There are a number of roles in the industry that involve sourcing green coffee beans for a company. At a roaster, for example, the head of coffee and head roaster are both usually involved in the sourcing process.
However, in many organisations across the industry, there are dedicated green coffee buyers who spend their time sourcing beans that will eventually be roasted, ground, and brewed.
To learn more, I spoke with two experienced professionals about their day-to-day jobs as green coffee buyers entails. They told me more about the skills and experience that help them excel in this role. Read on to learn more.
You may also like our article on scaling up your green coffee sourcing.
What exactly is a green coffee buyer?
To explain it as simply as possible, a green coffee buyer’s role involves sourcing and buying green coffee, often looking for specific attributes or sensory characteristics to meet demand. This might mean sourcing a specific volume of coffee from a certain origin or at a certain cup score, for instance.
To do this, green buyers will generally sample and cup the coffee, before deciding whether or not it meets their or customers’ requirements.
Ultimately, the first task for many green coffee buyers is understanding which kind of coffee they need to buy. For green buyers working at a large roastery, this might mean looking at which flavour profiles have sold well in the past, and trying to match those accordingly.
At an importer, meanwhile, the focus is often about making sure you connect the right producer with the right roaster. Transparency and traceability are also becoming increasingly important for many specialty coffee traders, so there’s a growing need to provide clarity and information as possible to both the roaster and the producer.
This might be to do with how the coffee is grown, the farmer’s situation, or details on how and when payment might be organised.
The day-to-day role of a green coffee buyer
First and foremost, a green coffee buyer’s day-to-day work will require a deep understanding of coffee quality and pricing.
Understanding how flavour profiles and cup scores influence the price of a coffee is key to making sure the roaster pays what they should and the farmer receives a fair price.
Eros Ceresa is a green coffee buyer for Falcon Coffees in the UK. He gives me a brief overview of how his working week looks.
“Generally, there are two to three tables [of coffee samples] to cup every day, which we usually try to keep to a maximum of 12 cups per table,” he explains. “In this role, there is a lot of evaluation, but it’s not the same every week. “
Having previously held the role of head roaster, Eros says that sensory evaluation and analysis was already a key part of his career.
However, what he does note is that as a green coffee buyer, there’s much more of a need to understand the logistical side of the industry.
As he sources coffee from origin countries all around the world, Eros goes on to tell me that being well-organised and planning ahead is essential, as arranging the transportation of coffee requires a lot of administrative legwork and involves plenty of different parties.
“There’s a lot of decision making involved in terms of purchasing and a lot of planning, especially this year where we see a lot of issues with logistics all across the world,” he says.
He adds that green coffee buyers need to anticipate any potential issues, and that can be a lot of guesswork involved.
“The guys that I work with put a lot of effort in all the time so that everything works,” he continues. “It can be pretty hectic at times, but it is enjoyable.”
Michaela Tomchek works as the North American marketing and traceability manager for Mercanta Coffee Hunters. She explains that Mercanta has a slightly different buying process to other companies, in the sense that it uses a team to decide which coffees to bring in, rather than one individual.
Using this structure means more shared responsibility. Michaela explains how her role involves varying areas of focus.
She says: “At Mercanta, we make a lot of decisions together. We cup together and talk about what’s ideal to buy, although each office has a different strategy.
“In the US, where I am primarily based, we cup coffees, talk about them, then think about the prices we can sell coffee for, who would be interested, or whether we’d be able to sell it in a particular market.”
She adds that often, their sourcing depends on existing clients, many of whom tend to buy the same lots each year.
“We seek high-quality coffees that are unique and different, and to connect with producers to make relationships,” Michaela adds. “This ensures that they have a sustainable income, which in turn means they can continue producing coffee.”
What does traceability mean for green coffee buyers?
Traceability is an area that has grown in importance with the emergence of specialty coffee. Today, having all of the data about each individual lot of coffee and how it has made its way from farm to consumer is considered essential.
Michaela explains how her focus on traceability fits into the buying process for Mercanta.
“For US or Canada, we make sure all of our traceability documents are up to date,” she explains. “If we don’t have traceability on a certain farm, then we reach out to our partners at origin and gather that information.”
Her team takes things one step further, sourcing photos from producers to cross-reference with the information they have on hand.
“After that, we file it and we make it available to our clients,” she says. “So, day-to-day ‘traceability efforts’ could be calling or emailing, reaching out, and then putting together reports.
“We then make these reports available for our clients, who in turn make it available to people who are drinking the coffee.”
The rise of relationship coffee
As many coffee producers rely on crop sales as their main or sole source of income, forging long-lasting relationships can be crucial to ensuring that their coffee is sold at a fair price year after year.
Michaela tells me that she thinks this is a vital part of the green coffee buyer’s job.
“It’s extremely valuable,” she notes. “I enjoy this job because you get to talk with producers, exporters, and co-operatives, and really learn where the coffee comes from.”
She explains that these relationships facilitate a two-way exchange of information. Consumers learn where their coffee comes from, and producers get some insight into where their coffee ends up.
“We like to see the joy that it brings people, so I think that relationships are really important, not only for us buying coffee, but for the producer as well, so it goes both ways,” she says.
While new sales are arguably a key part of the coffee industry’s wider growth, established relationships are important, as they generate trust and provide certainty to both parties.
Eros says: “Most of the time, the idea is that we’re not going to start working together if both sides aren’t committed to a long-term business relationship. That’s something that has always been paramount for me.”
What experience do you need to excel in this role?
Relevant skills, experience, and qualifications always help when moving into a new position. It’s no different for those aspiring to be a green coffee buyer.
For example, Michaela says that she has a long track record in the coffee industry, having started in an entry-level consumer-facing role. However, she says this gave her good insight into the wider industry, as well as experience which she has been able to build on over time.
“Like many people in the coffee industry, I essentially started as a barista, which introduces you to the consumer side,” she says. “Then I worked for a roastery as a quality analyst and then for another importer as a sensory analyst.”
She says that these roles gave her good sensory skills, as well as teaching her the importance of consistency.
“Those roles help me to know what specialty means and what it is people are looking for,” she adds.
Eros also had a similar journey, working in entry-level consumer-facing roles before transitioning to roasting. He says that for him, the experience of working as a roaster gave him a distinct focus on quality control.
“Most of the time, you’re cupping coffees, one after another. Often these are the same coffees, because you’re carrying out production quality control,” he explains. “That helped me learn how to identify subtle differences in flavour across the same coffees.”
Another skill he picked up was the ability to make decisions on the fly, especially when he needed to approve or reject coffees on a tight deadline.
He says his previous roles also helped him develop a network – which has been key.
“By having this network, you’re almost always aware of current market trends,” he says. “This is especially the case if you’re connected to other head roasters.”
In addition, Eros found that completing his Q grader qualification helped him to stand out when applying for the position he now holds.
“I think being a Q grader adds something, and gives you confidence about cupping coffee,” he concludes. “If I can give one piece of advice to anybody that wants to buy coffee: become a Q grader!”
Sourcing green coffee may be a part of other roles in the coffee industry, but making sure that you focus on quality and meet customer needs while doing so should be a priority.
As a part of this, many green buyers focus on developing relationships with their partners at origin. This is something which guarantees certainty for both producer and buyer, as well as improving outcomes and stability for the farmer in question.
Want to take the next step in your coffee career? Check out PDG Jobs, our jobs board dedicated to the coffee sector, here.
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