What tools/supplies/resources do you use most often as a green coffee buyer?
There are so many tools. For traveling to source, I would say my biggest tools are my camera, notebook, and a cupping spoon. Sounds silly doesn’t it? But seriously, chronicling as much as I can through writing and images is a huge part of my work on the ground. Listening and capturing images is something that has stayed with me as a mainstay. Sketching the experience lends itself to taking away the most essential moments and details.
Tools while not traveling always come down to keeping our book organized through database support. This is key in not overbooking, or not getting too distracted due to the breadth of coffees we buy from all over the world. Basics include a moisture meter and a sound sample roaster for evaluation. Also, water. Our water is now spec’d to SCAA standards so that we have a way of calibrating and getting the most out of our samples. Resources come down to a few books and websites; I use Wintgen’s Coffee: Growing, Processing, Sustainable Production book and many SCAA-written pieces on the cupping protocol. Websites include CATIE and other research organizations committed to coffee science.
When you’re evaluating coffee for purchase, do you use the SCAA cupping form, a variation of it, a different form, no form? Does it depend on the situation?
We use the SCAA form, and have it on our tablets via Cropster. We have been very happy with Cropster in its ability to quickly combine our scores and share our metrics among the cupping team. The use of tablets has allowed us to focus on the coffees, and not get hung up on the mechanics of cupping. Sensory work is a very fleeting and solitary craft, so this new way of cupping at Allegro gives us a deeper grasp of exactly what we are tasting, and the ability to easily get our scoring and descriptors correctly noted.
What standards do you use to evaluate coffee and how do you determine if a coffee is suitable for purchase?
We look at physical defects, screen preparation size, moisture analysis, and basic SCAA standards for caramelization of coffee in the roast process. All of these things buttress what we are expecting in a contracted coffee. The more data collection, palate memory, and overall connection to a coffee we can get from pre-shipment to arrival gives us a stronger look into what we are arranging to purchase. These standards are primarily from SCAA, but also have evolved within our own lab and our own talented cuppers and buyers.
When cupping at origin, do you maintain the same protocols/practices as when you’re in your lab at HQ?
That is a very good question. Your own consistent methodology is what allows for honest, objective feedback. This is never easy to do at origin. As an example, I am here in Ethiopia this week and Kenya next week, and each lab is entirely different. We try not to make final purchases until our team can cup them in our lab. We try in earnest to use the same practices, but you have to go with the flow, be able to shed some of the mechanics, and dive into the coffee. You take away as much sensory description as you can and worry about the scoring later. I believe it has made me a stronger cupper to cup under any circumstances anywhere, and see how close I got when I return back, sample in hand.
In your opinion, what is the most crucial skill or trait that a green buyer must have to run an effective coffee program and be a successful coffee grader/buyer?
A passion for all things coffee. You have to love it. You have to want to stay late and taste when everyone else is ready to head out. Having the tenacity to learn and grow, since the craft of being a buyer is about lingering tableside with a coffee. Getting as close as you can to it. Developing a great memory for flavor. Being driven to find out why things taste the way they do. All of the other details will follow. To run a great program is to listen to your team, your leadership and yourself. Don’t be afraid to have an opinion. Connecting the dots as quickly and efficiently as possible is always a strong work ethic that sticks.
I have always thought you must always be willing to gather a team who is stronger than your own skills. All boats rise and, in the end, you all advance further if you bring together the best and brightest. Doesn’t have to be superstars who have already proven themselves, but also folks who have the hunger, the intensity to bring together all the right elements and elevate the whole room. I want to be challenged by my team and not have a room of heads nodding yes or no based on my judgment. Buying is about trusting yourself and your team. Without that, you have nothing.
Darrin Daniel began his coffee career in Eugene, Oregon in the mid-1980s. He has worked as a barista, roaster, trainer, technician, quality control manager, and coffee-and-tea buyer for companies such as Torrefazione Italia, Coffee Corner, and Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Daniel is currently the sourcing director for Allegro Coffee Company in Denver, Colorado.