A phrase readily tossed around in the coffee community is “Seed-to-Cup,” but what does it actually mean? In an effort to pull the curtain aside for everyday coffee consumers, we’re introducing a new series called “What We Do.” We hope to give our community an in-depth look into the journey that Blueprint’s coffee takes from the farm to our cafe. For our first post, we’ll focus in on coffee sourcing, and the complex web of factors that go into building our relationships with farmers, importers, and exporters.
WHAT IS COFFEE SOURCING?
Sourcing coffee is the first integral step we take in the seed-to-cup process. The origin partnerships we build and coffees we choose ultimately impact every aspect of Blueprint from roasting to wholesale to retail. We source our coffee from a variety of countries in Central America and South America. Additionally, we have a handful of African coffees on our roster each year. Our most developed collaborative partnerships are with farms, importers, and exporters in Guatemala and Colombia.
HOW WE CHOOSE OUR COFFEES
No matter what country we source our coffee from, we start our selection process by taking logistical concerns and our core philosophies into consideration. Before we can choose a coffee, we have to know if it’s available, in season, and in the right price range for us. We then consider the quality of the coffee. Would our wholesale clients like this coffee? What about our customers? Would it hold up in the cafe?
Ultimately, we want our coffee sourcing to find coffees that resonate with our consumers. What separates Blueprint from many other roasters is that we believe true connection to a coffee extends beyond the flavor profile. As a company, we are more interested in creating sustainable relationships than simply choosing the highest scoring coffee available. For example, we may choose a 85-point scoring coffee over a 90-point scoring coffee if it could lead to a long-term partnership with a farmer.
CHALLENGES THAT ARISE IN THE COFFEE SOURCING PROCESS
Coffee sourcing in itself is a complicated process. Being so committed to fostering longterm origin relationships sometimes forms a slue of additional obstacles. Sometimes sourcing difficulties stem from geopolitical issues. At other times, they stem from partnerships that don’t work out.
From a geopolitical point of view, café owners and roasters in the west have a tendency to romanticize the role of coffee farming. This can lead to economic, agricultural, and organizational misunderstandings between coffee professionals in the U.S. and those working in coffee-producing countries. These issues are complex and tied to a variety of ugly histories — take colonialism as a major example. We are mindful of cultural differences and keep an open dialogue with potential partners. As a result, we can be better global partners in the long run.
Whereas geopolitical issues are broad and impact the entire coffee industry, partnership obstacles are more personal. They tend to arise in the details. Over the past few years, we have collaborated with farmers, importers, and exporters. We've done so in hope of building lasting relationships, which is not a quick or easy process. It takes considerable time and effort to get a partnership running smoothly. Additionally, it requires every party involved to trust one another. It’s common for there to be a fair amount of road bumps over the first few years as we collectively work through potential quality or pricing issues, and as we learn more about the type of support our partners need from Blueprint.
"We're trying to find this balance between integrity and our ethos, and also with how we are perceived by our peers in the industry, our consumers, and customers.”
WHY WE TAKE RISKS
If one of our direct partnerships faces challenges or ends, we don’t view the experience negatively. Our coffee sourcing vision is ambitious, detailed, and centered on ethics. So, we prepare to work hard to find the right collaborators. Sometimes expectations and philosophies don’t match up, but it’s important to take risks regardless.
One of the most important things we remember is that any kinks we work out one year help us decide the following year’s goals. We recognize that meaningful relationships can’t be rushed. So, we tend to view our collaborations from a five-year perspective. Each year of the partnership builds upon the next.
SUSTAINABILITY OVER TIME
Because we give our relationships time to flourish, creating an overall sustainable market is put at the forefront of our partnership goals. We view sustainability as a circle in which each decision and participant has the ability to effect the whole. In the current global coffee market, prices dominate the entire chain from farmer to roaster. The quality of a cup impacts the price. However, pricing shifts vastly from year to year, making consistently good coffees hard to find in the specialty market. The larger issue is that fluctuating prices can seriously harm a farmer’s practice. If a farmer doesn’t make enough money off their of speciality coffee, what will prompt them to continue pursuing the highest quality product?
In our partner relationships, we strive towards building a reliable supply chain. This gives us access to consistent, quality coffee. In order to do that, we also need to show up as dependable collaborators. When a group of famers, importers, exporters, and roasters work as a collective to provide each other with the right resources and support, everyone benefits. Ideally, we want to help create a healthy market that supports not only coffee professionals, but the lives of those living in coffee producing countries.
LOS VOLCANES, A PARTNER TO CONNECT TO PARTNERS
One of the countries where we can most clearly see the benefits of creating sustainable relationships is Guatemala. We formed our first partnerships in Guatemala with Finca Esperanza and Los Volcanes.
