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Tim Wendelboe Interview – What is collaboration?

Collaboration is a wonderful and mandatory tool in an industry. It makes the whole work life easier if well practiced. I think collaboration works properly when one is aware of the tasks and challenges of the other one. The coffee sector is a dynamic community, but we can always get better at understanding each other all along the coffee chain. Reading some coffee professionals interviews can bring awareness and clues about each other’s reality for a better collaboration.

For my first interview, I’ve been honoured to have the opportunity to talk with Tim Wendelboe, World Barista and Cup Taster Champion, but also famous roaster and coffee producer. 

The interview took place in January 2020 at the Vienna Coffee Festival, long time ago – happy times, when coffee festivals were not cancelled, when we could still shake hands, hug, and mix our bacteria in the same cupping bowls. 

It was extremely interesting to talk about collaboration with Tim, because he is a multiple professional of the coffee chain: coffee grower, roaster, barista.. a whole coffee career with many varied experiences of collaborations. May these coffee thoughts and experiences bring awareness of your coffee collaborators’ challenges!

A quest for quality

“It’s just about curiosity” is Tim’s first answer to my interview, curiosity and coffee experiments are the fuel for quality improvement during his whole career. This thirst for knowledge pushed him to be a better barista through competitions and then, an even better roaster, green coffee buyer and now learning to be a farmer. 

“I became better at it, then I started to realize that the limitations were not necessarily in  the roasting and in the brewing anymore.”

Wanting to do the best possible is the starting point for an increased quality through preparation, roasting, sourcing, processing… There is no end to the discovery in the coffee chain!

Quality happens at each step of the chain, each actor is a step towards more quality in the cup. Each coffee professional is interdependent to one another in the making of the perfect quality cup.

The experience of limitations while trying to perfect skills is a motivation to find solutions to reach more quality.

One of the first limitation coffee professionals face in their quest for quality is time.

“Changes happen over time and it can be slow or sometimes fast paced.”

Explained Tim talking about his work with his Colombian partner producer Elias.

Nature’s rhythm is the rule: 

“[…]changing a very poor soil takes time.”

A coffee producer has to wait 3 to 4 years before his new tree starts to produce cherries; the import and buying calendar follows the harvest … 

The limitation is not necessarily in the time pace being slow if one wants to deliver quality coffee; but in not being able to totally control the time frame. Quality requires adaptation to timings and unexpected turns from nature. It’s especially true those days: nature usually hits hard the producers first; but the coronavirus started to hit roasters and final consumers for a start. Our rhythms as coffee professionals is completely disturbed, adaptation and solidarity are the keys to tame this crazy new timing in addition to the existing issues of our sector.

Another limitation towards quality is money: Tim’s collaboration with Elias is paved with discussions and negotiations to check if experiments towards more quality are financially possible. A coffee buyer needs to keep in mind for example, that every change/experiment he is asking to a small producer may be a huge financial risk.

According to Tim, quality needs to be the focus of the coffee market, it’s the future of the coffee sector:

“[..] we’re not in an industry of cheap coffee. The only way we can move forward I think is to focus on other aspects, like good quality that we have to actually pay a better price for.” 

Although quality needs to be defined. 

Coffee is an everyday drink and as one can’t unfortunately drink Champagne every day; most of the people can’t neither drink a competition winner Panama Gesha as everyday coffee. Quality also needs to be found in every kind of lot. Then quality would not only mean the SCA final score of the cup, but maybe perfecting the skills at each step of the coffee production even for lower grade coffees. This permanent quest for perfecting skills is the sign of quality: it’s not necessarily easy for instance to create a quality estate blend with consistency that can fit a large panel of end consumers. 

Those skills and efforts need to be rewarded with a correlative price. And I am sure you know it’s not the case right now: 

“The price for producing commodities  is totally unrelated to quality.”

The coffee market with coffee as a commodity in its present state is not rewarding properly quality and quality work. 

Quality is co-dependent on other contributing factors as the good health of ecosystems in the growing countries. And Tim especially puts emphasis on the soil’s key role:

“ I truly believe after what I’ve learnt, that the biggest reason for our problems in the coffee industry, among farmers –  [and I’m talking about problems like the leaf rust, pest and disease on the trees, drops in quality, climate change all these kinds of things] – Everything is linked to the soil. If you have healthy soils, the trees will be healthy. You will have less problems with disease and pests… If you have shade trees, you create ecosystems where you have less problems with insects and also less problems with climate changes.” 

