Coffee Buying, Coffee Life, Volcafe Way

What’s a Microlot?

October 19, 2017
Green coffee drying

There are some pretty flexible definitions in coffee, and microlots and macrolots (or community lots, as we refer to them) are among the terms that differ, depending on whom you ask.

It’s easier to start with microlot. Coffee Shrub has defined it as “a lot produced separately, discretely picked or processed to have special character.” Similarly, The Roasterie blog uses the analogy of an apple orchard, and of the farmer setting aside the apples from a few exceedingly excellent trees and selling those separately. “Coffees that fall under the microlot banner are different in their uniqueness and flavor,” it explains. “They are just ‘special.’”

Most coffee people would agree with those ideas, and implicit in them is the idea that community lots, while they may be good, are inferior in quality.

We do things a little differently.

Our microlots represent smaller amounts of coffee, yes — we receive fewer boxes of them than we do of our community lots. And they’re delicious (we wouldn’t offer them if they weren’t). But they’re not better than our community lots, which are coffees we’re also very, very proud of. In our model, the two serve different functions, really at each stage of the supply chain.

GO’s definitions of microlots and community lots              

A microlot may represent one producer, or 10 producers, or one portion of one producer’s farm — or several hundred producers, such as in the case of many of our coffees from Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. Our teams select or create these lots because they’re delicious and unique — maybe circumstances of weather or fertilization or the age of the trees yielded something fascinating. Something that didn’t exist the year before and won’t exist the next year. We’re delighted to offer that so our customers, and their customers, can enjoy it.

It’s never about sacrificing quality, it’s about creating a coffee our customers can depend on.

Community lots, by contrast, represent a flavor profile from a specific region and community of producers — maybe chocolate and cherry or floral and acidic. We bring together beans that we’re confident will create a profile that our customers will love and want to consistently sell year-round, year after year.

One year, 20 producers may enable us to create the profile; the next year, perhaps two of the crops are surprisingly floral in profile — in which case we may offer those two lots as a microlot and create the community lot with the 18 producers, or the 18 plus four others whose coffees complement the profile. It’s never about sacrificing quality, it’s about creating a coffee our customers can depend on — it relieves them of that stress. Likewise, there’s no stress on any single producer if his or her crop doesn’t meet an expectation — we’re not counting on any one person to deliver, which can be the case with other buyers.

Eduardo Cabrera has afternoon cofee with Amelia Teletor Ajualip, in Cubulco.

Eduardo Cabrera has afternoon coffee with Amelia Teletor Ajualip, a coffee producer in Cubulco, Guatemala, and the mother of a Volcafe Way field assistant.

Another benefit, says Fernando Barzuna, the head of GO and its creator, is that “over time, it helps to connect those producers to roasters and to create a sense of community through the supply chain.”

A green buyer who enjoys the jasmine-like florals of Mata de Platano, for example, could go to this region in Honduras and meet the community that works with our team to create this coffee. Will it be the exact same producers next year that are listed on this year’s factsheet? No. But the majority will be the same. It’s a community effort — a community lot.

Also important to note is that there can be an implied idea in community lots that they’re of inferior quality because they’re “a mix” — that it’s unclear what’s in them or who contributed what. But with our community lots, we know exactly who contributed, from where, how much and what the quality was. (Just click that factsheet link above and scroll to the last page.)

It’s all about producer success

We often hear about green buyers meeting with a producer and securing the purchase of his or her best lots. It makes the producer feel good — he or she has a buyer, which is a relief — and the buyer feels cool about his or her connection to the farm and about doing good in the world. But there’s an artificial value in that idea. The suggestion is that the buyer is doing some good for the producer, by cutting out middlemen and providing a fair price (never mind that he or she now needs to figure out how to unload the less prime lots on the farm).

We can all wrap our heads around that idea, and how it feels good to put a face — sometimes literally — on a product. There’s a specialness being attached to the idea that a coffee attributable to an individual means the buyer “helped” that person. Or maybe rather that the coffee is very, very good because it came from one person who we know the name of. There’s someone to attribute it to and to imagine caring for it, and that implies something about quality.

But then what are we to make of places where farmers have far less land and fewer resources and could logistically never, ever sell their coffees as anything standalone? By the time the highest qualities are sorted from their production, off the 1 or 2 hectares they own, they don’t create enough coffee to logistically or affordably keep separate as a unique lot. Are we to believe that those people are less accountable, less good at what they do, less deserving of the income or appreciation? Of course not. But when we place more value, whether emotionally or literally, on coffees traceable to an individual, that’s what we’re doing.

