From Soil to Sip: How Purpose Dictates the Coffee Supply Chain

My first job out of school was in the coffee industry, working on a farm in Panama. It was the beginning of an 18-month journey where I learned what it really takes to make a great cup of coffee.

To disperse any unnecessary suspense, I’ll get straight to the answer — which isn’t a fancy brewing contraption, too-cool-for-school baristas, or even Fair Trade. The world’s best coffees are the fruits of a philosophy — one where stewardship, consistency, and passion combine to form a unified system, guiding each seed carefully from soil to sip.

Now, surely that answer was a let down. Too lofty, perhaps? In industries where the supply chain produces such varied results, it’s the commitment to purpose and a value system that governs quality throughout a product’s journey to market. That journey holds valuable lessons, not just for would — be coffee producers, but marketers, brand managers and other professionals — who are hard-pressed to make sure the customer experiences they control live up to a brand’s promise.

So, let’s go a little more granular and look at what that unified system is by running through the production life-cycle of a coffee seed.

Coffee’s Journey

To start, here are two fun facts.

1) Coffee is not a bean, but the seed of cherries that grow on coffee trees.

2) Once a cherry is picked it stops developing — meaning that once coffee is picked its full flavor and complexity is determined, and from that moment forward will only deteriorate in quality.

Once a cherry is picked it becomes time for milling. Milling is where the seeds is separated from the fruit, removing everything you don’t want going forward. As with anything, there are 1,000 ways to skin the cat. However, after milling you are commonly left with naked and raw coffee seeds in need of processing.

Processing is a fancy word for drying and sorting. In Ethiopia it’s standard to dry coffee in long, elevated mesh beds; in Brazil, coffee is raked out across concrete slabs that look like public basketball courts baking in the sun. Even when from the same farm, not all coffee is created equal — thus, sorting out any seeds chipped during milling or damaged by insects is a necessary practice. However, coffee must be processed (dried and sorted) before it is shipped.

Shipping is, well, shipping. Roughly 37,500 pounds of raw green coffee gets packed into large bags that fill up one standard shipping container. The world’s largest transfer point for shipped coffee is Hamburg, Germany. Yet Oakland, Djibouti, Sao Paulo, Miami, and Shanghai get their fair share too. Most coffee ends up in distribution warehouses that fulfill smaller shipments to roasting companies.

Roasting companies like Blue Bottle, Stumptown, Intelligensia, and La Colombe are responsible for cooking coffee as we know it to be; dark brown and brittle. Raw green coffee gets roasted for roughly 12 to 20-minutes in roasting machines, and then dumped out to cool before getting quickly packaged.

The next stop is the grocery store shelf, restaurant, some cafe, or even a post provider to fulfill an e-commerce order. The coffee is now ready to be brewed, and whether that happens with the help of a hip barista or a stove-top percolator is the consumer’s choice.

After — ideally — a six-month journey from its original source, you now get your caffeine fix.

Perils along the path

In what’s largely a fragmented industry, how easy do you think it is to ensure that proper handling is practiced at each one of the articulated steps? The answer: not easy at all. Most companies are primarily concerned with profit. In a supply chain like coffee’s, profit is often captured through exploiting shortcuts that end up compromising product quality. The following are some examples.

  1. It costs the farmer double if he has his farmhands harvest twice. So he’ll harvest once, and sell an under-ripe, ripe, and overripe mixed lot to the miller.
  2. Volume is the miller’s game, so he rushes — sending off chipped, cracked and debris filled seeds to the processor.
  3. The processor sells coffee by weight, so the less dry the coffee is the more wet (heavier) it will register on the scales.
  4. Roasters can increase their output by over-roasting at high heat for 10 minutes rather than low heat for 16.
  5. Finally, do you think every cafe has enough turnover to really be serving freshly roasted coffee?

The point is that shortcuts and cost saving techniques are plentiful, but quality control is not, meaning that consistency of excellence depends on that unified system governed by purpose and values.

A System for Quality

With a better understanding of the coffee supply chain, let’s address the question of what it really takes to make a great cup of coffee.

The “unified system” is vertical integration. Not for industrial efficiencies, but the sake of quality control through governance. Very few coffee professionals are able to deliver excellence in every cup they serve. Those who do have created direct relationships with farmers and producers in order to bridge the communication gap — allowing them to steward each seed from the time it’s planted to the moment it’s drunk. Such stewards undertake this process in hopes of best governing their coffee’s production life-cycle to ensure a consistently excellent beverage.

The core lesson to take away from my caffeinated escapade is that the best products are delivered by organizations and people who not only have the best practices at different stages of production, but the best systems in place to holistically govern their product through though stages.

This is as true for the coffee industry as it is for consumer-packaged brands, or even B2B SaaS companies. Proper governance at every level of a production life-cycle is only real when incentives align with values for everyone — starting with sourcing and continuing through production and distribution. If there isn’t such alignment and systems in place for managing the production of your product, there is no way to ensure a consistently excellent outcome.