To Be a Coffee Buyer

Since I started in coffee over eight years ago, I would have to say that my main message to the non-coffee world would be one of respect towards the product they consume every day. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, and again, and again: coffee is one of, if not the most, labour-intensive agricultural products in the world. And we don't, as consumers, pay not even remotely enough for it, given the amount of work that goes into its production.

As far as we in the first world go, I would place myself in a small, yet growing cadre of coffee professionals who regularly watch coffee develop, from seed to cherry to roasted bean to beverage. Strangely enough, most coffee farm workers don't actually drink coffee, let alone the coffee that their hard work produced. Almost, but not all, farmers are woefully unaware of what is done with the fruits of their labour once it has left the farm, including the fervour with which we seek it and how much we're willing to pay for it by the cup. So it is we, the (mostly) scrappy band of traveling coffee roasters and buyers, who have had the unique experience of observing coffee on a tree, roasting the beans months later, and finally enjoying it in the cup.

I know that the majority of people who hear about my trips, through friends, Facebook, Twitter, and so on, believe that "coffee buying trip" is industry code for exotic vacation on the company tab. And I have no interest in trying to garner pity for what I do -- it's truly an amazing way to make a living. Coffee is only grown between the tropics and it's certainly not our fault that a lot of coffee comes to maturity at the same time as our cold, Canadian winters. But the buying trips are not the Indiana Jones-esque adventures they may seem to be on the surface (or that I was personally hoping for). They are, in fact, almost entirely glamourless and devoid of accidental treasure hunts, Nazis, or damsels in distress. Yet they still remain infinitely interesting and filled with incredible people, places, and experiences.

When I'm asked what I do and my response is 'coffee buyer,' it is often met with varying degrees of curiosity and confusion. Because the new school of coffee buying that I so luckily belong to is a completely new way of approaching the occupation. Long have coffee buyers travelled to origin (as we call a coffee-producing country) to secure deals with producers and establish supply-chain security. But it's no longer that utilitarian anymore. The new guard, led by smaller roasters, now visit farms to develop connections and relationships with farmers, to ensure quality, and encourage the prosperity of coffee farmers and roasters alike. Large-scale roasters/buyers have since changed their outlook on origin travel to mirror that of smaller roasters.

To be clear, it is functionally unnecessary -- we could all buy our coffee based on price lists and samples sent to us from exporters at origin or importers in our respective countries. But not only is that no fun, it doesn't give us any apparatus to communicate with the producers and learn of their processes, financial needs (what is a truly fair price to pay), and social concerns. And in recent years, it's fair to say that this romanticized approach to coffee buying has become much more about the producer than it is about the roaster.

From personal experience, I can say all parties truly do benefit from such dealings. I'm writing this post from Central America where I not only was able to secure both short and long-term deals for small and large amounts of coffee, but I was also able to discuss things that I have learned on previous trips with producers I met for the first time. In this instance, I was able to share information about a mushroom-growing-with-coffee-waste project that has been successful in Colombia and East Africa, a worm-compost project in Guatemala, and success stories of Rainforest Alliance certification, with producers here in El Salvador and Honduras. These are connections that never would have been made had I not been here to see the needs, limitations, and capabilities of the producers or had I not seen those other successful projects. I can't even fathom the multitude of similar connections, opportunities, and prosperity that has been created by others that share my position, many of whom have seen more producers, buy more coffee, and speak better Spanish, Portuguese, Kiswahili, Indonesia, etc., than I do.

So yes, being employed as a coffee buyer is good, rewarding work if you can get it. And I find it heartening to hear the 17 different "can I come with you" requests every time I'm about to leave, because I believe that the interest isn't in just the exotic locations and temptation of adventure, but in a general, growing interest in where coffee comes from, and how it gets from seed to cup.