“Single farmer lots don’t exist in Uganda, says Matthew Seaton, general manager at Kyagalanyi, our sister export company in Uganda. Well, he laughs, “not unless we sell less than ½-bag microlots!”

Seaton adds that Kyagalanyi (chug-uh-la-nee) plans to work on creating microlots, however, because they “allow for more variety of high-quality coffees with very targeted stories, which lead to a higher price of sale, which means we have more cash to give back to the farm, via both price and investments in machinery, more trainings and more personnel on the ground.”

At GO, our twin objectives are to provide our customers with the best green coffee possible, as simply as possible; and that our partnerships with coffee-producing communities allows them to thrive. We take the latter as seriously as the former, for two reasons: If coffee communities don’t thrive, they’ll cease to be coffee communities and we’ll cease to have a product to sell. And further, one can’t work with people and not care that they and their children are hungry. We have made a tremendous effort, with our Volcafe Way program, to give producers the assistance they need — whether agricultural training and guidance or small business training and guidance. We’re continuously investing in our supply chain so our partners can create not just environmentally sustainable farms but businesses that are financially sound and profitable, year after year.

“If we buy coffee from one producer, does it help? Yes, it helps that producer and his or her family,” says Teresa von Fuchs, head of sales and marketing at Genuine Origin.

“But if we work with communities to help them improve their quality and profitability, and we buy from whole communities — selecting the best for GO customers and finding other homes for the rest — then we’re creating partnerships that have lasting consequences.”

Community lots lift communities

Mitch Richmond, president director of Volcafe in Indonesia, oversees Volkopi, GO’s exporting sister company there. Volkopi purchases on a weekly basis from farmer groups, which consist of 20 to 40 farmers whose main income is coffee.

Mitch Richmond (right) and producer Marlon Sianturi, a contributor to GO’s Narata Nauli community lot.

“Meeting with them each week enables us to keep track of their quality, issues and new developments. We also use those moments to give mini trainings,” he says, “and that contact creates trust.”

One outcome of that trust was a project that entailed mapping all the varieties in the area of a single farmer group.

“We wanted to find out which notes every single variety brought to the cup of their normally blended supply,” he explains. “Out of the three predominant varieties, we picked the best-cupping coffees and asked our colleagues around the world to cup and provide their feedback. This resulted in immediate interest from clients that placed orders, and two years down the line we have set up a nursery for the best-cupping variety and are promoting planting this inside the group.”

He goes on, “Developing better market access has an immediate impact on their circumstances and quality of life. Because Indonesia has only smallholder farmers, they can only improve — their coffees and their circumstances — if they act as a community.”

Similarly, in Guatemala, an estimated 98 percent of coffee producers are smallholders. The challenges they face, explains Eduardo Cabrera, purchase manager at Waelti Schoenfeld, our sister exporter in Guatemala, range from low yields to limited access to markets, since many live in remote places with sometimes no road access.

“These producers have access to the market,” he says, “but most of them do not have access to the market they deserve.”

“For them to gain access to better markets and opportunities, it is very important that they change the way they have been selling their coffee in the past years. Unfortunately, for smallholders, many economic challenges stand between them and the ability to deliver their coffee to the final warehouse: The transportation of a small lot is expensive, payment sometimes takes more time and they have to wait for their whole harvesting to finish, among other factors,” Cabrera explains.

“This is where community lots come into play. Producers are not individualists — they usually work together with friends and family, so why not consolidate as a group, where all of them will benefit? Transportation costs are reduced, quality is maintained and most importantly, more people benefit from the transaction, as they will reach better markets. Unlike with single estate or single-producer lots, with community lots, it’s not just one producer who improves his or her living conditions.”

Cabrera explains that Guatemalan coffee production is going through one of its most difficult moments ever. In addition to pricing challenges, producers are challenged by pests, such as roya, as well as old coffee plants and the effects of changing climate conditions, including severe droughts over the last few years.

“By having a group of sustainable farmers in a community, we secure the sustainability and well-being of the entire community.”

“But as a country, we have a very important factor working in our favor: our producers! They are hard working, tenacious, sometimes even a bit stubborn, but very much in love with coffee and what coffee represents to the country,” says Cabrera.

“We’re seeing many producers get involved and ‘push’ each other to improve, even while the impact of each individual practice in a farm will have a more limited impact on the final quality of the coffee,” he says. “By having a group of sustainable farmers in a community, we secure the sustainability and well-being of the entire community.”

Which makes the larger coffee community, too, more sustainable — if not also very much in love with coffee and what it represents. •

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