February 11, 2021

Sourcing, training, quality control & more: What does a Head of Coffee do?

As the coffee sector evolves, so do the responsibilities of the people who work in it. A job role that often meets many of these evolving responsibilities is the Head of Coffee (HOC).

Before we explore the role, it’s important to note that a HOC’s job description at one organisation may well be vastly different at another. There is no formal or agreed definition for this job title, and there are no exact requirements.

The conclusion we reached from our research was that a Head of Coffee is broadly involved in “all things coffee” across an organisation. It is a senior role that generally (but not always) involves quality control, green coffee sourcing, training, and more.

To learn more, I spoke to two Heads of Coffee from across the sector about what their job role entails. Here’s what they told me.

You may also like our article on the barista’s job responsibilities and exactly what the role entails in specialty coffee.

A quick overview

In short, the role of a Head of Coffee is to lead all things coffee-related for a certain company or brand.

This can take shape in a number of different ways. However, perhaps one of the role’s most common responsibilities is leadership – within the brand as well as across the coffee sector more widely.

Becoming a “spokesperson” for the industry is important for many HOCs. This can help other coffee professionals across the supply chain to grow and understand the market they work in.

Within a business, this leadership takes shape in a different way. Delivering a product or service with passion and knowledge will inspire your team. It will also drive prospective customers to your brand.

Will Corby is the Head of Coffee at Pact Coffee in the UK. He says: “I didn’t like coffee before working in specialty. 

“I got into specialty coffee because I tasted it and thought: ‘This tastes amazing. Why is nobody drinking this stuff?’ After that, my goal in life became introducing as many people to specialty coffee as humanly possible.”

Having this kind of mission drives the whole market forward. It will vary from brand to brand, too. Your vision or philosophy might be as simple as encouraging people to try something different; conversely, it could be a dedication to sustainability in all its forms.

No matter what it is, communicating it in a passionate, inspiring, and knowledgeable way is what’s important; this is often a big responsibility for the Head of Coffee.

Sourcing & quality control 

One of the core responsibilities for many HOCs will be making decisions about sourcing coffee. While the way in which they do so will vary from business to business, the HOC will often be involved in the process.

The quality of coffee that a roastery or coffee shop offers will shape how customers and consumers view its brand.

Consistency is also key. Customers want to know they can expect the same level of quality with each subsequent purchase.

Mikkel Selmer is Head of Coffee at La Cabra, a roastery in Denmark. He says that his role sees him focus on sourcing well-rounded but exciting coffees.

Mikkel says: “Our approach to coffee, [I think], is very different from other roasters. I would say roasting is not our focus area. I actually think that when people talk about roasting, it often is because something went wrong with the roast.

“Our focus is much more on the sourcing side of things. It’s about finding super interesting coffees, those with great acidity and [softer, more delicate] characteristics.”

Mikkel tells me that a big part of his approach is building relationships with importers. He explains that they connect La Cabra with the farms and regions the roastery buys from. This, he says, drives his approach.

“It’s a bit of a cliché, but like in a restaurant, if you have quality raw materials, [you can work with it in a number of ways] and it will be nice. 

“It’s the same with coffee. [If you have] quality coffee, the barista can tailor it to their needs. Our main focus is the cupping table,” he adds.

After sourcing, Mikkel also says he takes an active role in quality control throughout the roastery.

Quality control can range from decisions about how green coffee is stored to adjusting roast profiles in an effort to keep quality and consistency high.

Good quality control is challenging. It often requires a lot of hard work from a dedicated team. However, the leadership of a Head of Coffee can be invaluable.

For some brands, the HOC will also be the individual who makes the final call on whether or not a coffee meets a brand’s quality requirements in the first place.

Mikkel says: “I do a lot of quality control. We discuss it, make corrections, and move forward. If [we’re looking for a] new coffee or I have a specific one in mind, it can be hard to communicate what I mean.

“Sometimes it’s a feeling or desire to try something different.”

Understanding the market

The coffee sector is competitive. Many major consuming markets are highly saturated with roasters and other coffee businesses. Understanding the market in a way that helps your brand stay at the forefront of the sector is essential.

For Mikkel, understanding the market means analysing and monitoring experimental coffees. A key part of La Cabra’s business model is staying ahead of the competition by offering customers new or unusual coffees.

