December 1, 2020

Roasting Coffee At Origin

The coffee supply chain is long and complex, and one of its greatest criticisms is that value is traditionally added beyond the producing country. As a result, the income gained from adding that value is never really passed on to the producer, who is generally paid just a small proportion of the final sale price.

Although we are more aware of this issue today than we ever have been, there is no one simple solution that can resolve this problem at scale. However, one of the methods that has been discussed across the industry in recent years is roasting coffee at origin.

The principle is simple: by roasting at origin, you add more value in the producing country, and improve outcomes for coffee growers as a result. However, while this idea is straightforward enough, it is not without its challenges.

To learn more, we spoke with the team at Chica Bean. Based in Guatemala, Chica Bean roasts and exports coffee grown by female smallholder farmers in what they describe as a “shared value” model. Read on to find out what they said.

You may also like Will COVID-19 Mobilize Producers to Roast Their Own Coffee?

Roasting at origin

Adding Value At Origin

In the coffee industry, green coffee is traditionally exported from producing countries and then roasted, branded, and sold (all processes which add significant value) in the consuming country. As a result, the price paid to the producer will be a minimal proportion of what the coffee will sell for once roasted.

However, when you roast coffee (and subsequently sell it) at origin, value is instead added in the producing country.  The idea is that the profit from the sale of the roasted coffee then stays in-country and consequently drives economic development in coffee-growing communities.

While some producers do roast their own coffee, most do not have the ability, expertise, or tools to do so. As such, roasters who work in close partnership with producers at origin can bring technical expertise, shared value, and ultimately improve their access to domestic and international coffee markets.

Abbigail Graupner is the Business Development Partner at Chica Bean. She explains that while this model helps to give the producer more financial security, it isn’t just about paying the producer a fair price. “The roasting at origin model helps to preserve the story and experience of the origin,” she says.

“By being able to buy directly from the producer, we hold the value and can involve them as a part of our process,” she adds. “They are able to experience their hard work in the final roasted product.”

Coffee producers are then able to taste the coffee they spend so long growing. This empowers them to take more ownership over the crop they farm and sell, and consequently inspires them to work to improve its quality.

Josue Martinez is the Director of Operations at Chica Bean. He tells me that the financial implications of adding value at origin trickle down into the wider coffee-growing communities. By operating in close physical proximity to producers, roasters such as Chica Bean can provide them with more security and stability. 

“The communities we work with rely 100% on the sale of their coffees,” Josue explains. “In Guatemala, there are a lot of nutritional issues among children, particularly in small coffee-producing communities. 

“When we can guarantee fair coffee prices, we can also be certain that children will be fed and these communities will thrive.” 

Roasting at origin

What Are The Other Benefits Of Roasting At Origin?

While value addition is an incredibly important part of roasting coffee at origin, there are plenty of other benefits for the entire supply chain. 

For example, when producers have more ownership over their coffee, they will appreciate how their efforts at farm level translate to certain flavours in the cup. This can be a positive force for education and experimentation, leading coffee producers to try new things to improve the quality of their crop.

“Roasting at origin can also benefit coffee consumers, retailers, and coffee shops further along the supply chain,” Abbigail tells me. “It’s a great way to offer customers a different kind of experience that educates them about coffee. It also illustrates that the supply chain can be integrated in ways that they might not have previously appreciated or considered.”

Roasting at origin also gives producers more stability at times when the market is in a period of fluctuation. During, for instance, the Covid-19 pandemic, when shipping delays for green coffee are common, being able to sell to a roaster in-country gives a producer more options.

What Are The Challenges Of Roasting Coffee At Origin?

There are a number of challenges, predominantly logistical, that can make roasting coffee at origin difficult.

Firstly, roasters in producing countries have to consider shipping times when they’re selling to international markets. While green coffee can be transported using existing maritime shipping structures, shipping roasted coffee internationally is much more difficult, and it must often be sent via air freight.

The flavours and aromas of roasted coffee start to diminish a few weeks after the roast date, meaning that it has a much shorter shelf life. This means it’s incredibly important to ship it in a timely fashion, especially to international consumers.

Evelin is the Head Roaster at Chica Bean. She tells me that her team allows time for the coffee to rest while it is in transit. Normally, roasters recommend that coffee degasses for a few days between roasting and brewing.

“We always remind our customers of the importance of degassing after roasting, to allow them to fully enjoy their coffee,” Evelin says. “[At Chica Bean], this process takes place during transportation, allowing us to transport fresh coffee beans in a timely way while the coffee is still degassing.” This saves time and also ensures that the coffee remains fresh when it arrives with the consumer, even when it is shipped abroad.

As well as this, Abbigail explains that Chica Bean has started working with UPS as a part of their pilot air shipping programme. “Through this service, we are able to send a bag of coffee directly from our roastery in Guatemala to any address in the USA, within days and for a price that is competitive for domestic shipping,” she explains.

“We don’t have to work through a distribution point and we don’t have a minimum order, which makes other products (like monthly subscriptions) possible. We are truly connecting our customers directly to their coffees’ origin.”

She says that by using these innovative new shipping protocols and the support of ecommerce platforms, Chica Bean is able to roast, pack, and deliver coffee anywhere in the US within a week of roasting.

However, even though pilot air shipping programmes and degassing in transit are options, this experimental model can still face challenges. Sometimes, things go wrong, and delays do happen.

When this happens, Josue and Abbigail both say it’s important to maintain good and clear communication. 

“We’re fortunate to have such understanding and loyal customers,” Josue explains. “We’ve made it a goal to always communicate updates on our customers’ coffees so they’re never left in the dark… it’s been reciprocated with great understanding.” 

For producers and new roasters looking to start a roasting operation at origin, a lack of access to roasting equipment and space can also be a major challenge. As well as being difficult to find, they are also a significant investment. 

However, Abbigail notes that collaboration is key. She says that producers and roasters should look to partner up with existing actors who have relevant supply chain expertise either locally or internationally. These partnerships can improve market access and education without requiring an initial commitment to costly overheads.

The Consumer Perspective

So, now we know how this model supports both producers and other supply chain actors at origins, but what does it mean for consumers?

Customers buying coffee roasted at origin can firstly know that they are championing a more sustainable model that supports the producer. Additionally, for some coffee drinkers, tasting coffee that is grown and roasted in the same country will be a more authentic experience. This alone can be a new reason to experiment.

But it’s not just individual consumers who enjoy the benefits of purchasing roasted coffee directly from origin. The lower operational cost of roasting in producing countries can be shared with coffee shops and retailers that are looking to work in ethical and sustainable ways that still deliver profit.

However, when roasting at origin, Evelin says it’s important to keep consumer preferences in mind. If you’re selling to multiple markets around the world, you may well have to change your roast profile accordingly.

“We roast to consumer preferences, but you have to remember that the preference (for flavour) in the domestic market will be different than international markets,” she says.

While it is not without its challenges, roasting coffee at origin has the potential to empower and educate everyone in the supply chain, from producers to consumers. It can also give coffee growers more ownership over their crop.

Ultimately, this model is driven by a focus on sustainability and stability for the producer. When it works, it can give producers a fairer price for their crop and improve the economic stability of wider coffee-growing communities.

Enjoyed this? Then read When Producers Roast Their Own Coffee, Green Quality Improves

Photo credits: Chica Bean, Angie Molina

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