One of the first and most common questions we receive when someone first learns about our company lies at the heart of the coffee trade: “How and where do you get your coffee?”
This post is a response to that question, and also responds to a few frequently asked questions we get around coffee through the growing and processing stages!
First, if you’re looking for the short answer to how, logistically, we source our coffee, here it is: through relationships we've built with people at trusted import companies. People like Monica at Sustainable Harvest, Tim at Atlantic, and Brandon at Royal (and Olam, before that!). These people and the companies they work with have built up on-the-ground presences in respective origin countries, and have worked directly with farmers and co-ops—often for decades—to improve the quality of their crops as well as the community’s quality of life. Through these importers, we are able to find great farmer and producer partners to purchase coffee from, knowing that we are contributing to a supply chain that has been established with the well-being and empowerment of farmers as the priority.
Even when we meet a particular farmer or co-op through our own relationships, we still look to our import partners to help ensure the international logistics of moving the green coffee to us here in California.
Upon selecting a coffee we want to roast, we project how much we will need to last through a set amount of time and commit to purchasing that amount. When looking to purchase smaller microlots (as we have with coffees grown by Virgelina Perdomo and Marco Antonio Navarro Guerrero), we will commit to purchasing the entire lot. Upon booking a coffee, we wait—eagerly!—for its arrival by ship in North America (Oakland is the largest port for coffee on the continent), whereupon we test it to ensure the quality was not compromised on the journey. After that, we move the coffee from port to our roastery as-needed to roast and deliver while fresh to our customers (you!).
That’s the short version of the story, logistically. If you want to learn more, and/or learn about how we select our coffees, read on!
WHERE DOES COFFEE GROW?
While there are roughly 70 countries that grow coffee, the number that actually growand export is around 50. There is no country whose coffee is universally regarded as “the best,” though you will often hear Ethiopia regarded highly as it is the “birthplace” of coffee (where it was discovered back in the 1400s). In specialty coffee, it’s widely accepted that the most favorable growing regions are those at high altitude near the equator. The high altitude has a direct effect on moisture content, cloud cover and temperature, and the near-constant sun provides a constant variable amenable to growing. This leads the plants to focus their energy more on producing sweeter, more flavorful cherries. However, it is possible to grow high quality coffee away from the equator, as is currently being demonstrated in our backyard here in California by Frinj Coffee.
Ultimately, we don’t think of coffees in terms of which are the “best.” There are certainly coffees of better quality than others, and there’s a system by which coffees are graded on a quality scale. But when it comes to how we think about coffees, we view them similar to how we view wine, or how one could think of any produce: as an expression of the unique factors and variables that comprise the terroir of where the plants are growing. It goes back to the composition of the soil, how the plant is cared for, and myriad other elements that contribute to flavors that make the coffee unique.
While, no doubt, this perspective on coffee and terroir is shared by other roasters in the specialty coffee world, it is by no means the norm when looking at the industry as a whole.
The five largest producers of coffee, in order, are Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia. If you’re surprised to see Vietnam at #2, you’re not alone! It brings up an important point around sourcing: coffee is a global commodity. It’s one of the world’s most traded products, second only to oil in value. The majority of the world’s coffee winds up in products produced by large multi-national corporations — products which make little note of where the coffee was grown and processed. These global entities dictate next-to-nothing pricing so they can continue selling their coffee at bare bones value while still enabling large profits. As a result, much of the world’s coffee is mass-produced with the use of machines and chemically intensive processes, and roasted dark — nearly to the point of burning the coffee — to mask any defects or poor quality (burnt coffee tastes like burnt coffee). The end result is a relatively poor quality cup of coffee.
However poor the quality, though, that approach to producing coffee results in consistency. Over decades, that consistency has led to a common conception that coffee naturally tastes burnt, ashy or overwhelmingly bitter, and requires heavy milk and sugar to make it taste acceptable. You see a similar process playing out in other products, like wine, where the addition of sweeteners and other chemicals give the glass a consistent taste and color, year after year, never mind how much it alters the terroir-driven flavors of that particular harvest.
Fortunately, not all coffee is produced this way (nor wine, for that matter!). For as long as global trade has existed, there have been people in coffee producing and consuming countries working together to counter the mal-effects of globalization and improve the sustainability of the coffee trade.
