July 29, 2019

A Roaster’s Guide to Green Bean Samples


Green bean samples are essential for roasters, allowing you to make informed purchasing decisions. By knowing the quality and cup profile of a coffee lot, you can decide whether it belongs on your menu and how much you believe it’s worth. 

However, samples can be confusing. What is the difference between PSS, SAS, and fresh crop samples? What should you consider before ordering samples? And what do you do when you receive them? 

I spoke to Christopher Feran, Director of Coffee at Phoenix Coffee Company, and Erik Stanek, Specialty Green Coffee Sales at green coffee importer Balzac Brothers, to find out the answers to these questions and more. 

Lee este artículo en español Guía Para Tostadores: Tipos de Muestras de Café Verde

Various green bean samples. Credit: Melissa Toms

Types of Green Bean Samples 

The green bean samples you receive will vary depending on your purchasing method. According to Christopher, there are two main ways to buy green coffee from an importer: spot contracts and forward contracts. 

“Spot means that the coffee is already in [the country that you operate your roaster in]… and you can buy coffees from an importer, just like you can order from a menu at a restaurant,” he tells me. For this purchasing method, there is just one sample: a spot sample. 

A spot sample is “representative of the lot what is currently existing in that warehouse, and then when you decide to purchase it, it will be the exact bag of coffee that you’ve sampled,” says Christopher. 

A forward contract, on the other hand, is an agreement to purchase coffee that will arrive in the future. Perhaps the coffee has not been harvested and processed, or perhaps it has simply not yet been shipped to the country that you operate in. As a result, according to Christopher, there are roughly three to four times when you can receive samples: 

Type Sample: This is a sample that is likely to be similar to the one that you will receive. It’s typically of a previous harvest from that community, mill, or producer. This will often be provided before a sample of the current harvest is available. 

Offer Sample: This is a sample from the coffee that is currently being harvested. Importers will typically draft a contract based on the quality of these samples, while roasters will use it to get a sense of what is available for purchase. 

Pre-Shipment Sample (PSS): This is a sample that has been shipped to the importer in a smaller quantity prior to shipping the entire harvest. A roaster will normally sign a contract based on this sample, if they’re purchasing through an importer. As for importers, Erik tells me that he discusses with exporters or producers how the PSS matches the offer sample in order to make decisions.

Arrival Sample: This sample comes after the coffee has arrived in the importing country. “For a buyer [roaster] like me,” Christopher says, “I will cup my arrival against my pre-shipped, against the offer samples, and taste all three to see if the quality is still matching.” 

However, these are not the only types of samples you might receive. There are also fresh crop samples and SAS samples: 

Fresh Crop Samples: Erik tells me that these are simply samples of the most recent harvest. 

Subject to Approval Samples (SAS): These are samples used for a particular contract type. The importer and roaster will agree not on a specific coffee but rather on a price and coffee quality. The SAS will then be used to select the coffee that will fulfil that contract. In other words, the roaster will use the SAS to approve or reject the coffee.

Christopher explains to me that there are different types of contract that you can set up, such as SAS Replace, SAS NANS or SAS PSS.

With SAS Replace, if you don’t like the coffee that has arrived, it will be replaced with a different coffee that the importer has. This will be for the same quantity that was specified in the contract. 

SAS NANS, on the other hand, stands for Subject to Approval, No Approval No Sales. If you don’t approve of the sample, you have no obligation to buy it or any other replacement coffee. 

Finally, SAS PSS refers to situations when the contract only allows you to accept or reject the coffee on the basis of the pre-shipment sample. 

While fresh crop samples are strictly from the current harvest, you can technically set up SAS for any crop: fresh crop, past crop, or future crop. However, you are most likely to do it for the fresh or future crop.

You might also like A Roaster’s Guide to Budgeting Coffee Purchases

Looking at green bean samples. Credit: Melissa Toms

How to Select Coffees to Sample

Deciding which coffees to sample can be almost as hard as the evaluation. Ask yourself what you will use it for. Is it going to be part of a blend or featured as a single origin? Will you roast it for espresso or filter? 

Erik tells me that it is vital that you know how you will use the coffee prior to sampling and purchasing it, since this will affect all of your decisions. Knowing its intended use will also help you decide how much you can pay for it, based on what you anticipate charging for it and what your operating costs will be. 

Remember, if you are shopping for a seasonal single origin, you may be looking at very different coffees in terms of quality, quantity, and price point than if you are looking for a component of a year-round blend. 

Christopher also tells me that it is essential to keep the customer’s expectations in mind. “If you are in a market where they don’t like lemony, bright coffee, then I wouldn’t be roasting coffees that are inherently extremely bright… Coffee preference, taste preference, is an aesthetic choice, not a moral choice. So, do whatever makes sense for the context of your business.” 

Not sure where to begin? Or torn between options? “Call an importer,” recommends Erik. “Most of the importers that I know are very excited to help a roaster, especially new roasters that are starting out, to help them walk through that process, understanding what type of coffee that they might need to buy.” 

He adds that it helps to take the time to get to know the importer. See if their values align with yours and the business that you are starting, and if they understand your business. This can help you build a long-lasting roasting business. 

Preparing cupping samples. Credit: Melissa Toms

What to Do After Receiving Your Samples

Once your samples have arrived, it’s time to analyze them.

“The first thing I will do is a physical analysis,” says Christopher. He grades green coffee by following SCA standards, analyzing the moisture content and the water activity reading, as well as putting the beans under a black light to look for defects. Erik also recommends carefully checking for damage from bugs, insects, and poor processing.

Sample roasting comes next. “If you don’t know how to sample roast,” Christopher says, “talk to your importer. Chances are, they may want to roast it for you and will roast it properly. I have seen so many roasters reject excellent coffees because, in some ways, their sample roasts were out of calibration with their importer or the rest of the industry.” 

Finally, it’s time to cup the sample. Both Christopher and Erik recommend that you should cup the coffee with other references on the table. Additionally, don’t allow yourself to be swayed by how much you personally like it. Ask yourself if it is the coffee you were looking for and how it will fit on your menu.

Christopher also recommends giving your score and notes to the importer, in addition to your final decision. Although he says that few roasters do this, knowing what you are looking for and what you think of coffees can be helpful for importers.

A green bean sample next to a sample roast. Credit: Melissa Toms

Inventory Management & Menu Selection

As a new buyer, it is easy to order the wrong amount of certain types of coffees. Christopher emphasizes the need to be aware of how much you have already booked to prevent coffees from sitting in the warehouse for too long, potentially collecting storage charges as well as going stale. Meticulous planning and taking note of how much you need of each type of coffee can help you avoid this.

There’s a lot to think about when ordering samples. However, don’t forget that your importer is there to help you. “Don’t be scared to call or ask questions…” Erik says. “We are super stoked to help anybody with any questions that they might have. Try to make friends with an importer, and really ask people questions.”  

Enjoyed this? Read A Roaster’s Guide to Budgeting Coffee Purchases

Please note: This article has been sponsored by Balzac Brothers.

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