The Green Coffee Buyer: Myths and Realities

By Rob Stephen, InterAmerican Coffee & Mark Inman, Olam Specialty Coffee

If you ask someone who is new to the coffee industry what job they’d like to have, one of the most popular answers is that of the green coffee buyer. This job has been written about, envied, glamorized, and mythologized since coffee became a popular beverage in the U.S.. If you look back through the historical record, you’ll see black-and-white photos of dapper men in ties, sitting solemnly around a New York City or New Orleans cupping table, making what look like serious decisions. The job of coffee buyer was a serious undertaking that took decades to learn, and was passed on from generation to generation through the tradition of apprenticeship.

In the first era of specialty coffee, when coffee companies truly began to differentiate on the basis of quality instead of price, the job of coffee buyer took on a magical aura, like alchemy. Locating and interpreting the dizzying array of available qualities, and then selecting the right coffees and partners were tasks without precedent. Looking at coffee as a specialty item instead of a commodity opened up a world of both infinite possibility and infinite difficulty. It took pioneers like Alfred Peet and his contemporaries, who had grown up in the origin side of the trade, to effectively navigate these early challenges of finding and importing the world’s best-quality coffees.

As the specialty industry developed, family companies flourished regionally and were able to leverage their generational knowledge in this new direction of coffee sourcing. With a firm understanding of the trade and how it worked, they found ways to get these higher-quality coffees into their existing supply chain. By partnering with the importers and exporters that they already worked with, as well as some importing pioneers who realized that specialty coffee would be a profitable sector to specialize in, specialty coffee supply channels were forged and strengthened.

Of course, it is the nature of markets to change. As the specialty industry attracted newcomers to the trade, the apprenticeship model became less and less common. With this loss of generational knowledge came changes in the industry. While the deep knowledge of how the trade had traditionally worked was mostly lost, new ideas were  introduced that revitalized the industry and created new opportunities for increasing the value and volume of specialty coffee.

If the coffee buyers in those black-and-white photos were to switch places with their modern-day counterparts, both would find themselves at a loss: the job has changed dramatically. The buyers of the past would shake their heads and laugh at the concept of microlots and direct trade, just as today’s buyer would probably be ill-equipped to deal with stock lots offered from a steamer ship, or sending a runner down to place an order in the futures pit.

Today’s coffee buyer has many responsibilities. Not all of them are obvious to the outsider. Yes, finding and selecting great coffees continue to be important in the role, and the fortunes of the company still often ride on their decisions. But the coffee buyer of today must navigate in a new world, with challenges that require a very specific skill set in order to be successful.

At the Event in Seattle this April, the authors will present “Effective Strategies for Coffee Buyers.”  In this article, we discuss some of our thoughts on the myths and realities of this oft-misunderstood career.

What roles does the successful buyer need to fulfill in a coffee business, and how do those tasks impact the success of their business?

Mark:  In my experience, a successful coffee buyer is much less of an artist, or someone blessed with a super-palate, and is actually more comparable to an executive chef or a buyer for a retail company. A successful green coffee buyer needs to know how to identify the ingredients that make up the company’s product line, and to create blends as well as single origin/varietal offerings that meet the company’s quality specifications. They need to know how to buy in a manner that will ensure the goods sold will generate a desired profit for the company, as well as maintain the quantity of coffees needed for uninterrupted, year-round sales.

Successful buyers surround themselves with strong support systems. They have strong relationships with importers, who assist in the sourcing and movement of coffees, as well as a production team that can carry out the processing of the green coffee into the company’s finished product line. They are methodical, precise and able to make decisions quickly and efficiently, and are meticulous record keepers—they live by their spreadsheets.

Rob: I would second the points about being decisive and keeping great spreadsheets.  The buyer manages supply, quality, cost of goods, risk, inventory, cash flow, sustainability, and a vast array of relationships and partnerships on all sides of the business. Each aspect has varying levels of complexity, and the best buyers find a way to make them all work in harmony at the same time. But the world of coffee moves fast! Often, opportunities arise that are very fleeting—such as a coffee with limited availability, or a market level that is advantageous. If you know your business and your needs, you are well positioned to take advantage of those fleeting opportunities.

Are there misconceptions about the job of the coffee buyer?

