Henrik Rylev (John Burton Ltd) and Justin Purser (Trade Aid) share their stories in their roles as green coffee buyers
Interviews by Ria Lingad
Tell us a bit about yourself and how your career has led to green coffee buying.
Henrik: I am originally from Denmark and in 1994 I put my interior design job on hold and started traveling around the world. My plan was to stay in NZ for a little bit as I was halfway in my travels and needed to make some extra cash. One thing led to another and I ended up staying. I was very fortunate to get an apprentice roasting job at Allpress and from that day I was hooked on coffee and all that came with it. After about 11 years roasting at Allpress, Atlas Power Coffee and Altezano Brothers (my 3A’s!), I heard that a possible vacancy had come up at John Burton Ltd. As my interest in roasting and wholesale had been fulfilled, the next step was green bean sourcing, which I had been involved in at my previous roles although on a smaller scale. I gave John a ring and asked what the chances were in getting the job. I had tried some 7 years before to get my foot in the door at John Burton’s with no luck. This time the stars were aligned and timing was right, John didn’t even need my CV because he still had my old one in his drawer! Awesome.
Henrik cupping in Guatemala
Justin: I started working at Trade Aid’s importing warehouse in Christchurch as a volunteer when I left university, seeing that the organization offered a practical way that I could help to address some the problems with the global trading system. I worked my way up to warehouse manager and then took on responsibility for food buying as well, which at the time was a very small role. In the early 2000’s our fair trade food program started a growth spurt and I became aware of an increasing demand among the NZ roaster community for more fair trade green coffee options. It was a natural progression for us to start sourcing fair trade coffee for the NZ specialty coffee industry as many roasters saw Trade Aid as a supplier that they could trust would be trading with a high level of integrity. Thanks to their trust, we’re now supplying more than 80 roasters in New Zealand with more than 1,300 tonnes of green coffee annually and thereby providing the small-scale coffee farmers we trade with millions of dollars of critical added value each year.
Justin Purser, Food Manager at Trade Aid Importers Ltd.
Which origins interest you the most? And can you share your most memorable experiences while travelling to origin?
Henrik: I have a love affair with Papua New Guinea as it is a very diverse and interesting place to visit. Not only on the coffee side but also the various differences in tribal cultures from region to region. In my latest trip organized by Fairtrade to HOAC Coop in the Eastern Highlands, we were greeted by the locals in full war paint with bows, arrows, shields, and spears, and ladies dancing and singing leading us to the place where the welcoming ceremony took place. This was truly amazing and something I will never forget. A similar thing happened to me with a group of coffee growers on Tanna Island in Vanuatu years before. Being the guest of honour is very humbling in these cultures.
Wakey, wakey! Who said origin trips are luxurious?
Another memorable moment was my recent trip to Colombia where we met up with the Arhuacho people from a new Fairtrade organic co-op we have started buying from north of Colombia. Santos City and Ipanema Coffee Estate in Brazil, Antigua City in Guatemala and its surrounding volcanos, Sumatra and its jungles, the list goes on. I think each country I have visited has something special about it. It’s always amazing once you start going up into the mountains and experiencing the beautiful vistas. I love to learn about other cultures and its people, so I am always very excited about the next origin trip.
Justin: It’s tough to have to choose! Every coffee origin we import has its own very interesting back story but I do have a soft spot for the co-ops we work with which are helping to rebuild their communities in the wake of violent civil war. Unfortunately, there is quite a number of them, from DR Congo to Uganda to Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Colombia.
On one trip I made to Ethiopia with a group of roasters, I managed to convince our trading partner to take us down into a reasonably remote valley in the Harrar region to meet with farmers. Our hosts very reluctantly agreed to do this, as they wondered how we would fare with no comforts for a night in a village with no electricity. We had a great time, sleeping in borrowed tents and organizing our own feast – buying pots and vegetables in the old city of Harrar, and pre-arranging to buy a goat from a farmer down in the valley. Andy Norman (Coffee Embassy) cooked up a fantastic stew by torchlight for our crew and for some of the locals, who seemed to appreciate the lengths we had gone to in order to learn more about them and the impact of our work (as well as the leftover goat).
