The Green Coffee Buyer: A Key Link in the Coffee Supply Chain

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by Andi C. Trindle Mersch, Philz Coffee

Green coffee buyers essentially operate right in the middle of it all: we serve as intermediaries for the coffee bean, standing between growers and final consumers. Despite the bad rap “middlemen” have received in the coffee trade over the years, speaking from the middle as a green coffee buyer myself—I love it here. Operating smack in the center of the complex journey from coffee-producing to coffee-consuming country as a green coffee buyer is a fascinating perspective to work from. And, frankly, it’s a really important job.

The road coffee takes from a shrub on a farm to a beverage in a consumer’s cup is long and convoluted. A lot of folks have their hands-—figuratively and literally—on the beans during this passage. Green coffee buyers, both importers purchasing directly from origin, and roasters (who may purchase from origin and/or from importers), have exciting opportunities and enormous responsibility. Although the complete job descriptions of the importer-buyer and the roaster-buyer are different, the essence of their work is similar. This issue is devoted to looking in detail at some of these important responsibilities and opportunities.

I have the privilege of being asked to precede the excellent feature articles of this issue with an introductory piece about why you should be interested in the work we green buyers do. Based on the authors and the scope of their topics, I don’t think there’s really any need for me to convince anyone to read on. Instead, I view this as a grand, rare opportunity for me to blatantly persuade any of you remaining “anti-middlemen” out there that we serve a very important function, and that our areas of impact can be (and most often are) managed with compassion and solid experiential knowledge.

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This issue will cover some of these important “need to knows” for buyers, exploring the essentials of green buying practices, as well as standards and protocols for cupping. I’m willing to wager that many working buyers aren’t exhaustively familiar with all of the areas technically within their scope of accountability. I myself, even after 20 full-time years in the industry, am constantly deepening my knowledge in order to do a better job. Additionally, as an importer who also sells coffee, I work with roasting-side green buyers who, while excellent at their jobs, could also benefit from expanded awareness in other areas. I encourage everyone to peruse the rich offering of articles in this issue to expand your skills and understanding. Take the opportunity to delve into topics such as market volatility and risk management, and discover new opportunities to strengthen the coffee supply chain.

An entirely different motivation for me in writing this introduction is to let those of you eager to join the ranks of green buyers know that it is a position with powerful impact. While the idea of coffee buying strikes a romantic chord in many, a green coffee buyer should never undertake their position based this kind of allure. Decisions green buyers make—choices to reject or approve coffee, judgment calls around value vs. quality, commitments we make to environmental and social purchasing, strategies we employ to protect ourselves financially in a volatile marketplace, and accountability we hold for managing inventory needs properly and paying bills in a timely manner—have a major impact on everyone participating in the coffee chain, and are deeply significant to the originating coffee producer. A buyer needs to make good, sound, and ethical decisions in each of these areas. Shirking responsibility in any single area breaks the complex chain that so many rely on for their livelihoods.

To elaborate and be (respectfully) challenging: although it’s often the most fun and fulfilling part, and I do heartily encourage buying the highest quality lots possible, this job is not only about selecting the most fantastic beans ever to land on your cupping table. Even if you’re willing to pay a generous price for them, a green buyer’s responsibility is much more than that.

Another facet that will be explored in this issue is the role of the exporter in securing and managing top quality on the origin side, which will hopefully encourage more thoughtful purchasing decisions from the consuming side, as you deepen your knowledge of all that takes place between producers and their export-side partners.

While I’ve hopefully communicated some of the importance green buyers—us middlemen—hold in the specialty coffee world, I can’t emphasize enough my intention to promote wielding this influence with humility, always. The respect we need to show for the experience of our origin-side partners is thoughtfully elaborated on and should ideally be taken as a general approach for green buying.

Indeed, it is important to read this entire Chronicle issue thoroughly for this last reason more than any other. While our decisions as green buyers make an impact on many, and our accountabilities are broader than most realize, a green buyer’s place represents only one link in a long, long chain. Therefore, it should always be approached with a humility equal to our passion for excellent, sustainable coffee.

andiAndi Trindle Mersch has a varied background within her career in the specialty coffee industry, which began behind the espresso bar in 1989 and, since then, includes cupping, training, consulting, green coffee trading, roast quality control, sales, writing, and marketing. Andi currently holds the position of Director of Coffee with Philz Coffee in San Francisco, CA. Andi has served as a member of the SCAA Board of Directors and five years on the board of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, including a term as President.

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