As a green coffee buyer, you’ll know that samples allow you to discover the qualities of a certain coffee batch, so you can assess whether or not it will meet your portfolio requirements. As a producer, you’ll know that samples could make – or break – your sale.
The sampling process is important, but can be tricky and sensitive. Many factors can determine whether a sample accurately represents a coffee batch on offer, and timing is critical here. Knowing whether expectations have been met at both ends often only occurs at the last minute.
Despite this, best practices do exist that can improve your confidence in a sample, confirm that you’ve made a good buying decision, and foster trust with your buyer or producer. Here’s how both parties can improve their sampling efforts so that everyone benefits.
A woman examines green coffee beans at Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union (YCFCU) Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Credit: Meklit Mersha
Green coffee bean sampling needs to be done at several stages throughout the sales process, progressing from type sample, to stocklot sample, to offer sample, to pre-shipment sample. As each stage passes, each sample becomes more accurate and final. Here’s how producers and roasters uniquely benefit from sampling.
Green coffee beans are a fresh product that’s sensitive to storage, handling, and timing. It will require multiple checks to manage the changes that occur along the way. As a roaster, sampling can help you monitor these changes for an accurate impression of the goods on offer. It’s a crucial step in the trade process and at the crux of transactions.
I spoke to Rafael Valcarce for more insight on this. Rafael is an Agricultural Value Chain Consultant with 20 years of experience in the coffee value chain. He works closely with producers as an advisor on business, legal, and technical issues in the coffee trade.
For Rafael, the preparation of a sample can act as a basis for an offer or sale from a roaster. It can verify that the coffee satisfies sales specifications, and determine the characteristics of the coffee for technical, commercial, and administrative purposes. It can be used for quality control or quality inspection, and is sometimes used as a reference sample in case litigation occurs – for example, if you’re not satisfied with the final purchase.
Various brewing methods on display at YCFCU Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Credit: Meklit Mersha
Rafael says, “First impressions can define a relationship, and care in sample preparation is a must if you want to gain a client, customer, and then partner. The sample has to be a kind of presentation card for your organisation… When you send a sample to a potential buyer, [imagine] that you’re sending a small lot… compressed in a 300 gram or one-kilo sample”.
He advises producers to provide as much transparency and information as possible along with their sample, as the sample alone can only go so far in accurately representing a lot – and the potential buyer is aware of this. Cultivar type, altitude, processing steps, tools, and growth conditions are all details a buyer will need to make an informed decision.
This type of precision and accuracy can challenge even knowledgeable and experienced specialty coffee producers. However, it has its benefits. It shows buyers that you’re knowledgeable about your crop, and tells them exactly what they need to know to make an informed purchasing decision. This can encourage them to make repeat purchases.
Ground coffee samples await inspection from potential buyers. Credit: Caravela Coffee
Alejandro Cadena is CEO and co-founder of Caravela Coffee. As Alejandro and his team engage in long-term relationships with producers, I wanted to get his views on the sampling process, and the challenges it poses to producers with whom he works closely.
He says, “The sampling process is very important. How you sample a lot is very important. Usually, farmers don’t have the tools to do this properly at the farm. So they would only take the top part of each bag and then mix it. And that’s really not representative. So that’s why we generally don’t accept samples brought back by the farmers”.
Rafael mentions that producers also sometimes smarten up their samples by removing defects – “something that could cause disappointments and non-conformities with the contract when the real lot arrives,” he warns. This usually occurs at type sample level. While it might attract buyers, it could lose producers a sale and damage their reputation.
Freshly brewed black coffee is poured into a cup for tasting. Credit: Meklit Mersha
Caravela Coffee has on-site warehouses and cupping labs to sample and evaluate their coffee lots. While they encourage farmers to participate in sampling to build their knowledge, they ultimately oversee the process by performing a quality analysis that examines moisture yields from parchment to green, the percentage of defects present, and other parameters.
It’s apparent that collaboration, guidance, and feedback help secure good samples. However, Alejandro doesn’t think buyers have to necessarily get involved in sampling at all. He says, “I know there’s a lot of people that want to feel like they’re in control of the whole purchasing model. But in reality, they’re so far away from the farms that they can do more harm than good”.
An example of this is when buyers purchase moisture meters for the producers they work with. Alejandro says, “What they don’t realise is that a moisture meter that’s not properly calibrated at least every six months or once every year is no good for the farmer”.
Calibrating a moisture meter can be expensive and time-consuming, as it usually must be done at the manufacturer’s facilities. Alejandro instead recommends that producers learn to measure moisture through taste and colour observation, so they develop their own knowledge that doesn’t require assistance from a person or machine.
A man prepares cupping samples for evaluating coffee. Credit: Caravela Coffee
While sampling has practical benefits for producers and roasters, it has an equally important impact on the producer and buyer relationship. To improve the sampling process (and coffee quality at any level) communications must be kept open so that a long-term partnership can be built. Alejandro says, “In the end, it’s all about creating trust”.
To strengthen this relationship, buyers could add trips to origin, create a presence on the ground through a warehouse or cupping lab, or develop a participatory sampling process with producers. It will help you better communicate your needs and demands, gain a clearer understanding of producer realities and constraints, and encourage both parties to exchange knowledge and advice.
It’s important to explain the sampling process to producers, provide them with the necessary tools or knowledge to understand it, and demonstrate its benefits to them. “The key is being able to be as accurate as possible for the farmer, because the results of the analysis can change farmers’ lives for the good or the bad,” Alejandro insists. Rafael echoes this sentiment, saying, “Buy and sell should be based on mutual trust… understanding, and cooperation”.
Alejandro says, “You really want to make sure that you’re doing it properly and that you’re giving [them] honest and accurate feedback, so that the farmer can know very well what [they] need to do to improve”. When dealing with experienced farmers where established partnership based on good results exists, this could take the form of providing guidance to ensure that their quality remains consistent.
A green coffee bean sample is placed in a packet after being measured. Credit: Caravela Coffee
It seems that the key to high and consistent quality sampling is collaboration and feedback. However, the onus is on the buyer and producer, and the catalyst is the producer-buyer relationship. Increased trust and improved communication will mean that the samples provided are more likely to be accurate, creating a sound basis to make a buying decision on.
For Alejandro, “The thing that a buyer can do is find good partners in the region that have the equipment, that have the knowledge, that have the capacity to understand how to properly do a good sampling and a good quality control procedure and not really try to do everything themselves”.
Good sampling therefore requires balancing technical feedback, learning, and trust – for both parties.