My first origin visit took me to Aseki, a small town in Papua New Guinea. The people of Aseki used to practice a tradition of smoking the bodies of their dead, they slowly burned the flesh from their corpses leaving behind mummified skeletons from which still hung patches of parched skin and muscle. Then they tied these mummies into bamboo scaffolding and placed them up on the surrounding hillsides, under overhanging cliffs. They’re still there, and I was able to make the time to clamber up the hill and view them. I know that very few Westerners make it to Aseki and I felt very fortunate to be able to visit and pay these ancestors my respects.
Any emerging technologies or trends in green coffee that you are seeing and keen to explore?
Henrik: I am assisting a software developer and close friend of mine with a data tracking system which also can be used in the journey of coffee and this is much more interesting and user-friendly than what is out there at the moment in my opinion. The fact that the roaster and consumer are more and more interested in the sustainable and ethical side of the product and the “story” is now becoming a must. Another trend is the whole scientific side of making new resistant varietals to the benefit of the farmers, it is very fascinating and I would love to go and spend some time in Nicaragua as they are on the forefront of this as I understand.
Justin: We’re always keen to explore new ways to work that will help coffee farmers to improve their incomes. The cooperatives we partner with are working hard to stay up with the play in an evolving market – whether that be by offering a broadening range of coffees with different preparations, or selling highly traceable sacks of coffee, or exporting cascara, as long as we can help them to earn prices that more than cover the cost of developing these new initiatives, we’re up for it.
Coffee conversations in Ethiopia
Throughout your coffee career up to this point, which skills have helped you flourish?
Henrik: On one of my first days at Allpress, Michael came over and gave me a book called “Espresso Coffee, the Science of Quality” and said go read this in your spare time. For those who are familiar with this one it’s hard reading with lots of scientific formulas so for a Dane with English as a second language it definitely put me to sleep after a few hours reading every night. I guess he did me a huge favour as I discovered that there were many interesting books out there where I could further your knowledge. My “bible” is still a book written by Gian Luigi Nora whom I had the pleasure working with for a little while on a long vacation I took while working at Atlas Power Coffee. Mr. Nora is the quality guru in a big trading company called ARC in Italy. He is a wealth of knowledge and to this day still works there and gives lectures about coffee around the world. I was very fortunate to have worked with Mark Hillis at Atlas Power Coffee and had free reign over the green beans, a micro roaster and also the 5 kg spare roaster. I was allowed to experiment with roasting techniques and blending of coffees when duties were done. This was probably the time in my career that was most valuable to me. This was also the time when I got involved in sourcing green beans on a small scale, a role which I also did at Altezano. Another thing I have learned is not to be afraid of new technology and use it if you see a need. As a person, I try to be humble, helpful and respectful to others. I can always learn more so when I am around peers I really pay attention to what they have to say. You might not always agree with what is being said but it is always informative. Be friendly and respectful to all no matter who they are and do not be afraid to speak your mind, and that in itself will get you a long way I think.
Justin: My main asset has, I believe, been a motivation to be the best buyer that I can be for the economically marginalized producers we work with. This motivation has inspired me to become a good supplier – one who is very understanding of the needs of our customers, and who works hard to satisfy those needs. It has also inspired me to become a better writer – someone who can clearly explain what it is to be a coffee producer with very little land and hardly any money, put a very human face on the work we do, and show how important and beneficial our trade is for them.
In your opinion and from your perspective, where do you think specialty coffee is heading in the next few years?
Justin: On a relatively small scale volume-wise, demand will continue to drive innovation in the ways that coffee lots are differentiated by geography, processing method, varietal, the degree of sorting, and other factors. The great majority of specialty coffee volumes will continue to come from producers who are experiencing local weather which is becoming increasingly more variable, and whose costs are rising faster than their incomes. One obvious outcome of this will be coffee with more variation in quality from season to season, and another will be more financial pressure coming onto small-scale farmers. This could mean we see a continuation of the current general shift towards lower cost, plantation-based, monocultural coffee production (think Brazil) – but at Trade Aid we remained focused on supporting those smaller farmers who will still strive to sustain a living by producing good quality coffee.
Many thanks to Henrik and Justin for sharing their stories and thoughts on specialty coffee. If you are interested in getting to know more about what they do, email them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.