How we source coffee

I'm often asked how we source our coffee. For many years, we sourced coffee via the most simplest route: we bought roasted coffee from other coffee companies. Companies like Hines Public Market Coffee, Intelligentsia, Stumptown, Ecco Caffe and Barefoot. These companies were operated by my friends and all of them shared a commitment to the ethical sourcing of coffee.

In 2011, when we decided to start roasting our own coffee full-time, the onus was on us to continue sourcing coffee in an ethical manner. Luckily, one of my friends had launched a new company importing high-quality coffee from his home country of Ethiopia. Being that the company is based here in Baltimore and the coffee is warehoused here as well, it was an easy fit.

For the majority of coffee roasting companies in the United States, their coffee is sourced strictly from coffee importing companies. These are companies with strong financial resources who import coffees from around the world and offer them for sale to coffee companies. For the most part, all coffee roasting companies utilize coffee import companies for all, or at least a portion, of their total green coffee buying, and we're no different.

The other side of the coin is for us to visit the different growing nations, somehow find coffee and then bring it here - which can be a vastly intimidating and difficult journey. At the outset, there's the difficulty of actually finding a farm and farmer that's producing the coffee at the quality level you desire, then comes the negotiation of price, which is based on a myriad of factors that change depending on the players. In an ideal situation, you're tasting samples of the coffee at the farm with the understanding that the final product that the farmer will deliver will be what you are tasting that day.

Which is where an assortment of problems can arise: controlling harvest, processing, storage and shipment are key roles in ensuring an even and consistent quality that's on par with the sample that decided this purchase was going to happen. If the players aren't on top of those facets of production, things can go pear-shaped very quickly. Not to mention that the shipment of the coffee from the country of origin to the United States can also impact the quality of the coffee tremendously.

When buying coffee from a coffee importer, all of those steps have been covered and the sample that you taste from the importer is typically representative of the coffee that's in the warehouse here in the United States right now. With a quick phone call to secure the coffee and another call to your transportation broker, that coffee can be at loading dock within a matter of days.

Quite honestly, sane coffee people don't hunt for coffee by going to the farms. The people who buy coffee for Folger's, Dunkins, Keurig and the like stay at home, call up their coffee importer, give the importer the specifications for the coffees they need, buy it by the ship load and play golf and take their kids to the pool. They're not mucking about in some mosquito-laden field, high up in the mountains and far from civilization.

I guess if we were sane, we'd be working at Folger's.

I'm going to presume that a number of you have seen the television show Dangerous Grounds featuring Todd Carmichael, owner of Philadelphia's La Colombe. I've only seen one episode but some of our guests have told me about some of the adventures depicted in the show and wanted to know if it really is like that "out there."

I've heard that Todd has been caught up in all kinds of difficult and dangerous situations. In the one episode I did watch, he was sneaking onto coffee farms, facing the armed angry owner, hiding from the Las Zetas cartel, and putting together a deal at the same farm we had visited last year.

If coffee buying at origin was so difficult and dangerous, I wouldn't be doing it.

I'll say it now: there is no coffee who's quality is so great that it's worth knowingly risking your life to get it.

That said, the coffee buying that we engage in is much more benign and friendly than depicted on television. The worst sleeping arrangement we had was at a farm on a hard bed that was more than made up for by the brilliant stars to be seen at over 2,000 meters on a clear night during a new moon. Oh, and there was that one time we were concerned about being stopped by La Familia Michoacana on a lonely mountain road one night - but that's a story for another day.

For us, we're lucky. We work with a great range of coffee importers, exporters, producers and other coffee companies to source our coffees. In 2015, all of our Central American and Hawaii coffees are sourced direct - meaning that I've gone to the farms, met the producers, toured their facilities, sampled the coffees at the farm level and ordered the coffees from the producers directly. In this region, we're part of a buying group that then arranges the logistics of shipping the coffee from the origin countries to the United States.

In Mexico, Ethiopia and Colombia, we work with small coffee importers that have direct relationships with the producers. In the case of Mexico, I've been to the farms and processing mills to see first-hand the conditions, the coffees are processed and imported to the United States, and then we taste the final coffee samples before making our final purchasing decisions.

For the Indonesian, decaffeinated and select microlot and blending coffees, we work with larger coffee importing companies who have sourced and imported the coffees first as part of their inventory and then we select those coffees from that inventory.

As we move into 2016, I'm not expecting our Ethiopian and Colombia sourcing to change. I'm expecting that we will add a farm or two to our producer list, I'm looking forward to what Lori Obra has in store for us this Christmastime and I'm hoping that our friend in the Philippines has enough production for us this year to actually bring some of that coffee to Baltimore. 

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