A day in the life of a coffee trader

Cofi-Com’s John Russell Storey explores what really goes on behind closed doors at one of the country’s largest coffee traders, and just how many coffees are actually consumed.

Cofi-Com’s Operations and Trading Manager Dariusz Lewandowski and I are between origin trips at the moment. We’re giving our passports a rest and wistfully reminiscing about the last plantations and the folks we saw and talked to. That being said, two weeks ago Dariusz snuck in a quick trip to Papua New Guinea.

So what happens between trips? What is a normal day like as a coffee trader and what do we actually do? Is it all about slurping coffee all day, chatting to our many customers and discussing the minutiae of various processing techniques? Well, sort of.

For most of us working at Cofi-Com’s Huntingwood warehouse in New South Wales, it’s a long drive each morning, an hour spent cursing Sydney traffic and phone calls. The day starts with a 50/50 blend of Colombian Narino and Rwandan Insovu Natural. The Insovu evokes a gorgeous fruitiness at the end of its cup profile. A coffee on arrival to the office is mandatory, and it’s hard not to with a superb blend on offer and a La Marzocco Strada machine to bring it to life. The day starts with a conference call with one of our Central American sister companies and a local roaster to discuss a project. As our day starts, theirs ends. 

Emails are next. It’s always interesting to receive responses from our origin colleagues who have replied to questions and queries overnight. From Brazil, it’s a reply on bag markings, from Kenya, detailed notes on some micro-lots we’ve ordered, and from Costa Rica, some suggested dates for a trip later in the year. 

coffee traders
The workhorse of the Cofi-Com Lab, a twin barrel Probat sample roaster.

By 9am, we receive the daily report on all our coffees: what’s in stock, how much we have, and just as importantly, what’s arriving today and what’s on the way. Then I take a quick browse to make sure the arrival date on some PNG coffees are still good. Sometimes there’s a week’s delay if the containers need to be washed on arrival. Biosecurity checks are tight. A small mud splatter is enough to cause a delay. 

Then it’s off to the warehouse. Two things still amaze me each time I walk in. First, the view of hundreds and hundreds of neatly stacked pallets, and two, that truly wonderful smell of green coffee. Downstairs, Federal Biosecurity staff is in and checking off new shipment arrivals. It’s good to see our new season of Kenyan micro-lots have been cleared by biosecurity, looking good in their new size of 30-kilogram bags. It’s a long walk to our blending operation at the end of the warehouse. Time to check on an order for one of our specialty customers. It’s a new recipe and Anthony De Luca, who manages the operation, has a 500-gram sample ready to send to the customer. 

The warehouse is a hive of activity. Our crew has been here since 4.30am picking orders that now line the warehouse dispatch area, clearly marked and tightly packed on pallets. 

Orders range from two or three bags to multiple pallets that will be heading as far away as Darwin, Perth, Tasmania, Singapore, and Taiwan. Local and interstate orders are already on the road. 

Back in the office, Dariusz has begun cupping offer samples, coffees sent to us by growers and producers. By the look on his face, what he’s cupped so far hasn’t impressed him. I join in, cupping quickly to catch up. We both stop at a Tanzanian AA coffee from the Mwika Co-Op, one of the mills I visited before Christmas. It’s gorgeous. Tangy and fruity with loads of cocoa and chocolate. (This was the mill that needs $10,000 to get power to their hulling machine, as mentioned in my previous BeanScene article on Tanzania.) Dariusz immediately emails our Tanzanian sister company to confirm the purchase. Leave it too late and the coffee could be sold. 

As trading is done in US dollars, we carefully watch the AUD/USD exchange rate, which can affect our daily ‘spot’ pricing where a roaster buys ‘on the spot’, paying whatever the current price is as opposed to a contract price where the price is locked for a fixed period. We absorb minor exchange rate fluctuations to keep prices steady. Our trading expertise comes from Cofi-Com Director Andrew MacKay’s experience, market knowledge, and an incredible buying network in all origins. Making the right call on what and when to buy impacts everything from shipment times to customer pricing. It takes savviness and instinct to get it right.  

coffee traders
Brazil Daterra coffee arrives at Cofi-Com’s Huntingwood warehouse.

Before long, our table is quickly cleared for a customer cupping mid-morning. It’s a new roaster coming in to try some Colombian, Costa Rican, and PNG coffees, and for us to try her first blend. The coffees are cupped and it’s fascinating to hear how someone else interprets the myriad of flavours from the coffees. The PNG Kimel stands out as always, and becomes the selected single origin. The blend is not so straightforward. There are some sour and sharp notes coming through as an espresso, and the overall flavour fades in milk. The beans are telling the story, noticeably light and being all washed process, the acidity is dominating. A quick check with the Agtron confirms our suspicions: the roast needs to be fuller to draw out the sweetness and character of the coffees. 

Straight after a quick break, it’s time to roast a batch of arrival samples for cupping tomorrow. Dariusz and I do these ourselves. Some days it takes a couple of hours depending on container arrivals. It’s an opportunity to look closely at the green beans and compare with pre-shipment samples. What we are looking for is colour. Old or underripe beans are faded, lacking that translucent greenish grey of current season beans. The smell of the beans is important. Mustiness or a lack of green bean smell are quality indicators. The final check before roasting is the preparation. Are the bean sizes what they should be? Are there any physical defects like insect-damaged, black, brown, or broken beans? A couple of newly arrived Costa Rican naturals give off sweetish aromatics as they roast. These will be a treat on the cupping table.  

The rest of the afternoon is taken up with quotes, booking stock for contracts, speaking to customers, and emails. It’s a chance to catch up with Lindsay Armitage who manages everything from invoicing to coffee bean moisture contents in our laboratory office. 

The day winds up with a last visit to the warehouse. A roaster needs a green sample of our Malawi Sable Farm Estate coffee urgently. 

Another day in the life of a green bean trading business finishes. Twenty-five coffees cupped, including a blend and a couple of flat whites, and that’s a normal day.

This article appears in FULL in the June 2019 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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