A Novice Green Buyer’s Search for Meaning

by Jessica Cole, Elysian Coffee Roasters

There are a few things about green buying that aren’t what I expected. I thought green buyers trotted over volcanic terrain shouldering sacks of coffee, heroically hopping around like nimble-footed mountain goats. I thought being more connected to purchasing would shed some light on coffee’s more existential questions: what are we doing here, and why?

So far, it’s about spreadsheets. And more questions.

I’ve been working in coffee for ten years, first as a barista and then as a roaster. Just as in roasting, green buying seems to contain a spectrum of responsibility. When I was a production roaster, I pumped out a few thousand pounds of coffee per day—sometimes the same coffee, the same roast profile, all day long. In my more creative role as head of a growing roastery, the scope of my work is wider (although the volume is certainly lower). As my quality-control responsibilities have grown, my interests in controlling inventory and managing production have led me to seek more input in buying decisions.

jess1Our buying decisions inform what goes on the bag. Like many others, we rely on importers to tell the coffee’s story. But what do people really want to know? I’ve never had a customer ask me about a farm’s altitude. In fact, no one’s ever asked me who grew it, either. When I put technical specifications such as elevation and variety on the bag, I’m pretty sure I’m playing to the back of the room. How do I balance what’s special to me with what consumers care about? In an effort to impress my industry peers, am I alienating—or worse, intimidating—the people who actually buy my coffee?

Of course, social responsibility is a big deal. Transparency, too, is a worthwhile goal. I can’t help feeling that, in the pursuit of those ideals, I participate in a food culture that asks consumers to feel guilty about their purchasing decisions, while offering to solve the problem by volunteering my own brand.

Buying coffee is a stressful experience for shoppers. There are logos and seals of approval and pictures of smiling farmers that say, “You can feel good about this choice.” Sometimes the associations are downright uncomfortable. I’m not specifically pointing a finger at any institution or roaster, because I think most of us are doing this. Any information I put on a bag in the guise of traceability carries a promise that the consumer can trust me to have paid enough, to care, to know, so they can feel they’ve made a good choice. I want to be worthy of that trust.

More than anything else, I want people to enjoy their coffee and leave the rest to me. Yet the further up the coffee chain I grow, the more I realize just how much effort is required to ensure a pleasant coffee experience. Roasting and brewing aren’t enough; I hope learning about green buying will give me another way to influence the outcome. Talking to importers and other coffee professionals seems like a good place to start. Being grounded in the nuts and bolts of coffee buying is an ongoing pursuit; projections, shipping timetables, filling gaps in inventory, and, yes, spreadsheets.

As luck would have it, I love spreadsheets. And asking questions.

jessJessica Cole is head roaster at Elysian Coffee Roasters in Vancouver, BC. She has worked in coffee for ten years. A science nerd at heart, she enjoys collecting information and looks forward to exploring all the data-mining opportunities available to roasters and green buyers. Her goal is to share that work with others.