Los Volcanes is an export mill that represents farmers in Guatemala. They’re focussed on establishing market stability and fair pricing structures in Guatemala’s coffee market. Los Volcanes’ mission to create a healthier coffee market parallels our own coffers sourcing goals. We’ve been lucky to work with them for over 4 years. Our primary collaborations with them have focussed on healthy soil microbiology and lab work. This has allowed them to transmit information across Guatemala to help farmers improve their soil quality.
“Risk is an extremely important influence in all of this. It’s about taking risks in the short term so that the long term becomes easier, more dependable.”
A DIRECT COFFEE SOURCING START WITH FINCA ESPERANZA
Finca Esperanza, our other primary relationship in Guatemala, is at once a farm, exporter, and importer. When they first sold us coffee, we began a collective dialogue about the potential benefits of a partnership focussed on improving the standards of their coffee processing. In February 2016, we began working directly with the Vizcaino family of Finca Esperanza, and they have become one of our most involved coffee sourcing partnerships.
Our goal with Finca Esperanza was to create methodologies for every step of the farming process that would eventually increase the value, consistency, and quality of their coffee. Our first project in this process was a fermentation experiment to help them understand the crucial factors of healthy fermentation, as well as how to establish controls. Around the same time, they invested in a mill, and we assisted them in maintaining good standards. These two projects solidified their fermentation and washing methods, and led to a final project in which we helped construct a solar drying house.
The result of three years of research, assistance, and training was the 201 8 Natural Esperanza. It was a strong coffee that reflected years of dedicated collaboration. If we had decided not to partner with Finca Esperanza, had we evaluated their potential based on the score of a single coffee sample, the opportunity to create the Natural Esperanza would have vanished. The Vizcaino’s continual interest in education and innovation mirrored ours. Now, every party involved can reap the benefits of our collective hard work.
OUR PARTNERSHIP WITH FINCA TAMANA
When a farm we’ve partnered with becomes more established, the resources we provide are less hands-on and more focussed on overall strategy. Sometimes the farms we work with have more infrastructure from the start. Finca Timana in Colombia is an excellent example of this type of partnership. Finca Timana’s owner, Elias Roa Parra, is very independent, and every aspect of his farm was already solidified when we met him.
“Ironically, now I feel like I'm not doing anything. This is a relief and also a little sadness, but that's essentially the goal. We were able to help the Vizcainos navigate the wild world of specialty coffee. Now there's not really much for us to assist with.”
A good business partnership with Finca Tamana became less about collective projects and more about creating a stable buying relationship. It’s very difficult in our industry to find reliable product that will stay consistent in both quality and price over time, but we have found that in Finca Tamana, and Elias has found a reliable buyer in Blueprint.
Because we have consistently bought coffee from Finca Tamana, our recent work in Colombia has required us to strengthen more direct relationships with exporters than importers. Elias needs the same resource, as the service of an exporter helps to arrange the milling, finance the coffee, and then prepare paperwork for exporting. Having the need for a good exporter is something Blueprint and Finca Tamana have in common. This has allowed our goals to stay aligned.
POTENTIAL PARTNERSHIPS IN ETHIOPIA
Our partnerships in Guatemala and Colombia have mostly comprised of collaboration with individuals. However, some coffee-producing countries have infrastructures in which coffee collectives are more common than individual farms.
Ethiopia is a defined example of a country where community-based coffee production takes precedence. This has made it difficult for us to directly impact individual farms in the country, or to establish long-term partnerships.
Therefore, the initial step we’ve taken in establishing partnerships has been to make ourselves known to stations and exporters as an organization interested in the community’s overall success.
Our current plan is to work with Moplaco, an organization that has a variety of roles in coffee production. Mainly, Moplaco exports and sorts coffee. They have offices in a multiple areas of Ethiopia where they operate a number of dry mills. Additionally, Moplaco built multiple wet mills, and owns one farm. Moplaco is run by Heleanna Georgalis who is an advocate for workers’ rights and women’s empowerment, as well as for the utmost precision and quality in coffee production. We feel very aligned with her mission and goals, and the prospect of working more with Moplaco is extremely appealing.
OUR PARTNERSHIP WITH ARTISAN COFFEE IMPORTS
While many of our partnerships focus on farmers, we also establish long-term relationships with importers and exporters. One of our most recent collaborations has been alongside Artisan Coffee Imports. Through them, we discovered the Great Lakes African Coffee Project, a University of Michigan project in Rwanda and Burundi focussed on improving coffee quality.
Coffee is Rwanda’s second largest export, as the country doesn’t have other natural resources like coal or oil. The choice by both of those countries was to try to improve the value of coffee and establish those coffees as premier specialty coffee. The GLACP focuses on cup quality and the measures that go into that, like farming methods and milling methods. We began a conversation with them about helping to collect resources and supporting them in doing composting course work to improve soil quality. Hopefully we can help them with composting with restoring organic material in the soil. This will lead to more consistently good product.
