St Ali’s Lucy Ward on life as a green bean buyer

St Ali’s Lucy Ward gets paid to see the whole production chain come to life. She talks to BeanScene about finding the skills needed to outlast and outwit on the buying circuit.

Buying the best lot of coffee could be likened to outlasting competitors on Survivor to claim the prize pool. Sometimes it’s like playing poker with high rollers and keeping your cards close to your chest, and sometimes it just comes down to how close a relationship is.

St Ali Procurement Strategist Lucy Ward has experienced it all, but says there is far more camaraderie in the buying field than people may think.

“It’s only in Central America, such as Panama and Costa Rica, where you tend to compete with a cohort of buyers to get the best of the best. Some producers will save you their best stock, but I hate exclusivity. It’s not cool unless you buy everything from the farmer and can commit long term,” she says. “At the end of the day, everyone roasts differently, brews differently, and markets coffee differently so I see no point in being exclusive.”

Lucy always goes to origin prepared. She carries a shopping list of what she needs and wants.

“In that list are different brackets of coffee, for example, different coffees that I need to suit certain audiences,” she says. “Some will be the crowd pleaser coffees that we need for blends [at St Ali], and others will be the champagne-type coffees, a little more expensive. Whatever audience they serve, if they’re good, I’ll pay well for it.”

Lucy tastes a lot of coffee. When she finds gold, however, she just knows. “Those stand-out coffees to me have balance, sweetness, body, umami flavours, complexity, and they must be interesting,” she says. “It has to have a point of differentiation. I love Pacamaras and Javas, the big beans, because they have all this and more.”

On some occasions, Lucy is the first female buyer producers have ever seen. Mostly, she’s the only girl in the room, besides the girl cleaning the coffee cups.

“When I first started buying coffee it was a very different experience. I never really thought of myself as the only female in the buying decision, not until very recently to be honest. With the talk of ‘women in coffee’ I started to look around and thought, ‘I am actually a minority here’,” Lucy says. “The only victim is your mentality. I talk with the big boys, and I look at this it as another opportunity to meet new people, make a difference, and taste some exciting coffees.”

Lucy says there’s plenty of incentive to have more female green bean buyers join the profession, including the fact women have “better” tastebuds than the guys. “I only wish more girls would see the benefit in this career,” she says.

Lucy grew up in the country town of Haigslea, a tiny little town in Queensland, “on the edge of the salad bowl of Australia – Lockyer Valley”. She never thought twice about coffee. Her town had no main street, just a church, a school and a pub.

Lucy studied in nearby Toowoomba and then spent six years studying art/management at university where she learnt about being an art curator, sculpting and local arts, and completed a course in community cultural development.

To assist her studies, Lucy worked at a small café in Brisbane where she learnt what coffee was and how to make it badly.

“I used to hate coffee. To me, it was just Blend 43 out of a jar until I started making coffee at this large café that served terrible coffee, but it paid the bills.”

Between her café work, Lucy volunteered her time at the Brisbane City Council arts and youth space, Visible Ink. She also completed a mentorship program at a supporting body for artists, did a volunteer placement at an indigenous and non-indigenous art gallery, and completed work placement at a digital design studio training vulnerable youth.

Lucy moved to Melbourne in 2008 to further her career in the arts, which she describes as a “self-indulgent career”. She always made it to the last few standing in interviews, but never landed the job. Suddenly, more doors started to open in coffee than in art.

“I got a job at Shanti Bhagwan café in the University of Melbourne. It was the first time I started making coffee lattes,” Lucy recalls. “[St Ali Founder] Salvatore Malatesta had helped start up the business, and asked if I wanted to work at St Ali. I could never have imagined a career in coffee ever existed until I did it.”

Her foray into specialty coffee involved managing the café floor and learning to cup coffee. After about four years, she went to work at Proud Mary in a similar role, but soon became restless. At the time, Proud Mary had just opened its roastery, and Lucy asked to work there instead. There was just one guy roasting, one in sales, and her – until one quit and she ended up doing a “bit of everything”.

“It was a massive learning curve. I was ready for a challenge. I learnt how to buy coffee, what makes coffee exciting, and really developed by palate,” Lucy says. “(Owner) Nolan (Hirte) did a deal with me, he said if I got my Q grader license, he’d let me buy coffee. When a challenge is set, I accept.”

Lucy passed the notoriously challenging course first go, and Nolan stuck to his word. Lucy has been buying coffee ever since.

“It’s exciting to buy coffee, but it’s also subjective. There’s a lot of pressure attached. You have to know about commodity prices, how to operate in futures, work towards strict budgets and timeframes,” Lucy says.

“A green bean buyer has the ability to make or break a company. There can be massive repercussions if you go about it wrong. I have to think how I’m going to sell the coffee and understand if there’s a market for it. I could buy all the coffee I love: top Cup of Excellence coffees, Geshas, the crazy and weird stuff, but these coffees are never big money-makers because outstanding coffee comes with a big price.”

Perhaps one day they will be, thanks to clever marketing and education, but the question remains: how will we ultimately get consumers to pay more for their daily cup? “What we are selling is a gourmet product, an artisanal culinary product no different from gourmet olives or artisanal loaves of bread,” she says.

“These things command a price tag because they transcend beyond an everyday consumable. The differences between an ordinary and an exceptional product are really clear. Coffee, on the other hand, has the good and bad point of being a part of everyone’s daily ritual. It’s consumed when we are not completely engaging our senses – some just look for that caffeine hit.”

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