Shrubs and Brokers and Importers


Shrub backed its way into selling green coffee to roasters. We found some small roasters were ordering significant amounts from Sweet Maria’s in our 20 Lb. bags. It seemed to be a way to have special offerings or to fill gaps in the inventory. Nobody was doing “broken bags” at that time, less than 1 full jute bag quantities. A few that had offered it before had phased it out. For us, we had always assumed that when a home roaster scaled up and went into the business, we should gracefully hand them off to the numerous brokers and importers out there.

It’s not that our sentiments about the others changed: the wide range of coffee sources out there offer a good range of coffees. But increasingly we realized that they didn’t do what we were doing. In particular they didn’t build lots by evaluating the volume of samples we did. You can rightfully argue the merits of our labor intensive method, but we cupped around 500 Colombias and 400 Guatemala samples in the last 6 months. Importers look at a lot of samples and from observation they do a couple of tables a day of coffees, sometimes more. But many of there offers are 1 sample for a stock lot container of coffee. 300 grams representing 300 bags. That’s a very different amount of effort put into sourcing a container of coffee.

Another thing that strikes me is the relationship to the small roaster. I think importers have seen the “single mixed pallet” customer as an investment in the future, when they might be buying 40 or 60 bags of each lot. Granted that the pricing reflects the effort to deal with the small guy, but when you are splitting up containers of coffee into 2 or 5 or 10 bag purchases, its quite a different thing than Shrub. You are basically a Costco. Micro-lots, embraced by some importers and disdained by others, is a different thing. (And by micro lots, we mean one small lot from one producer, or one process batch from one larger producer, cupped and approved case by case, sample by sample. then kept separate and traceable, sold as a discrete coffee). In general there are many rather fake micro-lots that are really a coffee of mixed batches chopped up into smaller bites for the small roasting business. Or in other cases this business is seen as a “foot in the door” and a loss leader, to confer a sense of quality on the larger, non-discrete lots, to appease the roasters need for something special, or to gain access on the buying side to a tighter relationship with a farm or coop.

But is it real coffee business, and one that allows farms, importers and roasters to prosper in itself … or is it something that has more marketing value than otherwise? I am not sure, because the kind of margin that farms and importers need to sustain this kind of work is way, way different than bringing in stock lot boxes of one type of coffee.

This jogs loose a telling memory for me, one that relates to this basic question that I can’t resolve. As a bigger importer, the small sales and small lots must simply be a lubricant to drive the larger volume. The 10 micro lots on a broker list must pale in the face of the 15 lots of 300 bags of the same coffee, even if the margins are quite different. Back to back containers at 3 cents margin to large roaster must far outweigh that 15 bag micro lots sold to 3 roasters who all want pictures and farm information. Are micro lots just the window dressing, something to do in-between the real sales? I had thought that the ideal customer for an importer was the one who cared, the one who cupped, provided feedback, and bought without concern for a few cents here and there. I imagined it much as a professor would have those few students who were really engaged, who asked questions, who cared. An importer was telling me about a buyer, one I knew who was really likable, even more than a business relationship they always had dinner when in town and traveled together for non-coffee related stuff. But this roaster didn’t cup, and the importer handled all the buying for them. They just told them the volume, and they secured the coffee spread out over the year.

I asked them why they thought this was a good customer. Beyond the friendship, wouldn’t they chase after a more competitive price at some point, if they didn’t cup and really communicate about the coffee buying decisions besides contracts and prices? The importer said no, it was an ideal customer for them, a fluid relationship with lots of trust. It stuck in my mind. I didn’t get it. I still don’t in some regards, in terms of a roaster buying more on price than quality. After all, is that how the roaster will turn around and sell this coffee to their customer? “Here, enjoy this Colombia Supremo, the aroma of +35 differential, the flavor of a 1.95 C market, and the aftertaste of $205 Flat Rate Pallet Load trucking.”

What I do appreciate about that way of doing things is the exceptional trust it shows between the importer and roaster, and that’s not something to mock at all. Good relationships really are invaluable.

In all, the US scene benefits from the diversity of coffee sources available to us. It’s a buyers market, and that is good. Each different mode has it’s strengths and weaknesses in terms of how that coffee will ultimately be sold to a customer. We talk about coffee as if it is one thing. But it is many things. In some ways Shrub still evolves, trying to determine where we fit in, or if we fit in at all. Quite possibly, we don’t have to. -Thompson

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