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Conversations at Origin

Rahel with producers in Guji Hambela, Ethiopia. Credit Tracon Trading


Ally Coffee’s buying team is based in four producing countries: Colombia, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Ethiopia. Members of the buying team work closely with logistic partners to source, evaluate, and ship coffees to consuming countries.

The buying team meets with producers to assess potential new partnerships, develop existing ones, and explore all that goes on in the agricultural and processing stages of coffee production. This involves farm, mill, and warehouse visits as well as countless cupping sessions. At each point, the buying team has conversations with producers. The results of these conversations are how we build the farm profiles shared on our website, this blog, and social media. Here, Elena Lokteva, who sources Colombia and other South American coffees; Bram de Hoog, who sources from Central America; and Rahel Mulat who sources from Africa, share some of the topics of conversation they discuss with coffee producers.

Farm History

“If it is the first time we buy coffee from a producer or association, we definitely want to know how long they have been producing the coffee and if their living depends on this crop entirely.” –Elena


Elena with farmworkers on La Primavera in Cundinamarca, Colombia.

“Every visit is unique and behind every coffee farm lies a story. When visiting a new or potential producing partner, I often start by asking them to tell a little bit about the farm. Some producers may happily detail the history of the last four generations and which cousin got in an argument with a neighbor and what not. Others, however, may be shy and not want to share much information. For me, an interesting detail is always how the farm name came to be.

These conversations usually lead to other details such as who started the farm, who owns it now, and who works on the farm now. While touring the farm and facilities, I note if things are done differently than usual and will ask about that. Those questions lead to some of the practices the farmer may apply and how that differs from others and why. From there we can talk quality and what the producer is hoping to achieve.” –Bram


Rio Jorco farm manager, Ronulfo, Diego, and Bram in Costa Rica.

“I meet with processors and exporters as much as producers. These conversations are often technical, covering things like legality, export license, and organization information. While sourcing coffee I look at the infrastructure, such as the dry mill and washing station, and talk with producers about their commitment and responsibility. We also discuss the status of Ethiopian coffee globally, what people’s perceptions are. I also share with them information about Ally and listen to their story of growth in specialty coffee.” –Rahel

While the buying team gathers information and listens to what origin partners have to say, they are also sharing information about Ally Coffee, the importation process, and the interests of our clients. The information flows both ways, and this is especially important when discussing expectations.

Expectations

“In any relationship, both ends have expectations. It is essential to ask about and share those expectations to be certain we are on the same page. It is very important to be honest and transparent with what you can and cannot deliver. For instance, unless I am 100% certain I will buy a producer’s coffee, I will not make that promise. Sharing with farmers what we can do for them is essential to building a good relationship. On the other hand, knowing what farmers can or cannot deliver helps us to better make decisions too.” –Bram


Producers Claudia Samboni and Rodrigo Sanchez with Elena in Huila.

“I talk with producers about their expectations and experience in coffee including relationships with local buyers and foreign buyers. I ask how well they know them and the general challenges they have in producing coffee.” –Elena


The Supply Chain

“Depending on the type of producer, we may only play a small role in the supply chain. It is very important to identify and understand the other stakeholders in the supply chain. Does the producer have access to a reliable dry mill? Will the coffee be consolidated with other producers’ and what warehouse can be used for consolidation? Does the producer have an export license? It is essential to map out the supply chain early on to prevent any problems from emerging later. Furthermore, we share what the downstream end of the supply chain likely looks like after we have imported the coffee. Will we ship the coffee to the US, Europe, or the Middle East? What are the tendencies in that market? We answer all producers’ questions about this side of the industry.” –Bram



Bram with Jorge Vazquez at Cedro Alto in Costa Rica. Credit Carter Stout.

“There is always more positive feedback from producers we work with. We are always open to sharing our knowledge and creating opportunities for clients to visit origin and share their knowledge of the roasting business with producers as part of a sourcing trip.” –Elena
“I sometimes meet directly with farmers who are not part of any vertical integration. We discuss who owns the farm, the washing station, and who handles the quality control.” –Rahel



Rahel cupping at her office in Addis Ababa.

Coffee changes hands many times as it is transformed from fruit to bean, and the buying team follows each coffee’s unique supply chain to note where these points of transfer occur and who is responsible for assuring quality at each.

Quality

“Assessing quality starts by looking at the farm. I talk with producers about the farm size, any certifications, shade trees, soil type, coffee varieties, number of farmers or growers supplying coffee to a washing station, number of drying beds, and GPS/GIS coordinates. Gathering this level of information helps build a full picture of where coffee comes from and the conditions under which it was produced.” –Rahel
“Most, but not all, sourcing trips include cupping coffee. This is an essential moment to calibrate and provide feedback as well as appreciation and goals. One must be honest and clear during conversations at the cupping table; dialogue helps us build understandings and communicate better.” –Bram



Elena at the Aromas del Sur dry mill in Huila, Colombia

“Another aspect of quality is its phytosanitary condition — confirming that coffee is free from contaminants and complies with all food safety regulations under the new Food Safety Modernization Act in the United States and similar laws in other countries. As an importer, we must complete the Foreign Supplier Verification Program documents for each coffee we purchase. To do this, we ask questions and make observations.

If it is a second or any consecutive visit to a farm we already work with, I ask what has improved or changed from the past crop — the way they produce, manage, and control their production, if they are happy with what and how they are producing, if they experiment and learn!” –Elena

Coffee sourcing is sometimes hard to describe in generalized terms because each relationship and each producing reality is different from the next. Ask us questions! We also encourage roasters and retailers to be in conversation with folks at origin. We love hearing how a coffee tastes on bar, whether it became a featured single origin offering or part of a special espresso blend, and what customers have to say about it. Producer partners love hearing these things too! Keep sharing curiosities and discoveries and together we will continue moving coffee forward.


Bram in Nicaragua. Credit Expocamo.

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