A good quality cup should thus show and taste the results of a healthy ecosystem. 

“I can drink the best coffee in the world but if I know that it’s been grown in a very damaging way, it doesn’t give me pleasure. – It might be a good coffee; but it does not give me any pleasure.” The quality of the coffee drinker’s experience is also damaged.

It’s all about people

“So for me finding good coffee starts with finding good people.”

Finding a good coffee partner producer is comparable to dating, explains Tim, it’s just a matter of special connection and that’s the beginning of a great piece of work together to add value to the coffee sector. This special connection is the mandatory starting point for a good collaboration:

“Quality can improve rather it’s more difficult to work on a personal connection.”

What can make this type of connection special?

A green coffee buyer’s skill is to be people orientated, understanding the differences, being open minded and adapting to be able to work together towards the same direction. 

“I am a people person so I deal with people more than just  looking for the best coffee in the world.” 

Understanding actually looks like playing a big role in a good collaboration: “I need people who understand what I want and who deliver the service that I want.” 

It’s about the understanding of common values and goals such as for instance, the quest for quality. 

As coffee is a global product, a very valuable skill for a coffee professional is also to understand the cultural differences and being able to put an opinion in its specific background. 

“[…] when you go to countries like Kenya, farmers get upset when they know how much we sell their coffee. […]  What is hard for them to understand is that there are costs involved and lots of steps in the middle. Also for example,  the cost of life in Norway is not comparable to Kenya. 

Being aware of those mechanisms is one thing, I don’t blame them for not understanding it, it’s difficult. They’re not roasters […]”

Being aware of all the steps and actors along the coffee chain is a first step towards more transparency. 

Including people in the coffee narrative gives more quality to the green coffee buyer or final consumer’s experience of coffee.

“If you want to be the best little student of the coffee world, you can just buy auction coffees all the time. But you would not have an intellectual relation with the person who grew the coffee. And for me this is a big part of the quality: to know who produced the coffee, how it was produced; it adds value.”

It reminds us that coffee is not only a product but also an experience. The quality of the final consumer’s experience is created all along a healthy conscious coffee chain.

Some awareness of the work at each step of the coffee chain, having some knowledge about it, trying to understand another coffee professional makes the work easier, the quality better.

We can notice in Tim’s career how meeting coffee professionals and sharing knowledge shaped his career.

It creates an enriching community in the coffee sector where people learn from each other’s knowledge and experience. This dynamism creates ideas, debates and innovations to think about the future of the sector.

The price of coffee: the burning issue

“The price of the market is not sustainable” I guess most of us are aware of it. 

A cheap price for coffee looks like being just a short term solution, a good idea that quickly turns wrong as looking at the big picture. 

Choosing the short term goal of profit alone creates a vicious circle. Not choosing quality and sustainability is sentencing small producers to the death of their activity in the medium term, because the market prices of the last years can’t even cover their production costs. Intensive farming is harming ecosystems, exhausting soils and impoverishing the diversity of coffee. A profit-only goal is a dead end because it would, in a future maybe not so far, kill the source itself of the profit.

On the side of the green coffee buyer/ roaster: paying just a bit more per kilo can be a life changer in the origin country: “We should understand that we have the power to pay more for the coffee without big consequences. If you paid 50 cents more per pound, or a dollar more per pound, it’s not going to bankrupt your company. But it is a make-or-break for the farmer. So we can do it.”

What’s in a price? That which determines the good health of the whole coffee chain…

Understanding the market and how the price is made is valuable knowledge thinks Tim. 

First, the producer should grasp how the market works : “[…]you can have a farm at a very low altitude, you don’t have the potential for specialty… but at least you learn about the market and you know you should focus more on productivity. So I guess getting to know the market is important for a farmer.” It helps him to make good decisions over his way of producing and about the end result he should deliver to be able to make the most of his harvest.

