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You Can Buy From the Same Farm Every Year and Still Get New, Exciting Coffees. This is How

Swedish roastery Gringo Nordic combines a variety of exciting beans with consistent qualities from decade-old partner Finca San José in El Salvador. Just because he buys from the same farm every year, it doesn’t mean he’s always getting the same coffees…

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Roasters have long sought to have the best and most exciting coffees. Many are constantly changing suppliers and adding new farms to their list without building a relationship with any of them. Like fast fashion, this caters for consumers' appetite for novelty. And whilst there is nothing wrong with that, the change in consumer behaviour towards ethically sourced products is transforming what people perceive as good coffee. In today’s world, relationships add flavour to coffee just as cup scores do. 

If the benefits of relationships in providing a consistent supply are widely known, roasters are less aware of its potential when it comes to exciting micro-lots. The 10+ years-long alliance between Johan Ekfeldt of Gringo Nordic in Sweden and Angel Magaña of Finca San José in El Salvador is a testament that working with the same farm year after year can help roasters access trendy coffees without compromising on sustainability. Here, they open up about how they built a solid partnership with endless possibilities.

Real business value and value beyond business

There has been a real revolution in post-harvesting techniques in the last 10 years, with new and exciting coffees being introduced to roasters every harvest. Why invest in a relationship with one farm when one can have so much variety? Whilst a compelling argument to acquire new clients, such coffees don’t often form the base of a roastery’s offer or, as Johan puts it, the “core of your menu”. These, he says, are the “trusty” lots he knows will be on his menu across the seasons and make loyal customers come back time and time again. Such coffees need quality AND consistency, something roasters can only achieve through relationships.

But there is more to relationships than business value for Johan. The coffee veteran created Gringo Nordic in 2018 after selling his previous roastery, Johan & Nyström, to put people and substance at the core of the business. “At this stage in life, if I can’t find something meaningful in work I don’t start the roaster in the morning,” he says. Johan’s emphasis on relationships comes from the drive to see real impact in the supply chain. “Quality is important but I’m a person that likes to follow people. [Learning about] the story behind them, [sharing] the story behind us, and making coffee more personable,” he explains. 

"If I can’t find something meaningful in work I don’t start the roaster in the morning", Johan says (Photo: Gringo Nordic)

Angel (left) and Johan (second from the left) at Finca San José (Photo: Gringo Nordic)

You don’t need middlemen but you need a partner in the middle

Relationships imply that coffee is being traded directly between a producer and a roaster. However, it’s hard for the two parties to make deals concrete without external help. For Johan, that help is Algrano - but his journey was far from a picnic in the park. “When I started having contacts with producers in 2004, importers bluntly refused to give me information. I tried to get coffee directly from a supplier in El Salvador and it was blocked by an importer. They didn’t want to share the contact or let me get in touch with the supplier directly. That was an eye-opener,” Johan recalls. 

The roaster was so committed that, if importers wouldn’t help, he would do it alone. Johan took it upon himself to organise the logistics - only to find out what a minefield that was. According to him, the steps involved in making relationships work can be, well… Tedious. "I want sourcing to be convenient so I can (just) focus on finding the coffees I like. This is why I let Algrano organize the transport and the paperwork for importing. The boring stuff”, he laughs. “Algrano plays a big role in providing logistics and financing as Gringo Nordic is new and cash flow is tight. Angel also works with an exporter that he trusts.”

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Sharing risks and being transparent. Radically transparent…

For Angel, the partnership with Johan was of extreme importance to help him minimize ambiguities in production and in planning the harvest. “You know where the coffee will be going after it’s harvested, and how much you are going to get for the coffee. The premium for the quality coffee even is discussed [as they plan for each season]. You know the client is happy with the product, and we are happy with the relationship and prices. It is also rewarding to see the final product," smiles Angel. 

Johan explains how they make it work so well. “Every year before the harvest, we chat. Angel asks what worked and what didn’t for each of his coffees and I share my feedback. As we usually sell Angel´s coffee for around 8 to 9 months, it is important that the green ages well, so we always discuss how it changes during the time of storage here at Gringo. And then we discuss the feedback we get from customers about the coffee and my own cupping results as we cup the coffee every week during the season.” 

Angel and Johan’s approach is radical transparency. “We also chat about what percentage has to be [processed as] washed, honey or anaerobic [based on the changing market trend]. For example, for their Pacamara, the first year we did natural, then we did honey, then natural again... This year, it’s all experimental… All anaerobic”, the roaster says. 

This works for two reasons: firstly, Johan fully trusts Angel’s ability to deliver great quality and, secondly, he shoulders the risk of experimentation and buys the coffee no matter the cupping result. “This is all possible because there is a mutual understanding that we both want a good outcome for both of us”, the roaster stresses. 

Johan shoulders the production risk and buys the experimental coffees no matter the cup quality (Photos: Gringo Nordic)

Magnus Alfjärd of Gringo above and the Magaña family below (Photo: Gringo Nordic)

Cultivating a mutual growth mindset

The reasons behind Johan and Angel's synergy go beyond good communication and shared risks. They have a mutual curiosity about each other’s businesses. Moreover, they both emphasize the importance of “growing together”. “Angel is one of the core producers that provide us with their coffee and we want to continue working with such producers. My goal is to grow my business in a meaningful way so we can also get good volumes from producers. So growing together, truly," dreams Johan. 

“I asked Johan what it is that he wanted for his coffee because we could grow anything on our farm, and we wanted to understand what has been up and coming back in 10 years when we started the relationship and our specialty side of farm business”, says Angel in a display of excellent customer support and openness to collaborate. The farmer adds that his priority is “understanding what’s critical for buyers”. He introduced the Pacamara variety to his farm after talking to Johan, who in turn waited for production.

Today, Gringo Nordic buys San José’s entire crop. “As their sole buyer, I can decide on the product I need for my customers [in conversation with Angel]. We always have to bring in something new to keep our menu exciting, so discussing how to process the coffee every year before the harvest ensures we have a diverse offering. It is also a lot more fun to work like that. The Magaña family’s Pacamara is one of our best sellers,” Johan shares. 

While roasters and producers can’t control the weather or find quick detours for the supply chain crisis, they can build trust in their relationships to mirror the successes of Johan and Angel. “It seems like we can’t get rid of each other and I like it that way,” Angel laughs. 

This article was written by Sunghee Tark. She is the co-founder & Chief Executive Officer of Bean Voyage, a feminist organisation that provides smallholder womxn coffee producers with training on sustainable coffee production and access to markets. Bean Voyage is the Grand Prize Winner of the Facebook Social Entrepreneurship Award 2018, UN Youth Report's 50 Gaming Changing Plan and also Emma Watson's Gender Equality Scholarship.

Sunghee is responsible for market outreach, programming and strategic planning. She is an SCA's LEAD Scholar, Re:co Fellow, SOCAP Fellow, Byron Fellow, and Davis Scholar. Previously, she led organisations working on youth empowerment, early childhood education, and human rights. She holds an MSc in Public Policy and a B.A. in Economics.

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On top of 26 interviews with coffee professionals, other 54 roasters from 13 countries in Europe and 76 producers from 15 countries in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia provided information for the report by completing an extensive survey. Learn more here

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