Quality is rightly a growing priority for coffee drinkers around the world, and consequently for coffee roasters. It’s a key differentiator in the coffee sector, setting specialty coffee aside from commercial coffee, and consumers are becoming increasingly discerning as a result.
While the solution for most roasters is just to buy high-quality coffee and bring out its best characteristics during the roast, this is easier said than done. Sourcing is by no means an easy process.
To learn more about how roasters can manage and control quality during sourcing, I spoke to two green coffee quality experts from The Coffee Source, and a coffee quality manager from Keurig Dr Pepper. Read on to find out what they told me.
You might also like our article on social initiatives in coffee-producing communities.
Why is quality control important when sourcing?
Fernando Cabada is a former trader at The Coffee Source with experience in coffee quality management.
“Quality is the main driver for coffee traders,” he explains. “The price and availability of the coffee they source is entirely dependent on it, and it influences everything.”
Fernando explains that managing quality means finding coffee that meets the expectations of roasters. In short, quality control is the only way for roasters to know that they are getting what they paid for.
Juan Lizano is a senior trader at The Coffee Source, and the president of the Specialty Coffee Association of Costa Rica. He has worked with coffee for 22 years.
“As a general rule, controlling and maintaining coffee quality is a best practice for the entire coffee supply chain – from the farmer to the final consumer,” he tells me. “For roasters, controlling it before it arrives at the roastery is especially important.”
Tatiana Jerez is the Quality Control Manager at Keurig Dr Pepper. She explains that through the Keurig ecosystem, the brand works with partners like Walmart and McCafé, who “demand coffee expertise and high standards to ensure a consistent and great experience”.
To this end, she says quality management is important, and notes that “controlling the quality of green coffee is a key factor to ensure the superiority of our finished products”.
In addition, Tatiana notes that it’s important for Keurig Dr Pepper to communicate quality to coffee growers and exporters, too. By doing so, they can be clear about what they’re looking for from each coffee, as well as giving them ownership and visibility over the rest of the supply chain.
Ultimately, quality control is important for green coffee buyers and traders alike. However, managing it is easier said than done. Furthermore, if quality is not up to standard, this can cause a financial loss for both or either party, damage the trading relationship, and even cause reputational damage for the farmer or the roaster.
How do you manage coffee quality?
Many green coffee buyers are based in major consumer markets, which in many cases thousands of miles away from the Bean Belt. This means that when sourcing coffee, even with samples, there’s a lot of trust involved, and roasters must have faith in their partners who work closer to origin.
“One of the biggest challenges is aligning expectations along the supply chain,” Fernando explains.
To this end, he says that using the Q grader certification as a framework is key, as it “allows everyone to speak the same language in terms of quality”. He says that for traders, it can be challenging to work with roasters who don’t use it.
Similarly, there can be challenges when monitoring and controlling quality for producers.
Fernando says: “The biggest challenge with the producers is helping them understand that sometimes the coffee they plant doesn’t always end up being what they expect.
“For example, some producers who plant Geisha always think they’ll get an outstanding coffee no matter what, but that isn’t the case every time,” he adds. “As we know, several factors influence the final cup score of the coffee.”
He explains that aligning expectations regarding price and quality can be complicated. To this end, he says The Coffee Source “always tries to help producers as much as possible by cupping their coffees and providing feedback”.
Meanwhile, Juan points out that “climate change, fungus, and a lack of access to fertilisers” can also challenge the quality of coffee farmers’ crop.
Tatiana says: “As with any other agricultural product, coffee has several intrinsic quality challenges from crop to crop and country to country.
“This can be anything from climate conditions to socioeconomic factors, or the overall dynamic of coffee consumption and demand.”
Juan points to the pandemic and the logistical challenges it has caused as another example.
“Today’s logistical complications mean delays at every step,” he says. “Delays at ports, delays at the warehouse, delays with road and sea transport…”
How do you improve quality management for green coffee?
Fernando starts by noting that a consistent framework for quality is important.
“For starters, the main solution is getting everyone on the Q grader framework and having calibration sessions with importers,” he explains. “Traders are the filter between the producer and roaster, so being calibrated with the roaster and understanding what they expect of the coffee they buy is a key part of the business.
“We all need to speak the same language when it comes to coffee quality.”
Juan agrees, but notes that roasters can also make their own judgments on quality.
“Although we are the first filter on quality control, it’s important for the roaster to evaluate their own coffee too,” he says. “The best thing to do is make sure there is consistency between supplier, importer, and buyer. If we’re all in tune, it’s much easier to manage and meet expectations.”
Juan explains that this is why The Coffee Source employs several Q graders in their cupping lab.
“We conduct calibration sessions to make sure we’re all aligned and know exactly what to look for in our clients’ coffees,” he explains. “We evaluate a range of different coffees together, so that when we get an inquiry from a client, we know exactly what they’re looking for and where we can buy it.”
Tatiana agrees with Juan, and notes that collaboration and alignment are important with partners across the supply chain.
“Working closely with suppliers and partners at origin is key to align our quality expectations and specifications for the coffee we buy,” she says. “As for quality control, we have at least three different control steps for each of our lots, where we check both sensory and physical characteristics.”
Tatiana goes on to note that to align with The Coffee Source, the coffee quality team at Keurig Dr Pepper undertakes a cupping at origin at least once a year, as well as hosting team members from The Coffee Source at their lab in Switzerland and their sensory facility in Spartenburg, South Carolina, US. She explains that they also use quarterly scoring systems to maintain and improve quality.
Another action she discusses is the importance of investing in origin, which is a slightly more long-term way to manage and control coffee quality.
“Investing in farms at origin has a direct impact on coffee quality,” she explains. “Projects that focus on farm sustainability and improving farming practices can increase income for our farmers and improve quality and consistency.”
While there are a number of ways for roasters to manage the quality of green coffee, Fernando says that one of the best ways to do so is by meeting and speaking with the people who grow it.
To this end, he tells me that The Coffee Source regularly organises origin trips and producer visits for most of their customers.
“This helps us understand what they are looking for,” he explains. “In this way, The Coffee Source can offer several coffees that meet their needs based on quality and how much the roaster wants to pay.”
Juan says that “partnership is key” and that “origin trips create a better link between people”.
He adds that everyone has different expertise, and that they all need to work together to improve their respective outcomes.
“Long-term relationships result in loyalty, communication, and customer satisfaction,” he says. “For me, traveling to origin is a key part of the business of roasting coffee. It’s eye-opening, and it helps to create a better understanding of what is being done on the farm.
Fernando adds: “It also provides a window in which producers, importers, and roasters can cup and align expectations regarding quality and what is being done to improve it.”
Tatiana also attests to the importance of origin trips and spending time in producing countries.
“Being in the field is the best way to observe seasonality, assess the impact of the climate, judge socioeconomic patterns, and consider the supply chain implications of these factors.
“There is also value in identifying strategic partnerships and development opportunities for continuous improvement and new products.”
Controlling and maintaining quality across the coffee supply chain can be a challenge. It’s clear that making sure everyone is using the same language to talk about it is important. Frameworks like the SCA’s point scoring system and the Q grader qualification can help in this regard.
However, collaboration and good communication are two of the most useful tools a roaster can use when sourcing coffee. Visiting origin, working with dedicated sourcing partners, and establishing positive trade relationships with coffee farmers are all excellent places to start.
Enjoyed this? You might also like our article on how to scale up your coffee sourcing.
Photo credits: Keurig Dr Pepper, The Coffee Source
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