For coffee roasters, the timely delivery of green beans is crucial to the successful running of their business. If there are delays or shipments don’t arrive at all, it can significantly affect their ability to meet customer demands and can damage their reputation irreparably.
However, the supply chain of coffee is long and complex, with many opportunities for things to go awry. In 2021, frosts, protests, and container shortages were just a few of the issues that gave rise to disruptions in the coffee supply chain, with some of the world’s biggest brands suffering.
As such, it’s important roasters do everything they can to prepare for any disruptions so that they can continue operating as normal.
To understand more about supply chain issues and how coffee roasters can overcome them, I spoke with WBC-certified judge and WCE representative, Danilo Lodi.
An overview of the coffee supply chain
The coffee supply chain is one of the most complex and lengthy in the world. It involves hundreds, if not thousands, of people to produce a single bag, from growing, harvesting, and processing, to milling, shipping, packaging, and roasting.
The chain starts with the cultivation of coffee crops at origin, where farmers go through a process of planting, fertilising, irrigating, pruning, and harvesting the cherries.
A newly planted coffee tree takes approximately three to four years to reach maturity and bear fruit. Once the cherries have reached a desired ripeness level, usually red or yellow in colour, they are harvested either with machines or by hand.
Hand picking, or selective picking, involves picking only ripe cherries. Since cherries do not all mature at the same time, it can take multiple pickings to clear a farm. The process is labour-intensive and coffee producers will typically hire pickers to support them at this stage.
After the cherries are harvested, they are immediately transported to stations to be processed. Most processing techniques fall into two broad categories – natural and washed – although alternatives such as honey processing or wet hulling can also take place.
In the next stage, the processed and dried beans, also known as parchment coffee, are sent to milling farms where they undergo hulling to remove the outer parchment layer, before being sorted and graded.
Then, the green beans are packed and prepared for export to consuming countries, where they are shipped in containers to roasters, brokers, or traders.
The green beans will then spend time in storage, usually at the port, before being collected, roasted, packaged, and distributed either to coffee shops, grocery stores, or directly to consumers.
Every member, from farmers and pickers to exporters and roasters, plays a crucial role in ensuring there is a constant supply of coffee.
The major issues facing the supply of coffee
From port closures and labour shortages to frost outbreaks and a surge in consumer demand, the coffee supply chain has been hit by a number of issues in the last 18 months.
That’s without mentioning broader issues that have had an impact, such as the Suez Canal crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, and Britain’s exit from the EU – all of which have affected roasters’ ability to source and roast green coffee.
Danilo Lodi has worked in the coffee industry for nearly two decades and was the first Brazilian to become a certified judge in the World Barista Championships.
He explains that a significant challenge to the supply of coffee is the amount of time it spends at origin – which is getting longer.
“Coffee cherries are taking longer to mature and dry,” he says. “Harvesting starts two weeks later than usual, and the drying process took a week longer than it did before.
“On average, there is a one month delay from harvesting to drying, milling and shipping. So, a lot of people are not getting their coffee on time.”
Climate change and extreme weather conditions are predominantly to blame. For example, this year droughts and frosts in Brazil, the world’s largest coffee producer, led to significant delays and have resulted in a lower yield than expected.
This, coupled with a shortage of shipping containers and higher costs for ocean freight, is expected to raise the cost of buying coffee considerably for roasters and coffee shops.
Although coffee businesses such as Starbucks said this would not affect the price of their drinks for at least the next year, the focus is on the following years, with some experts saying it could take years for supply to return to normal.
According to Danilo, disruptions of this kind tend to hit smaller roasters particularly hard. “Shipping pressures are heavily felt by smaller roasters who are unable to negotiate for shared container space, or have the financial flexibility to support increasing logistical costs,” he says.
Labour shortages is another common problem that has recently affected the supply of coffee. Back in December 2020, coffee farms in the Antioquia region of Colombia reported that nearly 25% of the required labour force was nowhere to be found, mainly due to Covid-19 and the draw of better-paying industries.
What can roasters do to minimise supply chain disruption?
To ensure smooth business operation in times of uncertainty, managing supply chain risks and disruptions is essential.
Danilo suggests that working with traders can help to alleviate some of the supply chain challenges.
“I think it’s always good to have plan B,” he says. “If you’re doing direct trade, I would recommend you start talking with traders because they can help you figure it out.
“Even if they don’t have a particular coffee you want, they will have something similar. So my advice is to partner up with traders that you trust as they will help you out when things get bad.”
In a Daily Coffee News article, the director of coffee trading company Primavera Coffee explains that small roasters who prefer to keep lower inventory will be considerably affected by shipping delays; therefore keeping inventory on hand during the 2021 year might be a worthwhile investment for roasters that are able to do so.
While it is a tricky environment for forecasting, buying a little more coffee than usual may be beneficial. With that being said, Danilo explains that roasters should analyse their storage to preserve the freshness of green coffee, such as through freezing or vacuum sealing.
With proper storage conditions, green coffee can remain fresh for up to a year after harvest. Keeping coffee in moderate and stable temperature and humidity levels, as well as using protective packaging like GrainPro and Ecotact bags, are good storage practices.
Carefully monitoring inventory levels and planning ahead, with the consideration that shipping delays are to be expected, can help to reduce potential supply chain risks.
Forward planning and managing delivery expectations are all important but ultimately, it is imperative that roasters remain resilient and flexible when dealing with any supply chain disruptions.
At MTPak Coffee, we are dedicated to supporting specialty coffee roasters in the final steps of the coffee chain.
We offer a range of high quality sustainable packaging options that will protect and keep your roasted coffee beans fresh for longer, ensuring that all the effort put into sourcing and securing green coffee do not go to waste.