What challenges a coffee importer?

First step into a coffee importer's life

Always being on the side of an end consumer, I used to find myself spending more time enjoying my cup of cappuccino than questioning how far the coffee bean has travelled to reach my hand. Robusta and Arabica, I could only extract so much coffee knowledge then. However, stepping into the world of specialty coffee, through The Coffee Quest, has shifted my perspective completely (and my understanding on coffee varieties as well!).

I learnt soon that the journey of a coffee bean from the farm to roasteries and coffee places isn’t nearly as simple and straightforward. It certainly needs dedication, but also, it requires a strong base of collaboration, between producers, roasters and the connecting force: Importers

Working hard backstage, importers play a distinctive role in the coffee value chain. This is what I’ve learnt here at The Coffee Quest. 

The quest for quality

To give roasters access to high-quality coffee, importers step in and spare roasters the hustle to get coffee to their doorstep. From an outsider’s perspective, the work sounds interesting, buying coffee from farmers with different cultures across the world. However, there is definitely a practical purpose!  Without importers, roasters would need to manage a large network producers and exporters, as well as upscale their (financial) capacity to store a lot of coffee. As the role of coffee importers is filled, so is the missing gap between farmers and roasters. 

During my introduction to the field of specialty coffee, i quickly came to the conclusion that just delivering coffee is not enough. Maintaining the high quality of the product from the moment it leaves the farm throughout the transport is key – that’s where we, the specialty coffee importers, come in. The hindrances that can occur during this process are often overlooked.

Then, what are the challenging parts that coffee importers must overcome? Here below, some of the answers step-by-step, starting in the country of origin up to the final warehouse.

At origin 

Recently hand-picked, freshly processed, rested and graded coffee can taste heavenly at the country of origin. However, maintaining such quality throughout the whole trip is no easy task. 

First and foremost, during the pre-shipment phase, quality assessment is a must. This requires either the importers or their trusted exporting partners to have cupping expertise. All beans are assessed based on agreed standards before packing. This is where a strong partnership between exporters and importers shines as the first setting stone. By working closely with exporting partners, importers can determine reliable quality standards and communicate these to roasters prior to shipment. This is an important step for building the relationship on transparency. 

Checking quality of beans in Brazil
Checking quality of beans, Fazenda Amparo, Brazil

During transport

Passing the first checkpoint, the coffee is on the ship and about to start its voyage. At this stage, excellent management and organizational skills allow importers to put all pieces of the logistical puzzle together: coordinating the route, timeframe, cost, space maximization, parties involved, etc

Apart from that, one major aspect of an importer’s job is to be mindful of uncertainty during the journey. Unpredicted changes in the weather patterns, wrong routes, or prolonged container checks at customs, can all come into play and decrease the coffee quality (e.g. shelf life). This may cost importers a valuable part of their coffee container.

Container ship after departure from the harbor of the producing country
Container ship after departure from the harbor of the producing country

To bring back the question of quality control, let us discuss one of the most common threats of uncertainty during transit that we as coffee importers face: humidity and heat. Being held in humid surroundings during long or delayed transit, the coffee can pick up undesired moisture from its more humid environment. Not to mention the danger of high temperature if a container get’s shipped in a hot port above 40 degrees.

Both the undesired moisture and damage by heat increases oxidation, causing aging and faster devaluation of the coffee over time. Not only does this render the product less valuable to importers and roasters, but also ruins the months of hard work and expenses coffee producers invest into the crop. 

Uncertainties such as high humidity aren’t factors that importers can fully control throughout the journey. However, a good importer knows how to minimize these risks, and spontaneously adjust to such changes should they arise. During shipment time, importers are the main players.

In having trusted partners in origin countries, consolidation and exporting procedures are done with reliability and precision. This not only provides coffee importers, like us, with transparency of the coffee’s journey but also helps to ensure that what’s inside the container when it reaches our ports correlates with the heavenly product we tasted at origin countries.
The Coffee Quest Brasil
Teresa & Gabriel, our partners from Brazil
Get to know us
The Coffee Quest Colombia
Ronald de Hommel, our partner in Colombia, visiting a farmer at Giraldo, Antioquia
Meet the Team
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At the warehouse 

The most challenging part has passed by the time the coffee reaches the warehouse. Once the coffee is at the warehouse, as saying AT SPOT, importers take on the final steps of the process: proper storage and a final coffee quality check

The new arrival samples are cross-referenced with previously taken Offer and Pre-Shipment samples, to ensure consistency of the product. This allows a transparent overview of the coffee’s development throughout the value chain. It is also the opportunity for importers to provide constructive feedback to farmers such as about how they might improve their product, improving income and strengthening our relationship. 

Regarding the humidity issue, warehouse storage is maintained in a cool, dry environment to prevent coffee beans from gaining more moisture. This helps protect the shelf-life of coffee, as high moisture content speeds up the aging process of the coffee.

The Coffee Quest warehouse at Zoeterwoude, NL
The Coffee Quest Warehouse at Zoeterwoude, NL

High quality means team effort

To sum up, when it comes to specialty coffee, it is all about quality and collaboration. Growing from the hand of the producers or cooperatives, the coffee is passed onto exporters and importers, and reaches the final roaster. 

Asking your coffee importers the right question and being able to develop a strong and transparent relationship with them may be the key to success. 

Each phase requires hard work to maintain the quality and overcome challenges. What I realized during my internship at The Coffee Quest is that, management skills aside, an excellent coffee bean is a team effort.

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