Expanding the Role of the Exporter in the Direct Trade Model

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by Francisco A. Mena, Exclusive Coffees S.A.

Many of the other participants in this issue are green buyers who work for roasters or importing companies. In this feature, we shine a spotlight on the role of an exporter, which is someone who consolidates crops from producers for processing and sale to out-of-country businesses. Francisco Mena, standard-bearer of the “micromill revolution” and principal of Costa Rica’s Exclusive Coffees, has shifted this definition and is doing things a bit differently than traditional exporting practices. His company works within the paradigm known as “direct trade” and is aimed at helping growers become their own processors (or “micromillers”) and therefore gain more direct control over the cup quality of their harvests. He shares his thoughts about what he’s learned with us below.

Creating boutique coffees has been a great educational journey in which passion, dedication, and education have been constants in achieving excellence with our producer/partners. Micromills have started a new industry in Costa Rica: producers (and their families) process (“mill”) their own harvests at their own farms, with care and pride. Running their own mills empowers them to be responsible for every step they take, from seed selection to documenting the traceability of every lot produced.

Producers now cup every batch with us, learning to understand the results of their work at the farm and mill during the year.
This new generation of producer/micromillers is steadily producing consistent quality, and focusing on developing long-term relationships that will guarantee them a sustainable income. When that is achieved, farmers are able to reinvest back into their farms and mills, and to increase quality of life for their families.

These innovations have enabled the creation of exemplary farms that are part of over 90 micromills, in the West Valley, Central Valley, Tarrazu, Orosi, Tres Rios and Chirripo Regions [of Costa Rica]. Our micromills enjoy direct-trade relationships with roasters worldwide: in Japan, Australia, Korea, Taiwan, the U.S., Europe, Canada, and Russia.

Through research and experimentation, we have learned that boutique microlots are created at the soil level. Understanding the interaction between the soil, the terroir, and the cultivar has been key to our producer/partners, who analyze and decide the specific agronomical program to apply season after season. Producers have learned how to read soil composition, in order to apply specific agronomic and nutritional programs to obtain soil balance, something that is basic to the creation of quality. And we have seen the results at the cupping table harvest after harvest. Not only are producers achieving consistent productivity, but also consistent quality, the driving attribute that makes growing coffee truly sustainable.

Additionally, we have discovered that maintaining permanent young-tissue plants is key in importance not only for quality and productivity, but also for pest and disease resistance. Younger plants have a better and healthier root structure.

Discoveries about the negative impact that ocean transportation has on the coffee bean once the voyage starts, after container stuffing, have encouraged us to take measurements during transit to the port of destination. The volatile humidity and temperature variations beans are exposed to can greatly affect the quality of the coffee. The longer the trip, the worse it gets. As a response, we’ve implemented alternative solutions such as vacuum packaging, grain pro, and reefer containers to maintain the freshness of the green bean.

We enjoy educating our coffee friends worldwide about our country, Costa Rica, and our coffee regions. We work every day to integrate them into our system of traceability and transparency, contributing to the growth of long-term relationships at the farm, mill and cupping lab. We celebrate receiving coffee friends from all over the world and sharing with them all the details behind our passionate work on creating beautiful coffees.

Our work includes providing education for our producer/micromiller partners about different processing techniques, such as honey and natural processes, enabling them to create new flavors and profiles beyond the traditional generic taste. Indeed, if producers pursue micromilling with responsibility and focus, and receive continued coaching on quality, benefits are reaped across the whole coffee supply chain.

Recognizing the importance of our role as facilitators of a process, we cup batch-by-batch with our producer/partners, and strive to educate them on everything from the soil to the cultivar to the careful drying of the parchment beans. We serve the producer/micromiller and our worldwide coffee friends alike, every year, every harvest—and we enjoy doing it!

fFrancisco A. Mena has been in the specialty coffee business for over twenty years, working at different levels of the production cycle from milling to cupping and exporting, with a focus on relationship development between roasters and producers in Costa Rica. For the past 6 years his company, Exclusive Coffees S.A., has led the micromill/microlot revolution, bringing Costa Rican coffees of heretofore unseen quality to the world stage through the Direct Trade Model. 

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