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Coffee Importers And Exporters: The Unsung Heroes Of Specialty Coffee

Written by Grady Buhler, Coffee Quality Leader at JJ Bean (September 2015)

Going forward, we have decided to include the name of the importer when communicating information about our coffees. When JJ Bean acts as the importer, we will include the name of the exporter.

As a whole, the specialty coffee industry in North America, of which JJ Bean is a part, has contributed to the propagation of a story in the popular imagination about how specialty coffee is sourced. The story goes something like this:

  • Roaster spends a considerable amount of time at origin searching for the best coffee
  • Roaster enters into a close personal relationship with a farmer and begins to work with the farmer
  • Roaster pays farmer for coffee
  • This summary of what is commonly referred to as the “direct trade” buying model may contain nuggets of truth but it also omits crucial steps in the process. Notice that this story begins and ends with the roaster.
Here is a more realistic version:
  • Farmer sells containers of coffee to an importer through an exporter
  • Importer sells bags of coffee to roaster

Surrounding this basic arrangement, the following may or may not be the case:

  • Roaster may visit farms (often with importer) and form valuable relationships with farmer
  • Roaster may be involved in price discussion with other parties
  • Roaster may contribute funds to the farmer for the purpose of improving quality (purchasing materials to build drying beds or greenhouses, for example)
  • This version of the story begins with the farmer and ends with the roaster, with crucial steps in between. In the popular version of the direct trade story, the exporter and the importer are omitted entirely. Sometimes they are even discredited as unnecessary “middlemen.”

In most cases, roasters buy coffee from importers. The importers are the ones doing much of the leg work of cupping huge numbers of coffees, regularly dealing with farmers and exporters, arranging shipping, dealing with containers, and taking on much of the risks associated with coffee buying. The importers take care of the logistics, and then send samples of green coffee to the roaster. The roaster then cups the samples, buys bags of coffee from the importer, and takes the credit.

Aside from simply buying coffee from farmers and selling it to roasters, importers are involved in a number of behind the scenes operations that keep the industry going. They help farmers with processing, transportation, and marketing their coffees. Often importers are an essential banking partner with farmers, with crop financing playing a big part in what they do. Importers buy coffees from farmers when the farmer is ready to sell, not just when there is roaster demand. Importers are very often the people that farmers can rely to be repeat high-volume customers they can depend on. And importers are often the ones that aid roasters in having relationships with producers in the first place.

There is no official or agreed upon definition of what “direct trade” means. When a roaster claims to buy direct, it may mean that they are in some kind of communication with the farmer, usually through an importer. It may mean that the roaster has visited the farm. In some cases, a roaster may use the term “direct” to mean that they are involved in the negotiation of the price of the coffee with the farmer. In very rare cases, direct trade may mean that the roaster is actually acting as the importer. In order for that to happen, the roaster needs to be doing enough volume to justify importing full containers of coffee. In all cases, exporters are involved in the process.

At JJ Bean, the only reason we know any farmers at all is because we have been introduced to them through importers or exporters. Without wonderful people like Bob and Max from Royal Coffee, Leah and Christian from Mercanta, Brandon from Olam, Badi from Caravela, Roberto and Genaro from SERVEX, Maria from SMC, and a host of others, we could not do what we do.

JJ Bean only consistently acts as the importer for two coffees. The reason we are able to do this is because we need multiple containers of these coffees for our high volume blends. Even in these cases, we do not use the term “direct” in our literature because we feel it unnecessarily devalues both the exporters and the other coffees we source in different ways. When we buy smaller amounts of coffee for single origins, even when we have a valuable relationship with the farmer, we purchase the coffee through an importer.

Going forward, we will be listing the importers (or exporters if we are the importers) of our coffees as a very small way we can honour those who enable us to roast some of the very best coffees in the world.