Rob: There are so many misconceptions. I suppose that most think it is a life of adventure, led by people with golden palates. There’s a little of that, but honestly, the majority of the time the buyer is staring at a spreadsheet or an inventory report, trying to figure out how to get inventory and cost levels to the right place. I also think that it is one of those positions where you will get more blame and less credit for the impact of your decisions. As this article is being written, the coffee market has jumped 60 cents, and I can almost hear buyers around the world being blamed for the increase in cost of goods!  Rather than being a job where there is a lot of choosing between different things, I’ve always found it to be one of persuasion. You make relationships with farmers, millers, exporters, importers, bankers, trucking lines, and anyone else that is important to your business, and then persuade them to do things that will help you to succeed. And from personal experience, I can say that anyone who romanticizes travel shouldn’t mind if they spend their birthday sleeping on the cold floor of an airport, or riding for six hours on a bumpy and dusty road only to find that the people they came to meet aren’t there!

Mark: I believe the main misconception about being a green coffee buyer is that the job is centered around travel, forging relationships with growers, assisting in the growing/processing of the company’s coffee, and cupping. If I were to make a list of my “Top 10” skill sets needed for the job, travel and cupping would be pretty low on that list. While I think it is important for green coffee buyers to have a decent understanding of how coffee is grown and processed for export, most lack the training and skill set to suggest how a certain coffee should be grown and processed, beyond stating the needs of their company. It’s one thing to say, “I am looking to purchase a red bourbon, from this region, that is pulped-natural processed,” but suggesting a farmer or mill change their practices to meet your needs is ill-advised.

What skills and competencies are common in effective and successful buyers?

Mark: The ability to effectively source the products needed for the company’s product line. To do that one needs to (1) know how to identify the products/ingredients needed by the company through cupping and evaluating; (2) Have an ability to secure the products/ingredients at or below the cost needed to ensure the projected COGS (Cost of Goods) of the company; (3) Have a clear understanding of coffee contracts; (4) Have strong working relationships with importers to ensure that products/ingredients can be sourced when needed; (5) Have an ability to communicate necessary information about the coffee. This can involve gathering elaborate detail, or simply writing clear tasting notes that customers can relate to.

Rob: I think that the most effective buyers I deal with are both decisive and empowered to make decisions. Things happen fast in coffee, and opportunities can be fleeting. If you know your needs, are aware of where you need to look in order to meet them, and are able to pull the trigger when a solution comes your way—chances are, you will be a more effective buyer for your company. I also think that temperament is important—there are a lot of ups and downs in the job, and if you can remain balanced as you go through them, you won’t be thrown off of your game. I also think that good buyers are patient, and relationship-oriented. There are a lot of interactions that aren’t necessarily about commerce, but are equally beneficial. Talking about quality, or forecasts, weather, the rising/falling market, projections, etc…all of these things enable your business partners to help you and your business, but only if you are willing to make the time to participate in the conversation.

What path should an aspiring coffee buyer follow to get into this field?

Rob:  The ideal path to success as a coffee buyer is through apprenticeship. There is so much to learn, and the cost of mistakes is high. So working with someone who has experience and insight is really, really helpful. And a huge part of being an apprentice is being willing to learn, which involves being wrong, early and often. If your ego can’t handle learning through trial and error (with an emphasis on error) then perhaps this isn’t the field for you. However, understanding that not everyone has that opportunity, I would put a premium on developing certain skills and experience, so that you are well positioned to interview for a job if one comes along. I’d focus on finance/forecasting, cupping certification such as the Q Grader, use of coffee contracts, and learning one of the languages of coffee, ideally Spanish or Portuguese. The courses offered by SCAA in the Coffee Buying curriculum are well suited for this path. Basic research on coffee contract terms and how the C market works is easy to do and pays big dividends. Oh, and get a passport!

Mark: In a perfect world, an aspiring coffee buyer would have the opportunity to work under someone who has been in this trade for many years; having the institutional knowledge, and learning many of the tricks of the trade that are disappearing, would put them at an advantage. They should speak Spanish. They should know how to manage inventory/product lines. They should know their way around a cupping form, as well as a green coffee contract and all paperwork concerned with certifications that they use in their company. They should be comfortable with a sample roaster, as well as a production roaster. They should know how to evaluate the quality of green coffee, as well as the finished product. They should know how to clearly communicate product specs to a roasting/production team. They should always be hungry to learn.

Rob Stephen is a senior coffee trader for InterAmerican Coffee and manages their East Coast office. Mr. Stephen has worked in senior positions for national coffee brands and has a long history in the development of specialty coffee standards. He is a past president of SCAA and a past president of Coffee Kids. He is a licensed Q grader for the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), and also one of a handful of licensed Q Grader instructors.

Mark Inman is a coffee trader and sales manager for Olam Specialty Coffee in Healdsburg, California. Mr. Inman is the former owner of Taylor Maid Farms, a specialty wholesale coffee roaster in Northern California, and has held senior positions for regional and national coffee companies. He is a past president of SCAA, past chair of WCE (World Coffee Events), and incoming chair of the Roasters Guild.