Sustainability at the human, the environmental and the economic level.
Who are these people? They include farmers, farmer co-op organizers, sons and daughters of farmers who who go to agrarian school and return to help improve the coffee quality and production of their communities; import companies who find and connect with farmers, providing external resources, greater access to markets and assistance in helping improve production quality and yield; and roasters, who also seek out farmers and have helped create demand and a market for higher quality coffee.
The work of people like those mentioned over decades is what has given rise to the specialty coffee industry — now the fastest-growing sector of the coffee market. Companies like ours that exist within specialty coffee operate on an entirely different axis than conventional coffee corporations. We’re not trying to achieve rock bottom prices, we’re working to provide a delicious, clean, high quality product to our customers and do so in a way that honors the hard work and diligence of the growers while paying rates that enables better, more secure livelihoods. And we’re confident that a lot of our peers in specialty coffee put the same thought, care and commitment into how they source coffee.
While our existence as a specialty coffee roaster certainly contributes to the these sustainable ends, we also think it’s important to give credit where it’s due, and note that our ability to do what we do rests on the shoulders of so many who have come before us, and so many who we partner with currently.
We believe that, as the final marketer of the coffee, it’s important as a roaster never to portray ourselves inaccurately as though we literally have our hands in the production, processing export, and import of our coffee. Because the truth is, we are not farmers, nor exporters, nor importers — we are buyers of green coffee and producers of roasted coffee! Instead, we want to tell the true story of the supply chain and shed light on the great work of all the people we work with along the way. The multi-faceted, interdependent nature of our supply chain means more options for farmers and roasters, and makes for more resilience and versatility.
So how do we do it?
OUR COFFEE SUPPLY CHAIN
As with all produce, coffee harvests are seasonal. Harvest times vary from country to country, and even regions within countries, based on longitude, elevation, and other seasonal factors. The coffees we purchase are hand-picked at the perfect stage of ripeness by farmers who have been closely cultivating the plants throughout the growing season. Upon harvest, they are transported to a station and processed.
Early in the harvesting process, co-ops and farms begin sharing samples of their coffee with import companies. These companies, in turn, share samples with roasters like us. It’s in this way that we are able to continually try fresh-harvested coffees, pre-export, to make decisions based on which coffees we want to purchase and introduce to our menu.
Exactly how roasters make these decisions and how involved they are in the process varies from company to company. Some companies are able to make routine visits to farms and try the fresh harvests at origin. This is a lot of fun and can lead to stronger relationships between farmers and roasters, and it’s something we are excited to do more of as we continue to grow. But even when that becomes more attainable, we always want to be sure we are telling the story of our supply chain in a way that is accurate and gives credit to the many people who make it all possible.
There’s a trope that exists in the coffee world of the adventurous coffee roaster who searches out “the best” coffees in the world, and brings them home to roast. There are certainly examples of roasters who can have an amazing positive impact on and develop mutually beneficial relationships with farmers. Ultimately, we believe the path to creating those relationships begins with being a good and committed business partner. It is the transaction of purchasing coffee that creates the basis for the relationship. In practice, we prefer to meet with farmers after we’ve already been buying their coffee, so that there has already been a positive relationship established and the farmer knows we’re not there to waste their time!
To begin building those relationships as a small, self-started business, we have depended on the great work of import companies since the beginning of Canyon. They have enabled us to try coffees from producers around the world, find our favorites, and start those relationships. If you’re wondering how we met importers in the first place, that began meeting years before we started Canyon Coffee, when we were working at other coffee companies.
Nowadays, when we're curious about incoming coffees or want to check in on a certain farm, we don't call a company hotline, we just text or call people like Tim, Monica, Brandon, or farmers who we've built relationships with like David in Colombia or Felix in Guatemala. Over time, we've come to work with particular import partners for specific coffees, based on the strength of their relationships in a given region. So, for example, we often work with Monica and Sustainable for our coffees from Tolima, because of the great groundwork they've done in that region of Colombia for years. We usually work with Tim and Atlantic for their connections in Ethiopia for the same reason.
