Roasters Rock

When someone advertises a ‘Direct Relationship’ coffee, they are claiming to know the producer. It’s possible that this term is getting watered down in our industry, as I suspect that fewer and fewer hands are being shaken. The reality is that a direct relationship can be hard and expensive.

To build these relationships in a meaningful way, it’s important to understand both WHY and HOW to do it, and the pitfalls and expenses in making it happen.

The tricky thing with ‘Direct Relationship’ coffee is that it means whatever the person is claiming it means. It’s not a certification regulated by anyone like ‘Fair Trade,’ ‘Bird Friendly’ or even ‘Organic’ marks are used. It can cause confusion with the consumer, and is occasionally a stretched truth by the purveyor. Here is what it should mean:

A Direct Relationship coffee has the basic component of having shaken the hand, and made a deal with, the producer of the coffee. The producer is the farmer, farm or the cooperative that prepared the exportable lot.

This means that a lot of coffee on the market cannot be traced back to the farm but can be linked to a cooperative or a mill in that community. Where it starts to get fuzzy is when an exporter mixes coffee from several micro regions and in effect becomes the producer. In this situation the coffee should not be considered direct relationship, as there is no traceability back to the hands that grew it.

Anybody that has tried this model will tell you that the most important things are:

1)    It is really hard to do.
2)    It is really expensive to do.

It’s hard because you must become a world explorer. If you have coffee from 15 origins and call them Direct Relationship coffees, it implies that you went to 15 origins and made deals with your partners, then arranged the exportation of that coffee to your roasting facility.

It’s expensive because it’s estimated that each direct trade relationship costs a MINIMUM of $5,000 to get started. Realistically, it’s closer to $10,000. This includes travel, translators, security, salary, etc. for every region. Assume that you are looking for an entire container of 37,500 pounds; you just added 22.6 cents per pound. That’s easy enough to pass on to a customer. If you’re looking for 10 bags, you just added about $7.57 per pound.

The answer must therefore be to get help with building the relationships so costs can be reduced. There are several interesting ways that this can happen. Here are a few:

Roasters Guild Origin Trips
For many smaller shop owners and roasters, this trip each year is the first trip to an origin country. It is well organized, educational, and impartially shows you several growing areas. You meet farmers right on their farm and at dinner events where you can talk socially. You’re also travelling with like-minded people, which may be able to be importer partners.

CQI Q-Certification Class at Origin
If you’re looking to build these relationships and you’re not a Q-Grader, then it’s time to step up and become one. This class gives you several important tools to communicate fluently once the relationship with your producer begins. Many of these classes are taught at origin, and are designed to include producers. Following the class you can go visit your classmate’s farm or cooperative, apply your new communication / evaluation skills and even order some coffee!

Specialty Coffee Auction Events
Producing countries usually have an association chartered with promoting specialty coffee from their country. Often this results in an auction after harvest. A typical format is to have a team of international judges / buyers come to the country and experience around 50 spectacular coffees. There you’ll meet several of the producers that have submitted the coffee. You can shake their hands and bid on their coffee. Usually there will already be a mechanism to export that coffee to your country.

SCAA ‘The Event’ Trade Shows
If you can’t afford to go to them, this yearly trade show brings them to you! Stop by their booths on the floor and spend the rest of your time in the cupping pavilions where you can taste their coffee and start making deals on the spot. The farmer isn’t always present, but a representative can facilitate an introduction.

Those are just a few obvious ways to start. You can also do things like become a Coffee Corp Volunteer with CQI, find a private company that puts on origin trips, or just go visit the country and hire a guide.

Just remember; to be a Direct Trade you should be able to say, “I looked the producer in the eye, shook his hand, and made a deal.” Anything else is just pretending to be a Direct Trade.

Rocky Rhodes is an 18 year coffee veteran, roaster, and Q-Grader Instructor, and his mission now is to transform the coffee supply chain and make sweeping differences in the lives of those that produce the green coffee. Rocky can be reached at

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