to real a dilemma over cost and quality.

Diana explained that it can be a struggle to pitch the best product against competitors – especially when there are so many of them. She also told me that there are over 100,000 producers in Honduras alone, some of which will only produce 5 bags of coffee. On top of that, the competitors change depending on the season: one year, Peru might not offer a challenge to Honduran coffee, but the next, it might be all her customers want to buy. With so much competition, it can make it extremely difficult to sell higher quality products for the price they deserve.

Yet there’s also a push towards good coffee – and not just because of the rise of specialty, although that’s certainly a factor. Even after the coffee has been shipped, there’s still a danger that it will be rejected. Therefore ensuring that the product is of the best possible quality is in the interests of both the buyer and the exporter.

There are a few things exporters can do to increase the value of their coffee. By meeting producers and visiting farms, they are then able to assess the production and certify the product as “fairtrade” or “rainforest alliance”. This can increase the value of the coffee without it having to achieve a specialty grade.

And as quality becomes a priority, even intermediaries are investing in their own equipment (such as driers) to improve their coffee and therefore their position in the supply chain.

coffee processing honduras

There are many opportunities for quality control – and an exporter has to know about them all. Credit: M. Fury

Final Measures: Preparing the Coffee for Shipment

After finding a buyer happy with both the quality and cost of the coffee, the exporter must then prepare the beans for shipping. Throughout the process, they’ll continually cup it to make sure that it still meets the desired standard.

The preparation process has many steps and runs as follows:

Drying: The coffee is washed through the mill and dried for anywhere between 25 and 30 hours, depending on the humidity. Separate mills are used for speciality coffee due to the different quantity of coffee that is being processed.

Cleaning: The beans are then cleaned to remove any remaining coffee cherry flesh.

Sorting: The coffee is sorted by the weight and colour of the beans.

Packaging and storage: The beans are bagged and stored in the right conditions ready for shipping.

coffee warehouse

Coffee can devalue while being stored and shipped, creating additional risks for exporters. Credit: M. Fury

Seasons of a Coffee Exporter

Since coffee is not produced all year round, exporters must also find a way to earn a living during their months off. With a renewed interest in the origins of coffee, opening up farms for tours and stays has become increasingly popular as an alternative source of income. They can also use this downtime to carry out paperwork and make growth and fiscal estimates for the coming season.

coffee picking

There’s a lot of work from tree to cup. Credit: M. Fury

Who knew there was so much hard work involved as an exporter? Think of these vital players in the supply chain when drinking your next brew. Without them, you simply wouldn’t be able to have a cup of coffee in the morning…

Edited by H. Paull.

Perfect Daily Grind.