April 13, 2021

“Transported through your cup”: A guide to serving coffee roasted at origin

For some time now, the specialty coffee sector has discussed the idea of bridging the gap between the producer and the consumer. For many, this means shortening the distance between the farmer and the end consumer. 

Many initiatives and ideas have been discussed to achieve this goal. Among them is the concept of roasting coffee at origin. Despite its logistical challenges, this unconventional model can have its advantages for stakeholders across the supply chain. 

However, for coffee shops, there are naturally a number of questions: why should you serve coffee that has been roasted at origin? What are the advantages? To answer these questions and find out more, I spoke with three professionals who work across the coffee sector. Read on to find out what they told me.

You may also like our article on how can coffee roasters drive change at origin.

What does “roasted at origin” mean?

The most common supply chain structure in the coffee sector is exporting green coffee to a consuming country, where it is then roasted and sold. However, when coffee is “roasted at origin”, it is instead roasted in the producing country, before being shipped locally or internationally to wholesale customers (such as coffee shops and restaurants) or consumers.

Abbigail Graupner is the Business Development Partner at Chica Bean, a roaster and exporter in Guatemala that works with female smallholder farmers in what they describe as a “shared value” model. Abbigail explains that Chica Bean’s model aims to add more value for all actors along the supply chain.

“We need to recognise the supply chain was formed over a hundred years ago,” she explains. “After that, we can recognise that there can be alternatives. We want to create a value chain to make sure every actor is contributing and getting benefits in return.”

Around the world, other agricultural products – such as wine, olive oil, and tea, for example — are typically processed for consumption in the producing country. This is not the case for coffee.

As a consequence, Abbigail explains that this means much of the value of coffee is added in consuming countries. 

“You export the raw material and upon arriving in the consuming countries, the value is then added,” she explains. “The existing infrastructure has created a model where green coffee has to be exported by boat.”

Most of the coffee in the world is processed, dried, and milled, before being packaged into 60kg bags and placed on cargo ships. These journeys take weeks to months, so naturally, freshness is a concern when roasted coffee is shipped internationally.

“[But] things are changing,” Abbigail says. “The world is more connected now than it has ever been. 

“For example, we were chosen to work with UPS on a pilot programme. They wanted to better connect producing countries with the final consumer.”

Why would coffee shops sell origin-roasted coffee?

In short, there is one simple answer to this question: differentiation in a saturated market.

Jaime Rosales is the Co-Founder of Café Advocate, a company based in New York City that sells Central and South American coffee that has been roasted at origin. He says that the key thing about the communities Café Advocate sources from is that they understand the crop and the land it has been grown on. 

“A local roaster knows many characteristics about the coffee [they are] roasting, like the climate and the altitude,” Jaime explains. “They have the opportunity to showcase a flavour profile that is so unique throughout the entire process.”

Despite the fact that specialty coffee knowledge among roasters in consuming countries is often good, greater proximity to where the beans are grown provides roasters at origin with a different kind of understanding. This can be a unique selling point for some customers.

“From our perspective, you get to build great relationships with those who have extensive knowledge about the coffee,” Jaime adds. “Not only the bean itself, but also the climate, the harvest, the cupping, and of course the roasting.”

It’s also important to note that consumer demands are changing. According to a 2018 Futerra study published by Forbes, 88% of US and UK consumers want brands to be more “environmentally friendly and ethical”. 

Offering origin-roasted coffee in your café can be an accessible way for your business and customers to see that you are more ethical, and possibly pick you over a competitor.

Especially in the specialty coffee sector, phrases like “transparent”, “traceable”, “ethically sourced”, and “sustainable” are being used more and more. There is a growing number of labels and certifications that consumers expect to see on the products they buy and tied to the brands they buy from.

Debby and Charlie Fulks are the owners and manager of Court Street Coffee in Athens, Ohio. They purchase coffee directly from Chica Bean and serve it in their coffee shop.

While the consumer demand for these products is increasing, Debby and Charlie note it can be hard for producers to achieve the right certifications. “Buzzwords like ‘Fairtrade’, ‘organic’ and other trademark tags are hard for [some] small-scale producers to obtain because of [the] costly certifications,” they explain. 

Direct trade is another key concept that has become more widely discussed in specialty coffee over the past few years. Much like roasting coffee at origin, it has a simple philosophy at its core: shortening the supply chain to further “connect” the producer and consumer.