He says: “We want to be trendsetting, so we buy a lot of coffee that’s on the edge or borderline.

“We focus on the quality of the cup, its potential, and where we want to push the industry.”

As well as being responsible for a brand’s approach to quality and customer demand, HOCs also often play a role in wider commercial strategy.

This might mean identifying new opportunities across the market and capitalising on these to open new revenue streams.

As an example, Will says that in 2019, Pact set out a plan to expand into office spaces.

“We spent a lot of 2019 growing our business by focusing on office spaces; we saw it as a big opportunity,” he says. “It worked for us. We started selling coffee and promoting specialty coffee culture in offices.”

However, he does note that this particular strategy was hampered by the pandemic. “Our sales increased by 20% in 2019. It was an amazing figure but to lose that in 2020 when offices closed was a challenge,” he says.

Supply chain management 

It’s also critical for a Head of Coffee to understand the wider coffee supply chain. Adapting to support and collaborate with other actors across the sector can make the role unpredictable at times.

As with other responsibilities, the exact way in which this takes shape will vary from organisation to organisation.

For example, a HOC for a small chain of cafés that don’t roast their own coffee will need to look for a roaster partner who has a suitable brand, philosophy, and product.

In contrast, the responsibilities of a Head of Coffee for a large roaster will be wildly different. Instead of looking simply for a brand partner with the right philosophy and product, transparency, traceability, and ethical sourcing practices all start to rise up the agenda.

“The HOC role, for us [at Pact], covers end-to-end supply chain management,” Will tells me.

He explains that his experience as a green coffee buyer helped him develop a direct trade model for Pact’s sourcing operation. 

Direct trade is becoming more and more popular among third wave coffee businesses, but the model brings with it a lot of responsibility. Practically, a “true” direct trade model means the company will have some responsibility for overseeing logistics and shipping for coffees leaving origin. 

Will says: “I identify coffee farms and then, as part of our supply chain management process, also identify and negotiate costs with mills and exporters in each of the countries where we operate.

“I would then negotiate rates with shipping lines and our costs with the various warehouses we use in the UK.” 

However, any kind of direct trade relationship with the producer will naturally raise questions about pricing, payment terms, and a variety of other key factors that affect the livelihood of coffee farmers across the sector.

“[The role also] involves identifying coffee farmers, developing a purchasing policy, and examining how we find farmers to work with,” Will says.

“We have to develop a policy for quality and volume production over time, standards that need to be adhered to for fair employment practices, environmental [sustainability], and so on.”

When green coffee buyers don’t have a clear policy in place for operating at origin, producers can often find themselves without the security and stability that they need. 

Company culture & training

Well-trained staff and a positive company culture are key for sustainable, long-term operation at any business. It’s important for any team to understand the brand’s values, vision, and philosophy. This leads to long-term buy-in from staff members, and making them more invested in what the business wants to achieve.

For some HOCs, a key part of the job description is communicating a clear and relatable mission across the organisation. Making sure that everyone is “on the same page” is incredibly important.

“As HOC, I’ve been the person that’s maintained consistency through it all,” Will says. “I guess that’s part of being a Head of Coffee; any kind of staff turnover requires briefing and education on who we are, what we do, why we do it, and how we operate.”

Beyond inspiring employees and communicating the company’s vision, training is also key. Creating, managing, and delivering training programmes can also be part of a HOC’s job profile.

Training and development will help staff feel like they’re a valuable asset that the brand invests in, rather than an expendable member of the workforce.

This will support them to be more loyal to the team in the long run, while also improving the overall skill level of the business.

As the coffee sector continues to grow, businesses within it will undoubtedly continue to encounter new challenges. Change in the market is a key part of any brand’s journey.

Any good Head of Coffee will play an integral role in supporting this adaptation. This might be through changes in training, sourcing, education, or quality control; it may even mean redefining the brand’s image or role within the supply chain.

These responsibilities might not align with the job description for every HOC. But at its core, this role isn’t about individual tasks or duties. It’s about leading everything coffee-related in a business, and setting the agenda in a way that keeps customers loyal and drives the sector forward.

Enjoyed this? Then read our tips on how you can scale and grow a coffee chain.

Photo credits: Pact Coffee, La Cabra

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