– by Pat Connolly, Coffee Roaster
It seems everywhere you turn now in the specialty coffee sphere there is a roaster spruiking their direct trade relationships and their unusually named processing experiments.
What does it really mean though to have a direct trade relationship? Why do roasters feel this is so important? What is the real end benefit to the customer? Without a direct benefit to the end customer it’s just marketing hype and empty words, right?
I can’t personally talk about having a direct trade relationship with dozens of growers the world over, although I can tell you about a friend of mine who grows coffee in India. He’s a sixth generation grower in a beautiful area of southern India in the state of Karnataka where he owns Sethuraman Estate and grows the world’s best specialty robusta.
I’ve been friends with him for over 5 years now. We see each other twice a year and talk just about every week. I recently visited him in January this year with my colleagues. We are your typical friends, we chat about sport, travel, politics, family and friends. We occasionally talk about the coffee he grows and the coffee I roast.
More often than not, we talk about the constant pursuit to be better at what we do. My friend’s strive for perfection has won him a plethora of international awards for the quality of his coffee and an ever-decreasing golf handicap.
When we do get around to talking about coffee, it’s generally an update on what he’s been doing on his farm and what I’ve been doing in the roastery or cupping lab. See, I’m not a coffee grower and I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on fermentation and milling. He is though! I’m not going to show up in India once a year and tell him to start doing a dry ferment using champagne enzymes or a triple washed Kenyan style, fermented with mango skins. He’s not going to show up in Melbourne and tell me to use more airflow through first crack.
I do however call him and tell him how the coffee is cupping and give him constant feedback on how the coffee is aging. We have a continuous, open and honest feedback loop like all good friends do.
We have refined the supply chain over the years to mill and ship at different times of the year to avoid the effects of the monsoon. We have experimented with fermentation times to slightly tweak the taste profile for the Australian palate. The feedback loop between us has undoubtedly led to an improved taste, improved longevity and an improved friendship.
The real benefit of our friendship in terms of coffee is that I have helped improve his quality, and he has helped improve our quality. We pay him more than the market price and he re-invests it back into his farm to keep providing us with a better product.