June 14, 2019

5 Questions Roasters Should Ask Their Green Coffee Importer


Purchasing green coffee is no easy task – although it’s certainly an exciting one. From selecting your origins to managing inventory, there are endless considerations.

But your green coffee importer doesn’t just have to be your supplier. They could also be an important resource as you brand yourself and grow as a business.

How do you build your partnership with a green coffee importer? What questions should you be asking them? And what do they need to know about you? I spoke to Peter Radosevich, Trader and International Sales Team Leader, and Caitlin McCarthy-García, Sales Team Associate, of US-based green bean importers Royal Coffee to find out.

Lee este artículo en español Tostadores: 5 Preguntas Que Deben Hacer a su Importador de Café

Green coffee beans

Green coffee sample. Credit: Evan Gilman

1. Ask How They Cup

Cupping: it’s how you decide if a coffee is worth adding to your profile and it’s how the importer determines its cupping score, flavor notes, and ultimately, price. However, not everyone cups in the same way.

“It is important to rule out any variable that makes the experience of tasting coffee different from importer versus customers. So, it’s a good idea to understand how your importer is cupping in order to replicate that yourself and to get an idea of what they are tasting under the same conditions,” says Caitlin.

Additionally, you should ask about the kind of cupping feedback the importer provides. Will you just get a number or do you receive more information about the coffee?

Peter tells me, “Not every coffee is going to be a 90+ Geisha, but that doesn’t mean that the coffee is not a really good representative of a certain region or a certain profile. So, what we try to do when we communicate with our clients is go a little past the number score and more about what may be the use for this coffee. Is it going to be a pour over or is it going to be a piece of a blend?”

You might also like: How Much Green Coffee Should You Order For Your Roastery?

Cupping coffee

Setting up a cupping in The Crown: Royal Cupping Lab & Tasting Room’s presentation room. Credit: Evan Gilman

2. Ask What Services They Provide

Don’t make assumptions: a lot of importers will do more than just sell you their coffee. Find out about the scope of services that they offer. Do they provide logistical support? Are freight costs included? Do they have a warehouse facility where you can store your coffees and, if so, for how long? Do they offer financing options?

“It’s an absolutely important question,” Peter stresses. “For Royal, for example, in our Oakland warehouse in California, if customers pay up front for their coffee, we offer five months of free storage in the warehouse.”

Some of these options may be included in the pricing while some might be extra. Make sure you understand exactly what everything costs – and how that might vary as your purchases change in the future. Peter tells me, “We also offer financing options that will depend on the pricing of coffee and the nature of the account.”

These services can potentially save you money and help you have better cash flow, so it’s good to understand exactly what you get.

Green coffee beans

Green coffee sample. Credit: Evan Gilman

3. Ask About Their Coffee Offerings

This might sound obvious, but it’s not just about asking about their coffee offerings. It’s about asking the right questions (and at the right time).

As a roaster, your business identity – and your customer’s loyalty – will often revolve around which kinds of coffee you provide. You don’t want to lose customers who love your coffee’s flavor, only because can’t provide them with a suitable replacement when it goes out of season.

So, ask your importer about seasonality and coffee substitutions. What are some origins that you can purchase all year round, and what are their unique characteristics? How should you organize your purchases from your favorite origin, depending on the seasonality? When you start to run out of a particular component coffee for a blend, can they offer you a suitable substitute?

Peter recommends asking these questions in the planning stage of your roastery, even before your roastery is open. If you tell an importer that you’re “looking to open a roaster in six months or eight months,” he tells me, they can recommend origins that are going to be in season in that period. They can also walk you through the timeline of how and when to start purchasing coffee.

Green coffee offerings

A screenshot of Royal Coffee’s Coffee Offerings Sheet. Credit: Royal Coffee

Another thing that you can ask your importer is how they source. Do they buy from single farms, cooperatives, or both? What kind of impact will your purchasing decision have in the coffee-farming communities?

Peter stresses that asking these questions is vital for building your brand identity and mission, especially if ethically sourced coffees and sustainability feature in that. Yet it’s not always as simple as single origins are better. He says that while a single farm may offer traceability, buying from cooperatives could help hundreds of community members. He recommends having a conversation with your importer to gain a bigger picture of the effect of your purchasing decision.

