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The state of the coffee supply chain,

The state of the coffee supply chain, or: Who cares

This is a guest post written by Tyler Heal from Coffee Grind Guru

Like various states of the union and similar political addresses from politicians the world over, there is a substantial percentage of the demographic that may be left wondering, “Who cares?” Or, “So what? How does that impact me?”

And so it goes with the state of the coffee supply chain.

Many folks may frequent their favorite large chain retail store to grab the cheapest bag of coffee on offer while others may make it a particular point to buy the most exclusive single-origin and micro-lot whole bean coffees for use in their AeroPress and French Press. Is there a difference in these coffees, though, when it comes down to the taste, mouthfeel, and caffeine content following any of the abovementioned brewing methods?

Connoisseurs of this mighty little bean (a seed, actually) say so and will usually add that their locally sourced bean is organic, fair-trade certified, and bird-friendly. Those just looking for a jolt of the wake-me-ups may counter that they are more than happy paying a little less and getting just about the same.

But who is right? Answer?

Neither.

And it all comes down to logistics, farming, selling, demand forecasting, shipping, and the overall supply chain that gets a little bean from the heart of the coffee country to a consumer’s cup.

History, or: Again, who cares?

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Every step along the supply chain comes at a cost. This cost is most evident in the highly lucrative commodity of oil. Like crude, the small-but-mighty coffee bean is subject to several ‘touches’ throughout its journey from plan to cup. Instead of rigs and derricks, however, the bean travels as follows:

First, there are groups of local suppliers that sell the seeds (better known as beans) to smallholders or local farmers. These sellers, smallholders, and family-owned businesses are often located in extreme climates and countries that comprise what is oft referred to as the coffee belt. This region just so happens to overlap with many of the most disadvantaged nations in the world and lies between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.

Second, the smallholds either enter into a new cycle of coffee cultivation (NOTE: one cycle, or harvest, occurs annually) or they introduce new flowering plants to their stakes with an expected return on investment in four to five years. OUCH! It is important to note that nearly 25 million people are dependent on annual yields that need to meet or exceed 70% of the world’s coffee demand.

Third, traders, or middlemen, help the farmer to find a buyer. The buyers can be huge multinational corporations, small-batch producers, or even smaller coffee shops. These same persons often negotiate on shipping, which takes place in bulk by sea.

Fourth, and final, should smallholds not find an immediate client or buyer through these middlemen, they usually must sell to exporters who again send the seeds by the sea where they dock in coffee consuming countries and await roasting, packaging, still more overland shipping, and ultimately retail time.

With each step, a cost, or value, is assessed and extracted. And like oil, the more refining that is required, means the more you pay at the pump, er, store!

The same works in reverse and is where the true crux of coffee costs and sustainability rise. Consider, the price of a bag of coffee. One might be forgiven in his or her assuming that the smallholds get the majority of the ‘cut’ or profit, but here is how it breaks down:

• Smallholds: 10%

• Middlemen: 3%

• Exporters: 4%

• Retailers: 13%

Again, one might question, “Who cares?”

Present-day trends

It is not too far of a reach to tie coffee cultivation with other global issues like violence, poverty, terrorism, or lack of access to education. This is not to say that buying organic, fair-trade certified, or bird-friendly products will necessarily result in a decline in any of these; just the opposite.

In other words, and despite the growing trend toward the easy solution of slapping fair-trade labels on packs of coffee, there is just not enough profit flowing back to the smallholds.

End of story.

Or is it? Can this current state become more? Can beans be used to break the cycles of violence and poverty in these developing countries?

The answer is that it must.

There are very few solutions beyond the realm of employment, economic empowerment, and education that can so effectively improve the lives of so many.

Future trends, or: How to make a difference

The issue, then, becomes, “Well, how?”

Some might argue that empowering smallholds is an ideal long-term solution and that the coffee-drinking world needs to buy directly from the farmer. But really, what does that mean and what does that look like?

There are numerous case studies and academic approaches that claim smallholds need to adopt new technology and Western e-commerce practices to improve their businesses. These approaches, while optimistic, are unrealistic for the vast majority of subsistence farmers as many case studies assume those same disadvantaged, low-power or disadvantaged persons have reliable access to electricity, phones, Internet, and the like, which is not always the case.

