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From Soil to Sip: How Purpose Dictates the Coffee Supply Chain
My first job out of school was in the coffee industry — on a farm in Panama. It was the beginning of an 18-month journey where I learned what it really takes to make a great cup of coffee.
To disperse any unnecessary suspense, I’ll get straight to the answer — which isn’t a fancy brewing contraption, too-cool-for-school baristas, or even Fair Trade. The world’s best coffees are the fruits of a philosophy — one where stewardship, consistency, and passion combine to form a unified system, guiding each seed carefully from soil to sip.
Now I’m sure that answer was a let down. Too lofty, perhaps. But in industries where the value chain can produce such varied results, it’s the commitment to purpose and a system of values that governs the quality throughout the product’s journey to market. The journey holds valuable lessons not just for would-be coffee producers, but marketers and brand managers — who are hard-pressed to make sure the customer experience lives up to a brand promise.
So let’s get a little more granular and begin to realize what that unified system really is by running through the production lifecycle of a coffee seed.
To start, there are two fun facts to know.
1) Coffee is not a bean — it is the seed of cherries that grow on coffee trees.
2) Once a cherry is picked it stops developing — meaning that once coffee is picked its flavor and complexity is determined, and from that moment forward will only deteriorate in quality.
Once a cherry is picked it’s time for milling. Milling is where you separate the seeds from the fruit, removing everything you don’t want going forward. As with anything, there are 1,000 ways to skin the cat. However, after milling you are commonly left with naked and raw coffee seeds in need of processing.
Processing is a fancy word for drying and sorting. In Ethiopia it’s standard to dry coffee in long, elevated mesh beds; in Brazil, coffee is raked out across concrete slabs like public basketball courts that bake in the sun. Even when from the same farm, not all coffee is created equal — thus making sorting out any seeds chipped during milling or damaged by insects a necessary practice. However, coffee must be processed (dried and sorted) before it is shipped.
Shipping is, well, shipping. Roughly 37,500 pounds of raw green coffee packed into large bags will fill up one standard shipping container. The world’s largest transfer point for shipped coffee? Hamburg, Germany. Oakland, Djibouti, Sao Paulo, Miami and Shanghai get their fair share too. Most coffee ends up in distribution warehouses that fulfill smaller shipments to roasting companies.
Roasting companies like Blue Bottle, Stumptown and La Colombe are responsible for cooking coffee as we know it to be: brown and brittle. Raw green coffee gets roasted for roughly 12 to 20-minutes in roasting machines, dumped out to cool and then quickly packaged.
Next stop is the grocery store shelf, some cafe, or post provider to fulfill an ecommerce order. The coffee is now ready to be brewed, and whether that happens with the help of a hip barista or a stovetop percolator is the consumer’s choice. So after — ideally — a six-month journey from its original source, you can now have your caffeine fix.
Perils along the path
In what’s largely a fragmented industry, how easy do you think it is to ensure that proper handling is practiced at every step we just walked through? The answer: not easy at all. Every company has to be concerned with profit. In a supply chain like coffee’s, profit is often captured through exploiting shortcuts that end up compromising product quality. The following is an example.
It costs the farmer double if he has his farmhands harvest twice. So he’ll harvest once, and sell an under-ripe, ripe, and overripe mixed lot to the miller. Volume is the miller’s game, so he rushes — sending off chipped, cracked and debris filled seeds to the processor. The processor sells coffee by weight, so the less he lets it dry the more wet (heavier) it will register on the scales. Roasters can increase their output by over-roasting at high heat for 10 minutes rather than low heat for 16. And then, finally, do you think every café has enough turnover to really be serving freshly roasted coffee?
The point is that shortcuts and cost saving techniques are plentiful, but quality control is not, meaning that consistency of excellence depends on that unified system governed by purpose and values.
A System holds course
Let’s now bring this back on track, and with a better understanding of the coffee industry address the question of what it really takes to make a great cup of coffee.
The “unified system” is vertical integration. Not for industrial efficiencies, but the sake of quality control through governance. Very few people are able to deliver excellence in every single cup they serve. Currently, those who do have created direct relationships with farmers and producers as to help bridge the communication gap — allowing them to steward each seed from the time it’s planted till the moment it’s drunk. Such stewards undertake this process in hopes of best governing their coffee’s production lifecycle as to ensure a consistently excellent beverage.
A single coffee seed brought to market represents its brand as a whole. The core lesson to take away from my caffeinated escapade is that the best products are delivered by organizations and people who have not only the best practices throughout production, but the best systems to holistically govern production lifecycles.
That’s as true for the coffee industry as it is for consumer-packaged brands or even B2B SaaS companies. Proper governance at every level is only true when incentives align with values for everyone — starting with sourcing and continuing through production and distribution. If there isn’t such alignment and systems in place for managing the production of your product, there is no way to ensure a consistently excellent outcome.