Coffee is one of the most highly traded commodities in the world. Yet, it is also a highly dynamic food crop, which changes from season to season depending on weather, soil and disease outbreak. According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) there are over 10,000 varieties of Ethiopian coffee alone. There are perhaps just as many hands that touch coffee, across dozens of industries, as coffee moves from the field to the store. It’s a wonder that a commodity that travels so far through such a layered supply chain can be consumed so consistently. Despite all that could go wrong, day after day, people around the world savor coffee each morning. What allows this exotic drink for much of the world to be reliable enough to be a breakfast staple for the last few hundred years?
Starting from the cup backwards, I met with Neil Balkcom, who works as Director of Coffee Operations for a Washington, DC coffee roaster to learn about the logistics of the coffee supply chain. Over the course of an hour and half conversation, he revealed to me the nearly unfathomable complexity and layers of the coffee trade infrastructure—both physical and legal—as well as what it’s like to work in the industry.M.E. Swing’s Coffee Co. & Me.
Up and running since 1916, M.E. Swing’s Coffee Company in Washington, D.C. is the oldest coffee company in the city. Although it started out as a wholesaler of coffee beans, today Swing’s is a specialty coffee shop, meaning non-franchise and offering high-end espresso drinks as well as drip coffee. They currently have two locations in the DC area.
I worked for several months as a barista at Swing’s G Street location, which is a busy shop. Noon to 2:00PM was our only downtime, the remaining eight hours we were opened, it was our rush. By the end of the day, we poured 300 lattes alone. Many, if not most, customers are regulars, some of which have been visiting Swing’s since the Johnson administration (the shop is sandwiched between the White House and the World Bank). Serving these customers consistently, day after day (or, hour after hour, for many customers) is an immensely tall order.
Fully understanding the level of consistency that customers expect, and how easily you could mess this up in just the brewing process alone, I wondered more about what all came before I pour a bag of beans into the grinder. How many people had to get it right for me to make this cup of coffee? I figured a lot of people did. A lot of people harvesting, drying and roasting, but I wanted to know more details about how coffee gets where it’s needed, when it’s needed. Hence, my meeting with Neil at Swing’s roasting facility in Alexandria, Virginia, which is just a short metro ride outside of the district.
Young, soft-spoken, intelligent, Neil has been working in the coffee industry for years, which included roles as a barista, café manager, coffee roaster and importer of Ugandan coffee. Neil joined Swings’ last year, where he handles all coffee logistics, selects what coffee beans to order and forges relationships with new coffee providers. Swing’s offers over a dozen different blends and single-origin coffees.
Divided in sections below is an overview of how coffee moves through its supply chain, from farm to coffee shop. It is by no means exhaustive.
Newark, New Jersey…Welcoming our Nation’s Coffee
Port Elizabeth, to be exact, is where most of the United States’ coffee imports arrive. This seemingly random location is actually a legacy of the rise of the shipping container. Prior to the shipping container’s development and the importance of trucking in moving much of the nation’s food around, New York City’s harbor was the nation’s largest seaport. As political games and aged infrastructure made New York less attractive for import and export, Newark would become the welcoming station for much of the nations trade. The port was revamped in the 1950s, luckily coinciding with the shipping container’s development, while also offering proximity to water, rail and the Jersey Turnpike. Since then, Port Elizabeth has been the destination for imports and exports.
After passing through customs the raw, green coffee beans are received by an importer and driven by truck to a warehouse in New Jersey—Continental Terminals—where the beans are stored in climate-controlled comfort until Neil is ready to order a batch down to Alexandria, Virginia. Once in Virginia, the raw beans are roasted and bagged for sale or put in big red tubs, loaded into a small truck and driven to where they’re needed in the city.
Neil orders a truckload of coffee from the storage at Continental Terminals about once a month. A full container (truckload) of coffee is 40,000 pounds. From much practice, Neil can envision how many pallets of coffee can fit on the truck, and exactly how many of each type of bean he needs that month. To get the truck, Neil calls a logistics provider who “puts out a bid” on a truck going from New Jersey to Virginia. I was surprised to know the prices of having someone truck commodities aren’t stable, but it didn’t seem unusual to Neil.Before New Jersey:
But, what happens before New Jersey?
