Coffee's journey from seed to cup is vast, complex and evolving towards transparency in speciality coffee. We may have a very general understanding of each step from farming, transportation and roasting, and give assumptions to the importance of each step. In fact, each step has more layers of importance than meets the eye, so we'd love to share the care and hard work that goes into each step. Let's debunk some myths and give credit where it's due!
There's no set in stone definition on the term 'direct trade' in the coffee industry. No strict criteria that's verified by an objective third party. Generally it's agreed that direct trade is a direct link between the coffee roaster and/or cafe, and the farmer. The whole point is transparency in where coffee has come from, and improving livelihoods of coffee farmers. In short, quality and ethics. Any coffee roastery can post #directtrade, but to stand by that statement, its about proving a greater ratio of profits have gone back towards those who work the hardest in the coffee industry; the farmers. Additionally demonstrating the hard work and care that's gone into farming and processing a batch of coffee, showing why delicious coffee flavours are in your cup.
Credit to, and sourced from Counter Culture Coffee: ' ProDev: The Series – The Field Trip'
Direct trade is a progressive move in specialty coffee, but there have been pervasive myths that misrepresent steps in the supply chain. For instance, a recurring idea is the 'middlemen' like exporters and importers taking an unfairly large cut of profits and exploiting farmers. The reality is exporters and importers tend to take a modest profit, and it's actually coffee roasters who take the largest share of profits. Additionally, exporters and importers aren't just transporting coffee, a complex and at times a logistical nightmare of a challenge, but crucially preserving the quality of coffee which farmers have worked so hard towards.
Packaging, temperature control, humidity, contact with sunlight, oxygen level are all factors which must be considered for these middlemen. Neglecting these factors can reduce coffee quality, and ultimately lower cupping scores.
What's radical about coffee in this day and age is the leverage coffee farmers have from social media. It's never been easier to setup an instagram account and immediately connect and build relationships between farmers and roasters. It's a mutual connection, where farmers can search something like #specialtycoffeeroaster, and roasters can search #coffeefarm, to find a variety of potential partners that align with their values. The traditional supply chain hinged on coffee roasters finding suppliers that might make ethical claims of improving livelihoods, but have little evidence to back it up apart from a picture of a farm workers smiling, with little to no context. It's frankly patronising, and does little to go beyond neo-colonial exploitation rife in the coffee industry.
In recent years coffee roasters and customers have noticed this, so to improve transparency and traceability, the antidote is to connect directly with the coffee farmer, or find a supplier who can back their ethical claims with in-depth examples.
Exporters jobs are hectic, stressful and crucial towards preserving the quality of coffee that roasters receive. After farmers complete their final step of processing, coffee is handed to exporters, then mechanically hulled to remove the protective layer of parchment, and graded at the dry mill. Grading coffee is a time-consuming task done by labour workers on a conveyer belt table of green seeds. Key criteria for grading beans is often size, density and colour. Defects; bad green coffee seeds unfit for consumption are discarded. The next step of grading coffee is cupping coffee samples to evaluate taste characteristics like body, acidity, sweetness etc. This is usually done by a Q-grader (Qualified coffee tasting specialist) at the farm or export base.
The next major task is packing coffee into sacks, and sending coffee to importers around the world. Almost all of the time, this is done by a cargo ship. The exception is extremely rare cases of air shipment. The time coffee spends in transit varies from a couple of weeks, to a few months depending on origin and destination. The three key factors for coffee quality preservation are time, temperature and moisture. For instance, a lack of control for moisture, means fluctuating moisture levels in the green seeds, which develop defects and phenolic tastes that produce tasting notes band aids and overly smoked (as unpleasant as it sounds!).
Importers typically see the timely delivery and arrival of green coffee, making sure coffee passes through customs, and verifying the delivery is correct. Green coffee is stored in a warehouse where again factors like temperature, humidity, contact with sunlight, oxygen level are controlled for.
Importers hold onto large quantities of hundreds, if not, thousands of coffee sacks, and sell them to coffee roasteries within their countries. The exception is buying coffee from neighbouring countries which costs a great deal more for delivery than from within the import country.
Coffee roasters order coffee from importers, or direct trade from farmers who have some level of control over the supply chain. Roasters oversee the delivery, storage, and roasting of green coffee seeds into various roast levels of coffee, then sell this coffee to both/either retail and wholesale customers. In addition, coffee roasters usually sell brewing equipment, food and drink items.
How we act differently
Anyone can setup a coffee roastery with little to no knowledge of coffee, buy cheap from a generic importer, and make ridiculous margins. Akin to the wine industry, coffee is rife with outlandish claims and language which overestimates low grade coffee. The antidote is full transparency from seed to cup. The latest wave in speciality coffee is full traceability. We deliver all the relevant details to verify you are truly drinking exceptional, ethical and eco-conscious coffee.
One of our most trusted partners, Mio coffee farms, demonstrate a few of many examples of how they act ethically, eco-consciously, and produce exceptional lots:
Mió employs 107 people directly on the farm during harvest, 88 of them are registered as fixed employees throughout the year. Fair pay is guaranteed for all workers, whether permanent or temporary and it is ensured to be above average. Mió is the only farm in the region to have real control of workers hours and to compensate them accordingly if they do any extra time. The expenses for workers and their families are also reduced whenever possible, with weekly milk and vegetable allowances, constant healthcare access and free daily commute from the city. As Mio grows, they are committed to improving pay for all workers.
Sharing with the farm, and local communities is one of the core pillars of Mio's philosophy. Approximately 2,100 square meters is dedicated to a community garden, which grows onions, cabbage, okra, manioc, papaya, passion fruit, cucumber, kale, eggplant, peppers, chayote and other organic seasonal fruits and vegetables. This is shared with all Mió workers, their families, and also delivered to the city's nursing home, ensuring that the local elderly population has a weekly supplement to their diets without any costs.
One of the most pervasive agricultural techniques in coffee is mono-cropping. A practice which depletes soil of nutrieints and makes the land useless for growing new crops. Mio are committed to taking car of the land they farm on by crop ratiaiton. Mios coffee trees are healthy and still productive after 70 years, and the soil is allowed to rest, so the nautral balance of soil nutrition returns.
Mió has 10,000 square meters of solar panels installed as part of our commitment to clean energy and self-sustained farming. Harvesting clean energy from the sun, Mió provides the bulk of the power that the farm needs to run the day to day activities and process the coffee during harvest instead of using private energy providers.
Our Brazil Mio Peaberry has a excellent SCA score of 85, and is red honey processed. In honey processing, coffee is mechanically depulped, with a certain level of coffee cherry fruit remaining on the seeds, Then laid out on large concrete patios to dry in the sun.
The key appeal is to increase desirable characteristics like body, sweetness, and to reduce acidity. The amount of coffee mucilage on the seed has a positive correlation with the characteristics above. Body is how full and heavy feeling the coffee feels in the mouth. To describe acidity in coffee is like the acidity you'd find in a crisp sweet granny smith apple. The sweetness from the honey process is like a heavy biscuit sweetness, which goes hand in hand with increased body.
What makes this lot so unique is red honey processing in which 75% of the coffee cherries fruit is left on the bean to dry for several days in which this caramelises around the bean, delivering smooth body and a welcoming sweetness. Additionally the peaberry beans are selected. Peaberry beans come as the result of a natural mutation in the coffee cherry when only one bean, instead of two, develop inside. This leads to better uniform roasting and less margin for variation in your beans for any roast level.
For more technical details, below is an excerpt from Mio's transparency report on their Red Honey Peaberry Lot: