Coffee Shipping: delays, disputes and disruption

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We talk a lot about knowing where our coffee comes from – single origin, sourced direct from farmers and with our team involved from day dot. You know each grower’s name (and often the names of their mum, son and dog!), where they live and what they do in their spare time.

We all know where our coffee is from, but do you know how it gets over here?

On the good ship coffee

It’s an admittedly less interesting (but endlessly more complicated) story. The clue’s probably in the title… green coffee literally travels by ship from its origin to the UK. And if you’ve ever made the mistake on hopping on a river cruise during your hols in the Lake District, you’ll know that it’s not the fastest transportation method around.

But there’s a whole lot more that makes shipping green coffee a challenging enterprise. Firstly, there’s a lot that goes into packing coffee up for transportation. Containers need to be solid and free of holes, with no traces of what the container was used for before (to avoid contamination). Then the ways bags are stacked must be done to avoid moisture spreading as much as possible, and they need to be in the coolest part of the ship – preferably below deck. There’s a lot that goes into making sure the coffee stays in tip-top condition while it’s en route.

But then there’s the shipping itself, which is often at risk of delay and disruption due to various factors. Unrest in the global economy, changing port requirements, striking workers, overloaded harbours and poor local infrastructure can all come together to mean we can’t predict when our shipments will even arrive. And unfortunately, that’s what’s happening at the moment.

The anticipation is building…

Being committed to quality is great and all, but it does mean we have to work very close to the bone. Samples have to be tasted and re-tasted to check standards aren’t slipping, coffee has to be as fresh as possible when we roast it for you – it’s a whole thing. But that means we’re even more susceptible to delays caused by shipping issues.

Victim #1

…The Karinga Peaberry. If you’re one of people that pre-ordered this Kenyan beauty, you’ll have heard about the situation. Since we had such high expectations for this coffee, and we were sourcing from a new origin, it was essential to keep sampling up until the last minute. Otherwise we risk shipping over bad beans that aren’t what we promised customers.

And an emergency sampling meant Karinga missed the boat… literally. When you’re shipping from this far away (and the journey involves three separate ships) that means everything gets pushed back – like missing your connection at Birmingham International because the rail company thinks a minute is enough time to change platforms. Luckily, it’s hit our shores down – phew!

Victim #2

Delaying the Karinga Peaberry shipment also meant other coffees were hugely delayed. At one point, we were close to running out of coffee completely! Not that we would ever let that happen (we know how grumpy you get without your morning cup!) – we pulled whatever strings we could, marionette-style, to make sure we had enough to supply customers. Though, that did mean there was extra pressure on our Honduran and Colombian shipments to come through in time… we all needed a shot of espresso after that!

Victim #3

Our Gold Dust #4. Maybe the most frustrating of the lot, this will end up being over a month late. And why? Because of a court dispute to do with who has the rights to dredge the Santos port, the water wasn’t cleared – and that meant a build-up of silt prevented vessels from leaving, unless they unloaded their cargo. Which then meant GD4 ended up sitting in a dock when it should have been powering its way over to the UK. Sigh.

There’s no business like the coffee business

Maybe you didn’t notice we were having a tough time of getting coffee from origin to cup. And if that’s the case, it’s all thanks to the Coffee Team and all our Roastery Operatives that busted a gut to do what they could to make sure business ran as normal – you go, girls and guys!

Unfortunately some of you have probably been impatiently watching the post – and for that, we’re always sorry and disappointed. We’re people-pleasers, you see! But hopefully you can see that (like every bus that’s late because of a belligerent passenger, or a train that’s delayed because of leaves on the line, or plane that’s grounded because of volcanic ash), some transport woes are just unavoidable.

The good news? We know when these coffees do land – and we’re anxiously tuned into Radio 4’s shipping forecast to track them – the incredibly quality will make every sip worth the wait.

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