In the absence of such infrastructure though, there are better, more long-lasting approaches to improve not only the coffee smallholds but other agro-businesses, not least of which is education.

As an example, consider the excellent work that Mondelēz International, Inc., Nestle, and Ecome have done in such places as Cameroon, Vietnam, and Ivory Coast. Each of these ‘evil’ multinationals taught smallholds about grafting, fertilizer use, watering control, and pricing negotiation, which can be cross-shared with maize, tomato, and other types of farmers in the region.

Thus, and instead of sending nothing back down the supply chain, a reverse logistics loop takes hold wherein goods flow in one direction, and education and information flows in the other.

This is precisely where the coffee supply chain can become more significant than just the sum of its parts and educate vulnerable peoples about price shocks, risks to coffee demand, environmental issues, and building consumer relationships. Such simple subjects will eventually yield discussions about how to grow beyond agro-based businesses that may include e-commerce drop-shipping courses, lessons on how to garner investment from abroad, and partnerships that comprise any number of technologies like the use of mobile phones, solar panels, or blockchain loans.

Conclusion, or: Do you care now?

Many of these changes are sure to be slow and will require years of steadfast dedication from all members of the supply chain, not least of which will be the consumer. While external investments of time and money from corporations will continue to be critical for smallholders, the ultimate deciding factor in whether empowerment through education can lift regions out of brutal cycles of poverty, violence, and overreliance on exports is the customer.

Just like the farmers in the above discussion, the coffee drinker is also in need of education by way of the coffee supply chain. He or she can no longer focus exclusively on their next cold brew or vanilla latte all the while ignoring the effects that certain purchases have on smallholds.

Thus, and in summary, every member of the supply must make a conscious effort to empower one another through increased information sharing. Only in this supply-driven way will coffee producing regions eventually escape the vicious cycles of poverty and marginalization.

This is just our one, humble step toward doing so. That said, thank you for reading and thank you for (hopefully) caring a little bit more about your espresso or simple coffee.

Ciao!

How to Brew Better Coffee

Want to brew coffee like a Brewtus Barista?

Use a scale

Use an accurate scale every time. Get yourself a digital scale and an excellent measuring tool for water. A great cup of coffee does happen out of love or eye measurements based on “experience.” Delicious coffee is a result of precision and discipline.

Use fresh coffee and a grinder

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Use freshly roasted and freshly ground coffee of good quality such as Brewtus Roasting. Make sure you know when the coffee was roasted by asking. Typically, coffee is at its best within a month of roasting. Invest in a good coffee grinder, such as a Baratza, (not the cheap blade grinders).  Coffee begins to oxidize quickly after it is ground.

Use the right amount of coffee

Use correct coffee to water ratios. This will vary from coffee to coffee and from brewing device to brewing device. Look in our specific brewing guides for details in the future. I would start with a 16-18:1 ratio of water to coffee.

Use the proper grind size

Use correct grind size. This will vary from coffee to coffee and from brewing device to brewing device. Flat bottom filters, Chemex, and French Press will all be courser, while cone filter, and AeroPress will be finer. 

Use Proper Brew Time

Use correct steeping time. It is very easy to over-extract or under-extract coffee. The right brew time is crucial for a balanced brew. The brew time will, of course, vary from one minute on an Aeropress to six minutes using French Press and is related to how fine or coarse you grind the coffee. Use a stopwatch to make sure steeping time is correct.

Use good tasting water

Use good quality water.  You may or may not be blessed with excellent tap water, but if you notice any off-taste in your tap water (like chlorine) use filtered water.

Clean your coffee gear often

Clean your brewing equipment after every brew. Coffee tastes dirty and bitter when made on dirty coffee equipment.

Try new things

Stay open-minded and try new methods. Remember; taste is what matters. I hope you find this guide useful.

Don't Confuse Roast Level With Strength

What Roast Should I choose? [Is Dark Roasted Coffee Stronger?]

Coffee roasting has evolved so much in the last few decades. Not only light roasts have become more popular, but artisan roasters like Brewtus Roasting are taking the craft to new levels. A single origin coffee gets special treatment. Master roasters will take their time to test what roasting degree works best for that particular bean, through sample roasting. Once the roast established, is recorded and applied to that batch of beans.