The Murundu Washing Station in Mehembe town, Nyamasheke, Rwanda, from where one of Royal Coffee’s Crown Jewel micro lot offerings is sourced. Credit: Evan Gilman

4. Ask About Your Purchasing Options & The Receiving Process

If you know the kind of coffee you want to buy and the origin, how should you move forward? Is spot purchasing an option? What about forward contracts? Is it possible to benefit through your importer trading in futures contracts?

“This is an important question,” Peter stresses, “particularly for roasters that are starting out.” He says while various importers offer different buying options, the one you should pick will depend on your roastery and its size.

If you’re just starting out, he explains, “you can start spot purchases from a warehouse at that time and, as you grow, you might say, ‘I want to do forward contracts.’… That can be beneficial to having a more long-term sense of what your cost may be for a coffee, but keeping in mind that your cash flow and working capital are very important as you grow.”

Once you have decided on the coffee and the contract, you should ask your importer about the receiving process. Check the available freight options, as well as how long it will take from the moment you place an order until you receive it. Knowing this will make inventory management easier.

He recommends asking importers for the realistic time from the date of order to delivery to your door, and then “backtrack when you need to place the order, and add a few more days to that, just to be sure.”

Additionally, Peter encourages roasters to treat importers as a source of knowledge. “Think about us as a resource not just for the green bean itself, but sometimes to give you a picture of any other aspect of the market that may affect the transit time for origins and may affect pricing for certain origins,” he says.

Whether it’s port strikes, currency movements, or unexpected weather, importers keep close tabs on anything that could affect the coffee trade. As a result, they can be a valuable aid when you’re trying to plan ahead.

A close-up of one of Royal Coffee’s Spot Offerings. Credit: Evan Gilman

5. Ask What They Are Currently Excited About

No-one knows more about these coffees than the importer themselves. So, lean on their expertise. Caitlin recommends asking your importer what coffee that they are really excited about right now and why. Perhaps they have a lot that boasts an excellent quality, a unique profile, a striking story – or even all three.

“I have a few customers that call me and ask that question, and I always have a recommendation,” she says, pointing out that she cups at least 25 different coffees every single day. “And because we are calibrated, they will immediately get the coffee that they are happy about.

“I think that’s really a quick way to locate the coffee that’s fresh and really nice and not on someone’s radar. It’s like in the café, when you ask your barista, ‘What’s your favorite thing on the menu?’”

A Crown Jewel, one of Royal Coffee’s high-quality micro lots. Credit: Needmore Designs

What Your Importer Wants to Know About You

Relationships go both ways, and the more information your green importer has about you, the better the advice and support they can offer you. As Caitlin said, she can give her buyers better recommendations because they are calibrated. She knows what her customers are looking for.

Peter says that it’s worth having a call or sending an email “to give the importer the best sense possible of where you are with your business, for one, and two, what you envision for your business, coffee-wise, and how you are trying to build your identity as a business.” Let them know a bit about yourself, rather than just placing coffee orders.

Caitlin agrees, adding that she likes to know “how many years you have been in business, what kind of roaster you are working on, what is the batch size, the capacity of the roaster, your favourite origin, the kind of general quality that you are looking for, and/or what kind of roasting method you have, and what your usage is.”

As for Peter, he tends to ask: “Are you only doing wholesale, or are you only doing retail, or are you going to do a coffee cart? Where are you starting at, and where are you looking to end up? What is your roast level? Are you looking to offer all single origins, or do you plan to do two different blends?”

Setting up a cupping in The Crown: Royal Cupping Lab & Tasting Room’s presentation room. Credit: Evan Gilman

An importer can be more than just the company that sells you your green coffee. Both Caitlin and Peter tell me that it is crucial that you keep open communication with your supplier and treat them as a resource that will help you grow your business.

So, find out what services they offer. Ask them about these five points. And make sure they also know a bit about you. This will help you to select the right green bean supplier and then build a strong relationship with them, one that will support you in making the best purchasing decisions, managing your cash flow, and reinforcing your brand.

“For traders, it’s our job to sell coffee,” Peter says. “But at the same time, I want to have anyone that I work with and their business to succeed.”

Found this useful? Read: A Roaster’s Guide to Creating Coffee Blends

Feature photo: roasted coffee sample waiting to be cupped at The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab & Tasting Room. Feature photo credit: Evan Gilman.

Please note: This article has been sponsored by Royal Coffee.  

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