What I learned in coffee school is…

Coffee farms are much more complex than I initially imagined they would be. The number of management decisions that must be made, both on a day-to-day basis and in the long term, is staggering. Additionally, farm managers often must make their decisions based on predictions and trends rather than on hard facts. One of the most prominent problems that must be solved by coffee farm managers is whether to produce organic coffee or to utilize pesticides and synthetic fertilizer. Going the organic route means that the coffee crop is more difficult to protect and harvest, but can be sold for a higher value to recoup the costs. Nonorganic farms are more efficient and can produce coffee more easily by using chemicals to protect and grow their crops. Managers of coffee farms need to decide which of these two practices would be more beneficial for them, which can be a challenging choice if there is not a lot of precise information about pricing and production costs available, as there often is not. Personally, learning more about the different criteria that coffee farmers use to determine optimal farming practices has made me appreciate the sheer amount of effort and work that is put into coffee plantations to turn a profit.

During the milling step in coffee production, a critical decision must be made by mill managers about how to go about drying the coffee beans. Two options exist; sun drying and furnace drying.  Managers of coffee milling facilities must make decisions about which of these two methods to use, or in what combination to use them. Sun drying is more sustainable than furnace drying but takes more time and has more room for error. Furnace drying takes more energy to run but produces more evenly dried coffee beans. Managers must take these factors into account when deciding on their choice of drying procedure. Another set of decisions that need making in the milling step is how many coffee beans to buy and when to buy them. These decisions essentially boil down to buying the coffee at a relatively low price and selling it for a relatively high price to maximize the company’s profits. Finally, the choice about whether to continue the production process by roasting the beans in the same facility in which they are grown must be made. I was tasked with making this theoretical decision during our group project for this course, and so I have been able to dig more deeply into this specific topic. Through my research, I learned that simply because another step in a process adds value to the final product, this does not mean that every company should attempt this step. Spending extra capital on vertical integrations should, by itself, also not be a barrier for a company. Essentially, companies should examine their assets and customers more closely before deciding whether or not to vertically integrate. I now see that personally, I should not necessarily judge a company like Doka as being “better” or “more wholesome” than a company like Britt just because Doka is more vertically integrated.

The next step in the coffee production process after milling is roasting. Managers of roasting facilities must make informed decisions about how long to roast the coffee beans, how many different roasts they want to produce and in what quantities, and what roasts to use in creating their company’s signature blends. The first two challenges are usually answered using market research and demand tracking. For example, if a manager of a roasting facility is notified an increase in the purchasing of dark roasted coffee beans, then they must decide whether to adjust their production accordingly to meet the new consumer demand and maximize profits. It is also important for roasting companies to ensure that they are producing good tasting and popular blends of coffee beans. If the consumers dislike a certain blend and start purchasing less of it, then the manager must decide about how to go about creating a new blend or increasing advertising for the existing one. Before coming to Costa Rica, I knew very little about the roasting or blending process. I now understand why many different blends can be sold by a coffee company due to the intricate nature of the roasting and blending process.

No matter how closely-monitored and carefully constructed the final coffee product is, none of the preparation makes any difference if the baristas making coffee drinks and retail stores selling them are not properly managed and organized. One key component of this is how the store or company advertises itself and markets its products. Will the store show off its organic and fair-trade coffee to attract millennials and environmentalists? Or should it purchase the cheapest materials possible and focus on fast preparation to attract on-the-go commuters and students? These are the types of questions that retail store managers must answer to turn a profit in the coffee industry. Additionally, these managers must ensure that the baristas making drinks for the customers are properly trained and qualified. The baristas’ wages, training time, responsibility level, and break schedule are all factors that must be considered by store managers if they want to provide the best coffee drinks to their customers. Learning about the retail aspect of coffee production has let me see my local coffee shops and Starbucks in a new light and given me a set of criteria to consider when I am deciding about my favorite coffee shop.

The company managers’ responsibilities extend beyond just giving the customer their cup of coffee. If their company is to succeed in the coffee industry, they must ensure that their coffee is made in a safe, responsible, and sustainable way. Besides the moral implications of these responsibilities, managers can also advertise these practices to attract even more customers. This is a key factor in creating strong brand recognition. If a customer remembers that a certain company gave them a high-quality cup of coffee and is environmentally friendly, they will be more likely to associate this company with a positive experience and continue to buy from them. Community outreach programs are another way for managers of coffee companies to increase sales. For example, Café Britt has implemented several programs that encourage its managers to volunteer in community cleanup projects. Again, these moral decisions can also be used to increase the company’s profits if they are advertised. Which programs to fund, which environmental criteria to meet, and how to disseminate this information to consumers are all challenges that must be taken on by managers in the coffee industry. After learning more about these practices, I have decided not to take everything good that is advertised by coffee companies, such as being fair-trade, organic, or having company-wide service days, at face value. While the good that these companies say, they are doing is true for the most part, the motivation behind it is usually not moral, but rather financial. As a consumer, it is difficult to break out of this type of manipulation, as it is nearly universal. Instead, I choose to use my newfound knowledge about the coffee production process to critically evaluate companies from which I buy, and to try not to be swayed by buzzwords and slogans.

Leave a Reply