The green coffee buyer at the sourcing/exporting part is the actor of the coffee chain most aware of how the market works. A fair coffee buyer takes care to pay the producer a realistic cost on the top of the market price. Evaluating that cost can be done in many ways like paying for quality following the SCA scores for example: https://www.thecoffeequest.com/europe/origins/colombia/huila/la-victoria/ 

The green coffee buyer at the production/roasting part can also have a pretty accurate idea of what’s behind the price he’s paying for its coffee bag depending on the importer he’s choosing to team up with. More and more importers are willing to tell more about the composition of their prices; a good indication is also the choice of their partners in the origin countries, and how close they are to those partners. It’s not easy to present all those data without overflowing the customer and missing the point which is actually as simple as: is the person who grew my coffee living properly thanks to coffee production? 

The barista definitely also needs to know about the coffee price, to be able to explain it in simple terms to the end consumer. I could not say it better than Tim: “I would like  to say to baristas that I wish they would learn more about how the coffee is grown. Not just from textbooks and YouTube but from real life. To realize that we have to pay more for coffee. […] Baristas also need to know that the price of the traded coffee is too low, because their role is also to explain it to the final consumer, to educate them, to transmit the knowledge.” The barista has the responsibility to educate the end consumer.  He has the soft power to adapt the demand to the reality of the coffee chain instead of letting him consume a commodity totally disconnected from reality. 

For more transparency, each coffee professional on this chain needs to be able to communicate about the price from his own position.

The communication about the price differs with the coffee professional.

When it comes to communicating about price within the coffee industry: “There’s never a number that would satisfy everyone. […] What the FOB price tells is if you paid enough for the coffee or not. […] So for me, the FOB price is a good reference but it also needs transparency.” 

The transparency of prices can take different shapes, a benchmark, a blockchain, a true cost accounting… Some great initiatives like Transparent Trade Coffee or Future Proof Coffee Collective organize data to be able to have an idea of a true price for coffee.

It can also be noticed with some very down-to-earth anecdotes: personally, working for a green coffee importer, I can’t be happier than when my colleague Jessica, cupper in one of our buying station, tells me that since he started to work with us, a producer called Cirilo has been able to pay back the debts he contracted over the years to be able to maintain his Finca. 

The raw reality of prices and wages should not be a taboo or avoided, the health of the whole chain depends on it, from the producer to the barista, everybody should live correctly thanks to coffee. 

Also if one communicates about paying a fair price, he should be able to prove it to the person after him in the coffee chain: “[…]no one is calling them out and there’s no need for them to publish anything, so people just believe this green-washing.” 

So it’s many individual wills for more transparency and sustainability that can become the common will of the coffee industry, one professional pushing (gently & with understanding of the big picture) the other. 

The collaboration and solidarity in the coffee chain is now being tested by a virus. The whole chain is hit. It shows the importance of the demand: one switch in the end consumer way of life and the whole industry is slowed down and needs to adapt. Now the whole coffee chain needs more collaboration than ever.

You can read Tim’s full interview about collaboration here

About the author

Dear Coffee Friends, I am Elisabeth working for three years now as an account manager for The Coffee Quest Europe in Amsterdam. Coffee made me meet tons of interesting people and little by little while listening and learning, I had this personal blog project:  write articles based on coffee professionals interviews with analysis in order to bring awareness and understanding of each other’s work for a better collaboration. It aims to give clues of coffee professionals’ tasks reality.

The coffee industry is a sector that shows already a will to go towards more transparency and collaboration. Ideas and solutions are flourishing and this evolution is not stopping.

The link between the producing countries and the consuming countries tends to be recreated. The different actors of the coffee chain are then increasingly collaborating but their role, tasks and skills are radically different.

In my opinion, these differences are an enrichment if only they are taken into account and understood. Being aware of each actor’s skills and tasks is mandatory for a better collaboration. An increased awareness of each other’s job would definitely be a help for any coffee businesses.

Therefore I hope that writing these articles will be my humble contribution for a smoother collaboration in the coffee industry. Each article will tell one link of the chain’s story based on actors’ interviews.

These articles do not aim to bring easy recipes for collaboration but hints of each actor’s strengths and challenges, to put the individual’s work into the coffee chain perspective.

The coffee sector is multiple: from established industries to dynamic entrepreneurs; thus the interviewed actors will also be coming from multiple coffee backgrounds.

The articles won’t be judgmental but realistic, not avoiding any burning issue of the sector, neither forgetting to celebrate some wonderful achievements.