Serious Eats: Drinks
Inside the World of Coffee Warehouses
Unless you live in a country that grows it, one can only be so local when it comes to coffee. (And, even then, your country may only sell Nescafé.) It's an unavoidable factor in the coffee world that your unroasted green coffee beans must travel a long distance, sometimes under difficult conditions, and then—what happens? Your coffee does not go straight from the boat to the roastery. It sits in a little-observed purgatory at a major shipping port: the coffee warehouse.
In the United States, major coffee ports include Houston, New Orleans, Seattle, Oakland, and New Jersey. Special warehouses designed specifically for coffee storage exist at all of these ports, and to enter these spaces and their aisles and aisles of stacks of coffee sacks is to be overwhelmed by the hugeness that one tiny bean at a time, multiplied by the huge factors of trade, add up to. Overwhelmed by that, and the grassy-sweet smell of unroasted coffee coming at you in all directions.
Coffee arrives at the shipping port warehouse in varying kinds of containers. Regular jute bags, jute bags with protective Grainpro plastic lining, vacuum-packed boxes, and giant polypropylene Super Sacks. No matter how green coffee is packed, conditions for storing it need to be climate-controlled against humidity or extreme temperatures that would damage the beans—and hopefully it was transported to the warehouse under similarly careful conditions.
"Any time coffee sits anywhere or gets moved anywhere, somebody has to pay for it," explains Ed Kaufmann, Director of Roasting for Joe Coffee in New York and Philadelphia. "If it takes more work to load the coffee, they charge more—we pay $1 to have 1 bag of Grainpro-lined jute loaded from the warehouse on to a truck. A straight jute bag only costs $.60 to load since they can use hooks and hooks make the job easier."
Coffee warehouses usually specialize in just coffee (though occasionally you'll find it sharing space with similar products like cacao, or even wine) and may segregate the coffee between commodity level and specialty grade. Besides charging for moving each sack, some warehouses offer other services beyond processing goods through customs, receiving and storage, such as screening and sorting coffee for defects, blending coffees together and rebagging them, and so on. What's the most intense thing that goes on in the warehouses? "Almost being run over by forklifts is pretty scary," laughs Kaufmann.
And just as it costs money each time coffee is moved, coffee is also supposed to be evaluated each time it changes location.
Chris Hallien, who works as a professional coffee grader with the InterContinental Exchange/New York Board of Trade, is one of the people that steps in at that part of the process. While when we order consumer goods from overseas, we might expect them to show up just as described, agricultural goods (for reasons of volatility in transport and a zillion other factors) need to be evaluated at multiple steps in their transit to the final customer. Coffee samples are submitted prior to departure from the origin country, and they're evaluated again in the country of arrivals.
"Before taking ownership we confirm once again that the coffee is of the quality we agreed to in the contract upon arrival either at the plant or an off-site warehouse," explained Hallien of the work he does. For coffee stored in a warehouse, it is also evaluated "to ensure that storage conditions have not compromised the quality and, if so, what to do with the coffee if the quality has diminished."
As an economic indicator, how much coffee arrives at—or lingers unroasted—in warehouses is useful. Coffee doesn't want to hang around in a warehouse for too long, because not only does that mean people aren't roasting, selling, and buying it, it means the coffee is losing quality over time. A lot of coffee arriving in a warehouse is a good indicator for the industry. A lot of coffee hanging around a warehouse and not leaving is a bad one.
"The problem the coffee industry faces is that many countries have one harvest," explained Hallien. "We buy and store the purchase and then pull from stock as we need it for production. Good practice is to create a purchasing and logistics scenario that allows you to rotate through coffee in a time frame that doesn't compromise quality. If you have a coffee that you do need to store for long term then ensure that the warehouse can provide climate control to help preserve the quality of the greens in storage."
And you thought you were worried about whether to keep roasted coffee in the freezer...
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is the creator of Nice Coffee Time, a book of photographs of the best coffee in the world, published by Presspop.