We break it down with one of the best in the trade.
In our ongoing series, we speak to the people responsible for the coffee you enjoy every day. This week, Director of Green Coffee for Merit Coffee Jamie Isetts tells us exactly what goes into her role, how it impacts the coffee that’s roasted, and reveals if this globetrotting position is truly as awesome as it sounds. Spoiler alert: it is!
When people ask me about my job, it’s always the beginning of a conversation. Simply, I choose coffees that the company I work for, Merit Coffee, roasts. In a dream version of my job, I jet around the world stomping through jungles to find the perfect bean. Business trips to Ethiopia are a thing that I do, but my job is actually even cooler than the fantasy.
Specialty coffees like the ones we buy, grow in the towering mountains of equatorial, developing countries. Most of it is cultivated by farmers in remote areas, by people without a lot of land or resources. Each roasted bean begins as a seed inside a cranberry-like fruit called a coffee cherry. After being picked, cherries undergo a multi-step process to become green coffee, named for the color of the unroasted seeds. These little guys are sensitive to light, temperature, and moisture. They move on the backs of trucks, donkeys, bikes, and people. They sail across oceans and move through the world’s most dangerous places, and after a long journey become part of our daily routine. It’s crazy. Sometimes, the quality of the coffee doesn’t survive the trip.
My job is all about making this journey go smoothly. Here’s how I do it at Merit.
The coffee’s odyssey goes better when people at each step get paid well and feel excited about what they’re doing. Knowing who these folks are, what value they add, and how they are compensated is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. The coffee supply chain is not set up to provide this info easily. Merit is a very young roastery (established in 2014), and harvests only happen once or twice per year, so I’m insanely proud of the depth we’ve been able to build in our sourcing in so few cycles.
Occasionally, we buy coffee that’s already available in the US. All we have to do is vet the project, try the coffee, and decide whether it works or not. This method is a great way to try out new things and celebrate what people in our network are working on. If we have a good experience with these “spot” purchases, we’ll usually go more in-depth for the next harvest cycle.
“This is as awesome as it sounds.”Jamie Isetts
With the majority of our coffee, I take a more hands-on approach. For a few weeks every quarter, I travel to places where our coffee grows to visit the people we work with on the ground. This is as awesome as it sounds. I’ve ridden a horse through a coffee forest in Ethiopia, pushed a truck out of the mud in Colombia, and slept in view of an erupting volcano in Guatemala. In a business sense, too, sometimes there’s no substitute for being there. The best way to get reliable information about these opaque areas of the world is to be physically present. But buying from around the world, I can’t fully grasp what’s happening in one place day-to-day. I usually begin working on a coffee within my network six to nine months in advance of when you, the customer, finally drink it.
Specialty coffee is kind of sensitive. It’s more shelf stable than something like apples, but if it sits around too long it starts to lose the flavors that make it special. We also care about offering an interesting variety while keeping things around long enough for you to enjoy it for a few months. Lead times on green coffee contracts can be up to a year. We work with supply chains in remote, developing regions, and sometimes the coffee tastes different from when it arrives. To top it off, we’re a small, growing business. It’s like the gauntlet of forecasting models.
“…smart, sustainable business is what makes it possible for us to make long-term partnerships with farmers and ultimately pay more for good coffee.”
Because of this, I spend a lot of time on “nerd stuff” — forecasting, managing inventory, storing traceability info, and geeking out about supply chains. I relish my quality time with Excel. Every green coffee buyer, whether they love it or hate it, knows the value of these systems and probably spends a good chunk of time putting them together. Having a smart, sustainable business is what makes it possible for us to make long-term partnerships with farmers and ultimately pay more for good coffee.
Taste is subjective. But like anything, if you do something enough, you can become an expert. All of my decisions are based on my palate, and it’s my job to define Merit’s profile. A major part of my job tasting samples throughout the entire process of buying a coffee. Through cupping — a fancy word for a standardized tasting — I get a sense of the flavors that our roasting team can garner from a particular lot. Tasting can also reveal good or bad farming practices and poor transportation. Like a lot of green buyers, I’m trained as a Q Grader, a certification that teaches a lot about tasting coffee to give feedback to farmers. The most I’ve ever tasted in a day was 82 samples.
Though I didn’t go to college to become a green coffee buyer (as if you could), I can’t imagine a job that combines my interests more perfectly. Tasting nuanced and surprising new flavors, building systems for our crazy supply chain, and the satisfaction of working with talented, committed people is all in a day’s work.
— Jamie Isetts, Director of Green Coffee, Merit Coffee