The Australian coffee industry has made leaps and bounds over the past few decades and green bean trader Cofi-Com Founder Andrew Mackay has played no small part in helping it flourish with access to quality coffees and origins.
When Andrew MacKay started Cofi-Com in 1987, he says the coffee industry looked completely different to how it does today.
“The market was smaller with fewer players operating in all states. Popular origins centred around Colombia, Brazil, Papua New Guinea, and India for low-quality Arabicas, with Robustas heavily sourced from Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Instant coffee was definitely the market leader with a 60 or 70 per cent share,” Andrew tells BeanScene.
“But the pure coffee segment, roast and ground, was burgeoning, and it was led by small to medium-sized roasters, predominately in New South Wales and Victoria. These family roasteries found an audience in their local Greek, Turkish, and Italian communities. Many had been around for decades but really flourished in the 1980s and 1990s.”
Andrew’s introduction to coffee came when he began working at large Australian tea trader Gollin & Co. in 1974. He says staff would cup both tea and coffee in quite a formal “coat and tie” environment, and thanks to some pivotal mentors, coffee became his main focus.
“The opportunity arose to focus on coffee, visiting origins regularly to meet with growers, exporters, and indigenous co-ops in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The company also controlled a number of mills and plantations in the Western Highlands of PNG, an important producing origin given the coffee import duty restrictions in place at the time,” Andrew says.
“We still have some early coffee blending sheets and sample roasters that existed in the day. I was also fortunate to work under Harry Haynes, a true gentleman and doyen of the trade since pre-war days in the late 30s.”
Seeing potential in supplying coffee to the growing number of local roasters, Andrew and colleague David Bartholomeusz stepped out on their own with Cofi-Com. They focused almost exclusively on coffee, importing from all producing areas including select specialty coffees that were previously difficult to consistently source in Australia.
“We not only maintained a close working relationship with the large multinational roasters, but also the family and smaller roasters that began proliferating at the time. They were quite manic days given the rapid growth of the business, pre-financing growers and offering extended payment terms to the trade here in Australia and New Zealand,” Andrew recalls.
“Hours were spent with roastery owners of all denominations, discussing blend compositions, quality, and pricing, often with no formal contracts but a handshake and a departing smile. We formed long-lasting friendships, many of whom remain so to this day.”
Andrew says the true turning point for the Australian coffee culture was the “espresso revolution”, when the general consumer turned away from instant products, and even tea, to a pure coffee offering.
“Demographics changed with the ever-increasing popularity of milk-based coffees and demand from younger age groups. Coffee became ‘sexy’ and roasters found increasing home grown demand from cafés, clubs, restaurants, and bars all investing in high quality espresso machines with signage to match,” Andrew says.
“The sheer range of origins available increased dramatically as did the styles of coffee drinks available to the consumer. Takeaway exploded in later years with cafés and hole-in-the-walls opening on virtually every street corner in the CBDs and suburbs.”
Consumer demand dictated higher-quality blends and options, which Andrew saw reflected in improvements in farm and estate management at origin.
“Producing countries, rather than selling a bulk product, started seeing the value in higher quality single varieties and the benefits offered by planting different hybrids,” he says.
“Partnerships are built into Cofi-Com’s DNA and in many cases, we have relationships with estates and exporters going back 40 years. We always look to support each other in good and difficult times with a long-term view to mutual development.”
In fact, Andrew says many of his fondest memories working in coffee have been visiting origin and meeting producers, whether they be growers, estate owners, or indigenous groups.
“PNG in particular was and always will be one of the most fascinating destinations. I recall in my earlier days staying with villagers in Siang and Labisap, air-freighting parchment to Lae and many road trips to Wau, Bulolo, and the Western Highlands were always an experience,” he says.
“Brazil, of course, holds special memories given the sheer size of their production, with many trips to Bahia, Minas Gerais, Sao Paulo, and coffees regions in the South. Likewise for trips to Mexico’s beautiful Cordoba region, sourcing our Decaf requirements and the award-winning coffees from the Rivas family estate Kassandra.”
In 2003, Cofi-Com joined the Volcafe Group, one of the world’s largest coffee traders with operations in many growing and consuming countries. Andrew says it was an important step in Cofi-Com’s growth and allowed the company to play a larger role on the ground.
“We felt that having a direct presence at origin could give us the assurance that our requirements in all market conditions could be fully met. Direct access to our field managers gave us an insight into local climatic and growing conditions and in turn the ability to pass onto to our clients the information relevant to their ongoing sourcing requirements,” Andrew says.
“Access to financing and currency exchange also allowed us to broaden our reach and service capex proposals expanding local equipment requirements.”
As appreciation for coffee continued to grow, Andrew says more and more small roasteries opened up in Australia to compete with the large multinationals and established local roasters. This means a coffee trader like Cofi-Com needs to be able to offer a variety of lots, in all levels of size and quality, to meet the demands of the market.
“We pride ourselves on sourcing only the very select coffees that can be shipped solely or in tandem with our other grades. We source coffee from most producing areas and can bring it all across in large volumes. That means we can source micro lots alongside existing orders with significant cost savings thanks to our reach and ability to subsidise freight rates,” Andrew says.
“We happily supply smaller roasters and start-ups with the smallest quantities of micro and specialty grades, most usually available at all times from either our Sydney or interstate warehouses.”
The Australian Coffee Traders Association recognised Andrew’s contribution to the wider industry with a lifetime membership in 2020.
Andrew believes Cofi-Com has continued to succeed in the Australian coffee market due to it focusing on its customers’ needs and requirements, and sharing of expertise with a knowledgeable and experienced team in Australia and almost all producing countries.
“Our sister companies ensure qualities prior to shipment and our large local inventory minimises delays and re-assures our clients that coffees are available throughout the year,” he says.
“Our modern cupping facilities are available at all times and our onsite quarantine and customs inspection facility allow for a speedy wharf to warehouse movement invariably with a working week. Warehouse staff are all long-term employees experienced in all aspects of handling, unpacking, and local deliveries. Not using contractors allows us to handle coffee solely and avoid contact with other products and commodities.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and spread of the Delta variant in 2021 have resulted in volatile demand for Cofi-Com. While food service customers have seen dramatic decreases in demand, especially in Melbourne and Sydney, Andrew says supermarket, drive-thru, and online focused-brands have largely benefitted.
“As we recover from COVID, I think there will be a bit of consolidation in the market. Pricing has become paramount, with costs under the microscope. Mainstream coffee will continue to flourish but there will be more pressure on the single origins and micro lots at the higher end of the market,” Andrew says.
“At the same time, with coffee prices at a five year high, growers are finally receiving returns well in excess of production costs. Usually, this would result in increased long-term crop volumes and added focus on quality and single estate coffees becoming popular even with larger roasters wanting traceability and the storyline to go with it.”
Ultimately, Andrew says the roasters that will succeed are the ones that connect with customers and offer a point of difference, and Cofi-Com will keep helping them do so.
“Our ongoing focus is on the areas we do best: client support and building relationships,” Andrew says. “We’ll continue to innovate, adapt where necessary, and support trade associations in promoting coffees to all segments of the market.”
This article appeared in the October 2021 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.