Roasters Rock

As a roaster, barista, or any other coffee professional you have access to some of the best coffee in the world. This is a blessing to be sure! But don’t take it for granted.

As a Q Grader and R Grader trainer I now get to travel world helping to improve communication in the supply chain so we can all talk about quality coffee a little more easily. I too have access to great coffee even if I have to seek it out a little more now that I don’t have a roasting facility.

Even though I have access to ‘the good stuff’ I still drink the hotel coffee when I travel. Not every cup. I do carry a dripper with me so I can have a little sanity when grading papers in my room. But I drink enough of the in room crap to remind me of one important thing:  My job is NOT done yet! I encourage you to do the same!

As coffee people we strive to make a great product that we like, and hope our customers like it too. We are also keenly aware of the connection we have to faceless, nameless coffee growers around the world that scratch the earth to grow the beans we use and to eke out a bit of a living for their families.

I still believe in the premise that increased quality of coffee will generate increased value in the product at whatever point the quality is added. If the farmer uses selective picking he should be rewarded. If a barista hand drips a beautiful Sidamo, he should be rewarded as well.

When I started in the industry I was introduced to a concept at a roasters guild retreat:

“In the coffee industry we represent maybe the top 5% of the market. Thank goodness for Starbucks because they are our marketing department converting people to the ‘specialty’ market and for every 100 they turn, we get 5. If we all work together on quality we can grow the 5 to 10 or 15 and there would be more business than we could want for everybody. The key is that we keep raising the quality level of everyone.”

I used to think about the above concept only in terms of the products which MY COMPANY produced but have come to see how short-sided that is. This is in part because the farmers are no longer nameless and faceless to me. I see them doing the same thing on their end of the supply chain. They work hard to gain information and to share that info with their neighbors and industry groups.

I think it is interesting that ‘first world’ capitalists get this concept easily for themselves but find it hard to extrapolate to the whole industry. They add value and expect to be rewarded, but often miss the larger forces at play. You need to strive to not only make yourself better, but also your suppliers, customers and even competitors.

To extrapolate that further:
•    Teach your customers what quality coffee is and they will not only demand quality for themselves but they will tell their friends.
•    Ask for quality products from your suppliers and be willing to pay more for them and they will work harder to get you what you want. This can flow all the way to the farm if the supply chain is educated enough.
•    Also, be willing to tell your competitors where they can improve their products. This will have them working as a marketing department WITH you as quality ambassadors. The chances of them impacting your business negatively is very small, but the odds of moving a larger part of the market from low or medium quality coffee to your level is huge.

Let’s get back to why you should drink the hotel coffee. If you don’t care for the coffee, maybe you will talk to a manager about it. Maybe you won’t be the first one to do it. Maybe you can work a deal to supply coffee that is 10 times better than what they have with only a slight increase in cost. And what if a major hotel chain were to say, “I think we can use this to get more business travelers to stay here.” Now they are thinking about how quality coffee can improve their business.

If one major hotel chain were to make this change, think of the impact on the industry and on your business. All of those travelers that have now started to appreciate better coffee. Even if it is not yours in the hotel room, there will be some percentage that find your brand as they seek better coffee for themselves. The percentage of customers for high quality coffee has gone up.

Bridging the Disconnect from Farmer to Roaster
If you are successful at increasing the ‘specialty’ piece of the coffee pie, those great ingredients will be in tighter supply. This is why you must also strive to work backwards through your supply chain and be able to tell folks what you want in order to maintain the quality of coffee you have promised to these new customers. This is not easy, but I want to give you some hope.

In my last few Q-Grader and R-Grader classes in producing countries I have been fortunate to have the entire supply chain represented in the same class. Grower, collector, mill, exporter, importer, roaster and barista. This is amazing to me that we all want to learn the same thing! We all want to do the same thing! Now we just need to increase the communication. To accomplish this I have some challenges for you:

1)    If you have not taken a Q-Grader or R-Grader class yet, DO IT! This is the language that the industry uses to communicate with one another.
2)    If you are a roaster, reach one level back from your importer. Don’t go around them; go with them. Ask to go to origin with them. Ask them for a name of the mills they work with in a particular country. Learn a little more and start a dialogue.
3)    If you are an importer, demand transparency further down the supply chain and see if you can get to the farmer. Don’t go around your exporter or mill; go with them. Then introduce your roaster customers to them. This will build a stronger, longer lasting bond and will not be a risk of being ‘cut out’ of the transaction.
4)    If you are anyone reading this, drink the hotel coffee! This should get you ticked off enough to actually follow through with one of the above challenges. That’s why I drink it!

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

Suggested Reading