Coffee grows best in countries near the equator. We generally group these countries into three categories: Central/South America, Africa, and the Pacific. If you live in the U.S., none of these places are particularly close, so today we’re going to give a general overview of how coffee gets from the farms to your cup. This is commonly known as a “supply chain,” although the specialty coffee industry usually uses the term “value chain,” which is a closely related idea. In this post, we’ll trace coffee by its physical movement (the where) rather than tracing its path of ownership from business to business (the who).
Each coffee supply chain is unique, but these are the general steps:
1. The Farm
Coffee grows on trees—think more tall bush—and is usually harvested once per year. Coffee farms can range from very-small to very-large, often influenced by the history of land ownership in the country of origin. Smaller farms often use family or community-based labor, while larger farms hire a combination of permanent and seasonal workers.
2. The Wet Mill
When coffee is picked, it looks like a bright red berry and is what we call a coffee “cherry.” The part of this we actually brew is the seed inside the coffee cherry, so the next step after picking is getting those seeds separated out. We call this “processing,” and it can take a few different forms. The majority of the coffee we sell uses a washed process, which separates seeds—often referred to as beans—from coffee cherries using water in a wet mill. Sometimes this washing step happens on the farm itself. In other cases, farmers deliver their coffee cherries to a cooperative or buying station for processing.
3. The Dry Mill
Once washed coffee beans are dry, they’re still not 100 percent separated from the coffee cherry material. Washed coffee beans still have a papery parchment layer and naturally processed coffees have the entire cherry still surrounding the bean. The dry mill completes the separation process, removing any remaining layers from the coffee bean. The dry mill then sorts coffee into different grades based upon the physical attributes of the beans, like density and color. Dry mills are often owned and managed by exporters.
Journey by Sea
Except in extremely rare cases of air shipment, all of our coffee comes to the U.S. via container ship. In countries that border the ocean, coffee generally goes directly from the dry mill to the port. In the case of landlocked coffee-producing countries, the coffee has a bit more of a journey before it hits the water—like in the case of Rwandan coffee shipped out of Kenya. The amount of time the coffee spends on the water ranges widely, from a few weeks in the case of coffee from Central America to a few months for coffees from Papua New Guinea.
4. The U.S. port
Once incoming coffee clears customs, it is stored in a warehouse near the port until we need it. This helps us maintain a smaller on-site inventory and helps us make sure all of the unroasted, called “green” coffee, is stored in optimal conditions. We evaluate our roastery inventory weekly and typically request 1–2 shipments from the port warehouse every week. Most of our coffee comes in and is warehoused in Charleston, SC, with a smaller portion coming in through Oakland, CA.
5. Counter Culture Coffee Roasteries
Pulling from our roastery supply which we get from the ports, we roast coffee every weekday based on the orders we receive the day before. Coffee orders are roasted, bagged, and shipped all on the same day.
Our roasted coffee can be found and bought at our many customer partners including cafés, restaurants, grocery stores, and directly to your mailbox for you to enjoy.
There you have it! As you can see, the coffee supply chain can be long, with lots of times and places for something to go wrong that would diminish a coffee’s quality. What this post doesn’t convey is the dedication and teamwork of the people who make sure that, even with long and complex supply chains, the quality that starts at the farm-level makes it all the way to your cup.