That's what's so great about our import partners—they have been on the ground in origin countries for years, finding and working directly with farmers to increase the rates they’re receiving for their coffee, improve the quality of their crops, helping them attain certifications like organic and Fair Trade, and even contributing to quality-of-life improvements like schools and playgrounds.
What does this look like, on the farmers’ end? Many coffee growers are primarily subsistence farmers who sell their coffee to a local coffee trader “middleman,” who then sells it at a mark-up to export companies. Typically having only one local buyer and therefore one outlet to market, these farmers are at a supreme disadvantage and often sell their coffee for a fraction of what they could make. A common story told by our import partners is of meeting such farmers, sampling their coffee, and instantly being able to offer them two- to three-times as much as they’ve been making, based on quality. The importers are able to do this because they, in turn, have established direct ties to roasters who will pay for premium quality coffee.
This is the kind of groundwork that enables a roasting company like us to come in and make a positive contribution immediately. It also sets us up to have more direct impacts on the farmers, their families and their communities.
Of course, it’d be completely misleading to think it’s always foreign companies “empowering” farmers. Arguably a more significant and critical form of groundwork involves small individual and family farms joining together to form cooperatives. Banding together in co-ops gives farmers more security, collective buying and bargaining power, and enables them to make investments in certifications (e.g. organic, fair trade), infrastructure, and education — all of which contribute to better premiums for their coffee and better qualities of life for their members.
To some degree, then, it is economies of scale that form the backbone for great coffee to be enjoyed around the world. It’s farmers coming together that helps improve quality and keep costs low, and import companies working with enough producers to fill shipping containers with green coffee, keeping the transportation cost-per-pound low.
After the coffee harvest is complete, and the coffee has been processed and bagged up, it’s transported by truck to ports, packed into shipping containers, and shipped by sea to its destination.
Here in California, most of our coffee comes in through Oakland and arrives at a coffee warehouse called The Annex. From there, we bring it down to Los Angeles on a weekly basis, as-needed per our roasting schedule.
That’s how, logistically, we source our coffees. There’s just one piece of this puzzle we’re missing — how we actually CHOOSE which coffees to roast.
HOW WE CHOOSE
The coffee samples we receive from producers around the world come in sealed bags and hold between 200-600g of green coffee. We roast these samples with a little roaster known as a sample roaster (we use an Ikawa Pro), and then taste them via the process known as cupping. Cupping is a universal procedure. The same principles and rules apply no matter where you are. You roast, weigh out, grind, brew, smell and taste a given sampling of coffees all by the exact same parameters. This “levels the playing field” of the coffees so you can compare them side-by-side.
Side-note: sourcing isn’t the only time we cup—far from it. We cup samples from our regular production roasts of coffee on a weekly basis to ensure quality, consistency, and continue improving our roast recipes with small tweaks.
In terms of how we select our coffees, we mostly only choose to move forward with a coffee on our cupping table if it gives all of us that “Wow!’ reaction. One criterion is that any coffee we select ought to have three distinct, discernible flavors in it. We also have a general flavor realm we tend to gravitate towards: we like coffees that have a nice, round, caramelly base that pairs complements the cups other unique flavors.
While our approach to selecting is relatively simple, there are a number of variables, or metrics, we go by when we’re tasting and critiquing coffees. Aside from the broad variable of “flavor,” some of these include: how the coffee smells (aroma) when it’s dry, aroma when it’s wet, body/mouthfeel, acidity, balance, and aftertaste. All of these metrics give us more ways to talk about the particular characteristics of coffee, and ultimately help us develop a vocabulary for doing so.
When it comes to sourcing coffee, there are endless possibilities for how a company goes about choosing and buying. Our goal in sharing the story is to shed light on the relationships between producers, importers and roasters that make our company possible, and give a little more understanding of the global coffee market in the process.
Here at Canyon, we place a high value on relationships. While sourcing delicious, high quality coffees is our baseline, we almost never do so without considering the supply chain and how a given coffee became available to us. That’s why you don’t see us constantly releasing new coffees; when we develop a relationship and find great coffee, we tend to commit to higher volume and longer periods of time. We think that makes for better business for our partners, and more consistency in the cup for our customers.
Ultimately, it leads to greater trust. And in many ways, that’s what it’s all about.