I’ve often bemoaned that specialty coffee doesn’t have a book like Kermit Lynch’s classic memoir Adventures on the Wine Route. The story of how coffee travels from remote farms in the tropics to cafés around the world is rarely told, and when it is, it’s usually stripped down to utilitarian logistics. But an exciting new book from coffee industry veteran Ryan Brown aims to offer aspiring green coffee buyers a field guide to a largely mysterious, but incredibly important, aspect of the coffee industry. We caught up with the author of Dear Coffee Buyer: A Guide to Sourcing Green Coffee to find out what inspired the book, who’s it for, and what gear he packs when he travels.
First of all, congratulations on your new book. How did you decide to write a book about green coffee buying?
Thanks! You know, Scott Rao had been bugging me for years to write this book, and I never thought much of it until I spoke with a few novice buyers who were struggling with everything from how much coffee to buy to how to talk about the coffees they bought. This reminded me of what a struggle it had been when I began buying. With no mentors, I made a lot of mistakes, many of which I think are avoidable.
I sat down one day, wrote an outline, and realized that I could write the book I needed as a new buyer. (Plug: you can buy it at dearcoffeebuyer.com)
Green buyer is one of those jobs in the industry that carries a lot of mystique. It’s not as clear of a job path as barista or café manager. How did you become a green buyer?
I was fortunate enough to start my coffee career at Peet’s. Regardless of what you think of Peet’s now, in 1999, it was a company where you could cup daily, geek out on tasting, and practice talking about coffee with customers daily (because the volume of beans sold at the stores was phenomenal compared with competitors). They had dedicated employees, with the exceptional title Tasting Trainer, who traveled around to the cafes to set up cuppings of coffee and tea and just talk with the staff about tasting. These people were quickly my heroes—Rich Avella and Paul Rader, if you’re out there, I’m talking about you—and changed my life.
This experience with cupping and tasting helped me when I later joined Ritual Roasters, who were intent on roasting their own. We got the roasting going, and quickly realized we needed someone to source coffee. I was passionate about cupping and coffee quality and Eileen Hassi, the owner, pushed me to take on the challenge.
The next several years were a wild ride at a time when much of the third wave was still figuring itself out. Buying quickly became a full-time job for me, I was traveling several months a year, and learning the ins and outs of origins, coffee farming, producers, processing, and marketing coffee.
It seems there’s never been more importers or roasters doing direct trade. Who’s the target audience for the book?
Firstly, the book is a guide for anyone who aspires to be a capable coffee buyer, whether they’re a barista, roaster, or even new to buying coffee.
That said, anyone who wants to learn more about forecasting, working with suppliers, telling the story of a coffee, not to mention details on the pieces of green coffee quality, such as processing, cultivars, storage, packaging, and defects will find something. Notably, I interviewed many of the coffee buyers who inspired me, and there are some gems of advice from them in the book.
Do you bring any coffee brewing gear with you when you travel?
It entirely depends on where I’m going, how long I’ll be on the road, and who I’ll be with. When I was regularly traveling to coffee origins, I would bring an Aeropress and Porlex Mini. When I’m driving far, I’ll bring a Hario V60 and my Baratza.
I am not above admitting that my coffee consumption is in part pharmaceutical, and so I will go to Starbucks—they have occasionally great Clovers, everybody—if available.
I would love for this instant-coffee-but-it’s-good thing to take off, but so far I’m underwhelmed.
I’m sure you’ve had a mixture of great and terrible experiences through the years as a green buyer, but do you have any favorite memories?
My favorite memories are likely too personal and emotional to be interesting to anyone besides myself. It’s trite but true that the friendships you create you keep with you for a long time.
That said, I’ll never forget a trip I took to Ethiopia. It began like many of my trips do—with a hiccup. As I arrived in East Africa, my luggage rested comfortably in Frankfurt, Germany. After traveling for 30 hours from San Francisco to Addis Ababa, with another flight and a day’s drive ahead of me, missing luggage put a serious dent in my calm.
I was facing a week with nothing but the clothes on my back, which were getting stinkier by the minute, my camera, and a phone. My tent, clothes, and clean underwear were in Frankfurt.
I was hurting, jet lagged, and smelly by the time I got to a newly-built washing station near Jimma. One of the hosts took pity on my condition and offered some local white honey. I gratefully accepted. It was delicious—floral, viscous, and creamy—and after countless hours on the road with nothing to eat, it was just right. The combination of travel drama, sleep deprivation, and sugar rush nearly made me lose my mind. I was basically tripping.
But it was all worth it. My hours of driving in the stench of my own dingy clothes, the feeling that my underwear had become a permanent part of me, the ever-increasing suspicion that someone in Frankfurt was laughing as they rifled through my belongings … it was all worth it because the coffees I got my hands on in Ethiopia that year were extraordinary.