On The Farm (and nearby): Farmers and hired workers harvest the beans. Well, they actually harvest “cherries,” which are shells containing two coffee beans, which are enveloped in parchment within the cherry. You have to break the raw, green coffee beans out of this shell and internal parchment. Extracting beans from this cherry happens at either a wet mill (soaking the cherries in water) or a dry mill (drying out the cherries in the sun). Some farmers will send their beans to a wet mill operated by another firm close by, perhaps in the same town or in a few towns over. Some farmers may be in a cooperative with other farmers or with their mill processers, while other farmers may own their own mill. The possible arrangements between the farmer and millers varies.
After extraction from the cherry, coffee beans must “rest” for about a month or so. The entire process, from harvest to export is one to two months, or more. Before export, the coffee goes through other processes—such as grading of quality and sorting. From the moment a farmer harvests the beans, coffee has a shelf life of around nine months.
When the coffee is ready to be shipped out, an exporter will transport the coffee from where it was farmed to a port where it is shipped overseas. Even coffees from as far away as Africa are shipped versus flown, “It is cost prohibitive to transport coffee by air. A full container load on a cargo ship is the most efficient way to bring coffee into the U.S.,” Neil explains.When things go wrong: Coffee Custody, Legal Recourse & Leaf Rust
A lot could go wrong in this long journey from the exporter nation to New Jersey. Customs could hold the shipment for one reason or another, the ship could encounter delays, the coffee could be exposed to the elements and ruined. Neil recounts one such incident in which he ordered coffee from Ethiopia. The ship stopped at port in South Africa. The beans were left exposed to the elements and ruined.
Yet, when I asked, Neil didn’t seem concerned about how incidents like this would affect his supply for the store. One reason is because Neil has his stock pile of coffee in New Jersey, likely to compensate for when individual deliveries go wrong. Another reason is something Neil continually referred to as “the issue of custody.” Neil and M.E. Swing’s didn’t suffer a loss from the coffee roasting in the sun in South Africa. Neither did the farmer. Since the coffee was in the custody of the exporter, they carried the financial burden of those lost commodities. In fact, a large body of legal protocol outlines who is responsible for lost batches of beans. “There has to be a lot of accountability and documentation throughout the supply chain so that there can be legal recourse,” Neil says, matter-of-factly.
Not only is there legal recourse to support participants in the coffee industry, but also technology. How did Neil know his East African shipment was sidelined in South Africa? He can track it, of course. He explained, when I asked about the role of tracking in this incident:
“Yes, tracking the coffee is easy. There are clear shipping lanes in the ocean and cargo companies typically provide tracking information. This type of information typically is not something a roaster would chart, but an importer. The shipment…was being tracked, but tracking doesn’t mean someone isn’t going to pull a container off accidentally. It’s common for cargo ships to stop at multiple ports around the world en route to their destination in order to fill their capacity.”
What’s much more likely to make Neil’s job difficult are factors that affect entire seasons of harvests, such as poor yields, price spikes in the coffee market and diseases like leaf rust. Factors that would affect how he can order coffee months in the future. As Neil explains “I have to forecast my orders for next winter and for next week.”Getting the Word Out: This Stuff is Complicated.
Walking out of “The Cupping Lab” after my talk with Neil, I felt I had learned a rough sketch of the legal and physical infrastructure of the coffee trade. I knew that in an hour or so, I had merely scratched the surface, and it wasn’t because neither Neil nor I were inefficient communicators—It’s because this stuff is complicated. Surprisingly complicated.
As Neil explained, toward the end of our interview:
“…If one glazes over the supply chain, we’re denying the consumer what we believe is valuable information. And it is valuable for several reasons: It involves myriad industries, from nurseries, harvesting, processing, grading, sorting, packaging, exporting, importing, transit, storage and roasting. Twenty-five million people depend on coffee for their livelihoods and of the 50 plus countries that cultivate coffee, the vast majority are either third-world, or developing nations. We believe we have the charge to educate the consumer, as responsible actors in the supply chain.”
Neil’s interview is important not only because he has given a body of knowledge about how coffee moves from point A to point B, and the laws that ensure this transportation, but because his information proves that the supply chain, especially for international products, is incredibly nuanced and complex, yet this seems rarely recognized. Regardless of how clean and simple we’d like our food supply to be, for much of the world to consume exotics like they’re staples, such as coffee in Washington, DC, there is a reality of scale not to be taken for granted.