Another neat technique in specialty coffee is blending single origin beans to various degrees; this creates complex tasting coffees by mixing origin flavors with roastiness flavors. Dark roast coffee adds more body, while light roast coffee adds distinct origin flavors. When we combine them we get an entirely different blend.

There are many popular misconceptions about the roast level and how it affects your cup of coffee. There are also some interesting facts and tips that you can use to improve your cup.

Why Do We Roast Coffee?

To better understand how roasting affects coffee beans, we need to start with the reasons we roast. Green coffee is a rich source of various antioxidants and other phytochemicals. This includes chlorogenic acid, caffeine, and polyphenols. Green coffee contains a bit more of these compounds than the roasted beans. However, there are two problems with green coffee:

  • firstly, we cannot extract these substances from green coffee using regular brewing methods

  • secondly, green coffee doesn't taste good unroasted

Roasting fixes these two problems at once.

By roasting coffee we soften the internal cells structure, so we can extract coffee easier. Some of the cell walls break during roasting; this leads to the expansion in volume and the specific cracks during the process. When the cellular structure is softer, the soluble solids in the beans are easier to extract. The more we roast, the easier to dissolve these compounds during preparation, this is critical information. It explains the myth about why people think that dark roasted coffee is stronger. It also allows us to adjust the brewing techniques so we can make a strong coffee no matter the roast. More about this later.

During the roasting process, there is also a shift in the chemical composition, due to the Maillard reaction, this causes, among other chemical changes, the sugars in coffee to caramelize. The roasting brings out the flavors and aroma from the green coffee bean. It removes the grassy taste, and and it brings out the sweetness in the beans. Depending on the origin and the type of the beans, we also adjust the roast to enhance or preserve specific flavors and aromas, and to mute others.

Is Dark Roast Really Stronger?

This is a favorite subject of mine, and I can probably write a book on it. I’m half joking, but I do get a little passionate when I talk about roasting and coffee strength.

People think that dark roasted coffee is stronger. Dark roasted coffee is not stronger than light roasted. The confusion about it is two-fold. On one hand, dark coffee tastes differently from light roasted coffee, and we perceive that as strength. In fact, we only taste roastiness and not strength. The Total Dissolved Solids, (TDS), is roughly the same for all roasts, “if“ we adjust brewing variables accordingly. The “if” is very important, because it leads us to the second side of the problem. As we mentioned before, darker roasts are easier to extract. Using the same brewing variables, water temperature, grind size and brewing/steeping time we will get a stronger cup from a darker bean. If we adjust the brewing variables for the lighter roast we will get the same TDS.

How To Compensate for Light Roast

How do we adjust for a lighter roast you might ask? In three ways: grind finer, use a slightly higher water temperature. Depending on the roast lightness, you might only need to change one variable or all. You will need to do sequential tests, to find the perfect recipe. I recommend tweaking all three variables in small increments. Mind you; a grind size change will automatically result in a longer brew time for some coffee brewing methods, this includes gravitational brewing methods, like automatic drip and pour-over.

For immersion methods, such as the French press, the dripping rate is not a factor. But finer grinds might be a problem because of the filter. If you use the Kruve sieves, you can go much finer than the industry recommendations.

Extraction time is also affected for espresso when using finer grinds. In this case, you can compensate for a finer grind size by lowering the dose. The lower dose improves the flow, preventing the over-extraction.

Which Roast Should I Choose - Light or Dark?

The roast level comes down to your preference. If you are looking for complex flavors, which retain the bean’s origin, you should choose a light roast. If you are looking for a “traditional” taste, then a darker roast is for you.

In conclusion, if the roast taste is what you like, stick with dark roast. If you want to experience modern flavors, choose a light roast. You need to adjust the brewing variables when you work with terroir coffee. If you are starting out with light roasts, may I recommend you the Costa Rica Direct Trade? This Direct Trade Black Honey from La Minita Farms in Costa Rica is grown in a micro-region of this farm and is ideal with perfect sun and shade along with the steady wind.  It is roasted lightly to preserve its incredible notes of chocolate, brown sugar, plum, and spice. It may sound like a recipe for sugar plums, but it’s a recipe for kicking mornings in the face!

 

This was a guest post by Dorian from Coffee Brewing Methods.