BeanScene Magazine

Cofi-Com goes behind the scenes on importing

From the August 2017 issue.
Cofi-Com goes behind the scenes on importing

Cofi-Com’s John Russell Storey reveals the finer details and processes required to bring a bag to Australian shores.

They say that may hands make light work, and in the case of coffee production, it couldn’t be truer.

When a café serves a customer a delicious single origin coffee from Nicaragua, the cup’s journey isn’t from the spout of a coffee machine to the cup. It starts long before that, in fact, well before the coffee is even harvested.

While most coffee professionals have this knowledge and appreciation for the many processes involved in bringing a cup of coffee to life – and are doing an incredible job in relaying this information to consumers through packaging, information cards, or a good old-fashioned chat – the journey for the importer is entirely different altogether.

Coffee traders have connections to origins, so the first thing we do at Cofi-Com is let our sister company know what coffees we’re looking for, such as a honey-processed natural grown estate coffee. 

Our colleagues at origin are constantly in the field visiting estates, producers, and mills. As such, we put a lot of trust in their recommendations, which are always on point. After an estimation of the number of bags need, we (nervously) follow harvest reports to get an idea how the crop is progressing.

After harvesting and processing, the first coffee samples are sent to us back in Australia. These are normally about 300-gram samples with basic details such the harvest date, bean description, and, most importantly, an identification number. We cup the coffees, and if we decide that one sample has the ideal profile we’re looking for, we note the identification number and confirm the order.

A whole process now kicks into gear. The coffee is given what we call a “lot number” that will stay with the coffee right through its life.

At origin, the coffee, which has been stored in its parchment skin, is de-hulled and run through sorting tables and destoners before being packed. First, the beans are placed into a tough plastic inner bag, then into a jute or hessian bags. The bags are printed with details that include an International Coffee Organisation (ICO) identification number.

The ICO number is a series of three different numbers that identify the origin, exporter, and the individual shipment, essential for traceability.

A second sample, known as a pre-shipment sample, is then sent to us, the importer, to be cupped and approved prior to shipping. By now, the shipment has created a sheaf of documents including certificates of origin, fumigation, and proof that the correct packaging has been used. There’s even a certificate to prove the empty container was clean and odourless prior to loading.

Before the transit container is loaded, its internal walls are covered with a thick brown paper to absorb any condensation that may build up during shipment. The coffee bags are hand-loaded in the container from floor to ceiling, as pallets take up valuable space. Once loaded, the journey across the Indian Ocean, North Pacific, and South Pacific takes roughly six weeks. Every bag of coffee has to be paid for by the importer before it departs the origin port. No payment, no coffee.

On arrival to Sydney, the container is taken to our Seven Hills warehouse in New South Wales where it is unloaded by hand and stacked onto pallets. Our incredible warehouse crew is able to clear a whole container in just over an hour, carefully interweaving the coffee bags layer by layer on the pallet so it’s solidly packed.

The Australian Quarantine Inspection Services have to clear most origin deliveries, which normally happens within 48 hours. Until it is cleared, the coffee doesn’t move. Once released, a sample is randomly taken from a number of bags and brought to our Quality Lab.

For speciality coffee, we have a number of checks we complete before cupping. First is a moisture level test using an instrument that gives us a reading normally between 9 and 13 per cent. Moisture any lower or higher than this can affect roasting and taste, normally caused by incorrect processing.

A 300-gram sample then goes through a series of six small screens with different hole sizes. Each screen captures a bean of a different size that’s then weighed, and a percentage of each screen size is calculated. This is a cross checking procedure to ensure the screen size specified at origin has been sent. Before we cup, we do one last check – the defect count.

Using a 300-gram sample, we separate any beans that are broken, and inspect damage, discolour, or misshape. Each defect type is weighed and a percentage of defects are calculated. Finally, the sample is cupped against the pre-shipment sample, scored, and given its flavour description. We also select random samples that are sent to an outside laboratory to test for pesticide residues.

Most speciality grade coffees like a Nicaraguan honey process are available in relatively small quantities of 80 to 100 bags, and stock doesn’t last long. Purchases are either what we call “spot” – the price on the day, which is based on the exchange rate – or “on contract” – where an agreed number of bags is bought at a fixed price.

Cofi-Com can store contract coffee, and roasters draw from the stock as required. Green coffee purchases can directly affect any roaster’s cash flow. A pallet of 16 bags can cost between $7000 to $9000 depending on the country of origin the beans are sourced. Because of this, we have a minimum order of one bag for roasters who arrange their own transport, which is a great help for specialty and start-up roasters.

The bean to cup process is a complex journey. While I have greatly simplified the processes involved to give you an overview, know that there’s a tonne of bureaucracy, administration, complicated finance, and shipping delays often associated with bringing shipments from origin to Australia. Weather issues during or before harvesting, internal unrest, strikes, and coffee commodity price fluctuations all have an effect as well. But that’s what we’re prepared to go as a coffee trader and importer.

Yes, coffee transportation is a complicated and fascinating process, but it’s also an interesting and rewarding process when you cup a delicious coffee and know that the effort was worth it.
Last in this chain is the roaster, who brings out the best in the bean through roasting, drawing on expertise from hundreds of roasts and cuppings. Roasters put in hours of training with baristas to ensure the coffee is made just right, from adjusting grinds and extraction temperatures to advising on correct doses.

Each element is crucial when you appreciate the long journey the beans have endured to make your coffee cup. The most satisfying part is sipping that single origin coffee that’s smooth, full of flavour, and most importantly, enjoyed by the customer. No matter what we do in this intricate chain, if the coffee doesn’t taste good, we haven’t done our job.

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