Abbigail explains that the more “direct” the relationship is, the more familiar the consumer can be with the producer. “You know exactly who your producer is,” she tells me. “[Chica Bean] sends a little sticker of her; you have that whole experience of the hands of the woman who picks your coffee, who processed it, and the hands of Evelin, our roaster.

“You can be transported through your cup of coffee.”

Ultimately, Abbigail notes that it’s the consumer end of the supply chain that generates demand. “Change comes from the consumer. We have to give them those reasons to break the model,” she says.

“[As part of that], we [provide] the convenience of shipping from origin,” Abbigail says. “We pack everything here [as] it arrives to the final consumer.”

How does this help coffee producing communities?

While coffee shops and retail businesses gain differentiation in the market when they buy coffee that has been roasted at origin, it also has a tangible impact on the communities they buy from.

Abbigail says: “Chica Bean is able to pay producers higher prices because we work directly with them. And I’m not talking about FOB prices, these are farmgate prices. We’re focusing on what these women are putting directly into their pockets.”

By shortening the supply chain, you eliminate the number of actors involved in it, which can improve profitability for producers. Reduced logistical and operational costs in producing countries also mean more of the value and profit remains at origin.

“Working in a producing country, you have operational costs that are lower, living costs are less, and storage space is cheaper,” Abbigail explains. “Transportation, security, energy use… they are all cheaper here.”

Debby and Charlie add: “Court Street Coffee is a small-town, family-run coffee shop. 

“We understand the importance of buying a product at its origin and how that helps the small-scale producer make a higher profit – especially in a coffee growing industry that is physically demanding, highly technical, and often underpaid.”

When coffee shops like Court Street Coffee buy beans roasted at origin, Abbigail says it aids in creating a more equitable economy where all businesses benefit.

“We are roasting a car ride away from where this coffee is cultivated and produced, so it’s [about] supporting where the coffee truly came from,” she explains. “In that way, I think that we can complement local, smaller coffee shops. We see them as our community.”

Misconceptions, freshness, and challenges

For many, freshness is the biggest barrier when roasting coffee at origin. The flavour compounds in roasted coffee are much less stable than they are in green coffee, and therefore exposure to oxygen is more of a risk. The timeframes for international shipping can make this infeasible or less attractive for potential customers.

Abbigail explains, however, that Chica Bean is able to overcome this issue. “We usually roast the same day we ship out, so the coffee degasses as it’s being shipped,” she says. “The consumer or the retailer can decide how long they want to keep it in the package before opening it.”

Debby and Charlie add: “Shipping usually only takes about 2 to 3 days with UPS from Guatemala to Ohio.” 

This is because air freight provides roasters at origin, like Chica Bean, with more flexibility. 

“We have had coffee delivered in one day. It left our roastery on Tuesday afternoon, and it went to 30 different addresses in the United States, all delivered by Wednesday night.”

The trade-off in most cases for faster shipping is a higher cost. However, Abbigail notes that this doesn’t always have to be the case. “As long as you have good logistical connections, you can keep prices low,” she says. “Logistics [are] the biggest hurdle, but we have that figured out, and we can be completely transparent about our pricing.”

Finally, it’s important to note that knowledge of the more technical aspects of roasting and brewing coffee is growing in many producing countries. This, Abbigail explains, is a major step towards dispelling misconceptions about origin-roasted coffee being of lower quality.

“There are now governmental entities here in Guatemala [like] Anacafé that [provide] training,” she explains. “We’ve had roasters from the United States work one-on-one with Evelin – that collaboration goes beyond borders.”

“A mistake we make in the industry is assuming that roasting in origin means you need to stay in origin,” Abbigail says. “Realistically, we need to be distributing this as a new experience to consuming countries.”

While this model is still arguably in its early stages, and the industry has by no means accepted it as the mainstream, the idea of roasting coffee at origin comes with tangible benefits. It is largely more ethical, often more sustainable, and shortens the supply chain to bring everyone closer together. 

It might take a while, but keep your eyes out – you never know when you may find an opportunity to try coffee that has been roasted at origin.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on why knowing about a coffee’s origin matters.

Photo credits: Chica Bean, @foodpix.gt, Café Advocate

Perfect Daily Grind

Please note: Chica Bean is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

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