“[Heleanna's] doing a lot of work in the west of Ethiopia that other partners we've found aren't doing as directly. For us, that's an exciting venture because we've gotten coffees from western Ethiopia that have been pretty successful in terms of customer feedback and our love for them.”
This project has been a great example of the importance of importers, and their role in helping roasters identify supply chains. Work like this paves the way for specialty roasters to have a place to buy specialty coffee at all times.
FROM COFFEE SOURCING PARTNERSHIPS TO COFFEE SELECTION
The connective thread we’ve found between all of our partnerships, regardless of their location or type, is their ability to be mutually beneficial. We work to equip our partners with the resources and tools they need to create quality product. This increases the value and stability of their operations. In turn, we are given the gift of a reliable supply chains that provides us with excellent coffees.
Our longterm goal is to be supplied by as many of our origin partnerships as possible, which is an ambitious process. It can take years to create and foster sustainable relationships, so direct partnerships don't supply 100% of our coffee yet. We currently source coffees from both partnerships and more traditional sourcing methods. We typically have about seven spots on our lineup to fill — plus one decaf coffee.
Regardless of where we are getting our supply, we start our coffee selection process by sample roasting every coffee we may put on our shelves. When we sample roast, we aren’t as concerned about finding the best profile for a coffee. We are more interested in doing a light, neutral roast to prep the coffee for cupping.
WHAT IS CUPPING?
Cupping is the certified, worldwide standard for evaluating coffee. It's essentially a tasting process by which we can calibrate different palates and evaluate the quality of a coffee.
Some of the items we evaluate are the acidity, body, mouthfeel, taste, aftertaste, and aroma. We assign scores to those things, so that our decisions are based more on the quality of the coffee rather than our individual preferences.
Blueprint offers public cuppings to give customers the opportunity to engage with our coffees, but we also have internal company cuppings in which we sample potential coffees and calibrate coffees we’ve already added to the menu. We have a set process for choosing new coffees, and the cupping table is a crucial element in that process.
If we are tasting a coffee from a partnership, we have already had experience getting calibrated. So, we tend to already know what the coffee should taste like. If we are cupping a new coffee, we are likely going to taste a sample roast of it a couple of times before we make the decision to add it to our menu.
OUR CUPPING PROCESS
Regardless, when we are cupping a new coffee to potentially add to our shelves, we sample everything blind. We want to avoid bias as much as possible, so we also try to keep conversation to an absolute minimum. This allows everyone to form honest opinions about what they are tasting without being swayed by anyone else’s palate.
We use SCA scoring sheets during the cupping to score all aspects of the coffee. Each individual element of the cup is added up to determine the final score. Once we’ve all tasted and scored the coffee, we have a collective discussion about our evaluations.
WHAT WE LOOK FOR
Some of the general benchmarks we use to determine how a coffee scores are the cleanliness in the cup, the balance, acidity, etc. In terms of flavor, we use fruit or other food examples to communicate what we're tasting. Sometimes we apply broader tasting notes like, “this coffee is nutty,” or “this coffee is fruity.” We may also apply more detailed tasting notes to a coffee, such as blackberry, toffee, walnut.
“We really try to make sure the coffee has the power to stand on its own. Ultimately, our job as a roasting company is to buy coffees that have integrity and high quality.”
In a broader sense, we pay attention to details like how the coffee changes as it cools. We may notice processing defects that could potentially cause the coffee to deteriorate faster than normal. We’ll also consider the region the coffee is from and any other information we have about the coffee to assess its potential.
Because we’re all tasting the same coffee, we have to understand that everyone’s assessment of the coffee is technically “right” based on their perspective. The inescapable truth is that everyone has a different palate. So, we have to be great listeners. This helps us understand how each cup defines the member’s perception of the coffee.
ADDING A COFFEE TO THE LINEUP
During our post-cupping debriefing, we discuss the coffee’s scores. We also consider what spot in the lineup it could fill, and what the coffee’s overall potential is. Some coffees might be a better fit for boutique slots, which rotate frequently. We choose others to fill permanent spots like Penrose and Tektōn. Coffees that fill our permanent spots require components that have more consistency. Conversely, coffees that are maybe more acidic, dazzling, or strange usually fill our boutique spots.
We consider the entire life-span of the coffee, such as its roastability, how it will function from a wholesale point of view, and how it might be perceived by customers in the cafe. We want our coffee lineup to be diverse. Including coffees that are both approachable and exciting options on the menu at all times assists in this goal.
Ultimately, we use the group as our decision-making mechanism for all of our coffees. If we're selecting a boutique spot coffee that we are sourcing from an importer rather than one of our dedicated relationships, we’re usually going to buy the coffee that scores the highest among the group. Occasionally, members will rally for a specific coffee if they feel like it offers something unique to the menu. Additionally, they may also do so if there is a potential for a relationship down the road. It’s not just strictly what scores the best. We have a collective appreciation for the coffees we work with. Additionally, we strive to choose coffees that uphold our ethos.