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How a roaster’s brand can build buzz around a coffee producer

Buying full containers is not the only way to support the people behind your coffee. Brand collaborations and recommendations help boost producers’ reputations and get them more good customers.

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We often hear that small roasters have little to no impact at origin because they can only buy a few bags or don’t invest in social projects. That is not true. Small roasters have two very simple ways to show support for their producing partners: promoting the producer’s farm and brand and recommending them to other people in the industry. It’s the big mouth approach to building buzz and beating the big boys.

One roaster doing that is Daniel Horbat, World Cup Taster Champion 2019 and founder of Sumo Coffee Roasters in Dublin, Ireland. “Our goal is to put the farmer on the map,” he starts. “I try to do that by constantly talking about them and their coffee, telling the story behind the bean and representing them in the best way possible,” Daniel explains. He is constantly linking producers with customers and with other roasters too.

Daniel Horbat, left, and Valentin Kimenyi, right (Photos: Kristaps Selga - for this image and title photo - and Gasharu Coffee)

Before getting the 3kg Mill City, Daniel roasted in an IKAWA until the heat element burned (Photo: Sumo Coffee)

Putting farmers on the map

“A few days ago, someone was raving on Instagram about Sumo having the legit best coffee from Brazil they ever had,” he recalls. “I immediately redirected the conversation towards Rafael Vinhal and how he is the absolute master of the coffee and not me. The more you repeat a name, the faster it sticks in someone’s mind.” The roaster believes that the more exposure he can give farmers the higher their chances of getting the attention of new buyers. “I also believe that showcasing their best lots is part of ‘putting the farmer on the map as people will associate them and the farm with high quality.”

Sumo is as small a roastery as small goes. Daniel started in 2020 roasting commercially on a 50g IKAWA. He began with award-winning micro-lots with rare varieties like Gesha and experimental processing methods such as washed carbonic maceration. He roasted for 14 to 16 hours every day with no break for a year, a total of 4.700 batches. By the end of that year, his heating element had burned. Luckily, the Mill City 3 kg machine he bought landed in 2021. Big improvement but still a small roaster. 

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A customer base passioned about flavour

Daniel built Sumo’s brand around quality, working with coffees that start at 87 points. Before sourcing on Algrano, he was receiving small parcels of high-end green coffee via FedEx or DHL. “I believe quality is the best business plan. When you have something really good, selling is easy. And because I started like that, I was able to build a customer base. Now, people go crazy when we have a new release.” He sells mainly via e-commerce to people all over the world, especially in China, Taiwan, Korea and other Asian countries. 

A couple of Daniel’s favourite coffees at the moment are the anaerobic fermentation lots produced by Gasharu Coffee in Rwanda. He remembers first cupping it with Niko of Bell Lane in 2020. There were 16 coffees on the table, four of which were Gasharu’s. “When we got to those coffees we all stopped like… Wow! I was shocked it was Rwanda.” The roaster said that was the “best coffee I have ever had from Rwanda” and he hasn’t tried anything else from that country since. 

Valentin, right, and his parents: Celestin Rumenerangabo and Marie Gorette Mukamurenzyi (Photo: Gasharu Coffee)

Sharing producers' stories with passion "motivates producers to push the boundaries" and transfers the "passion onto the consumer" (Photos: Gasharu Coffee and Sumo Coffee)

No copy and paste: sharing real stories

Daniel’s just-about-quality approach might seem oversimplified. In reality, he built a powerful brand around himself that can build buzz around the brands of coffee producers. This works for him not only because he is a World Champ. “Sumo is not just a business. It is my passion. I humanised the company, putting my face out there and talking with passion and from the bottom of my heart about coffees and people I believe in. I don’t just copy and paste a producer's story. No, I rave about it with passion and try to share the coffee I believe in with as many people as possible. This not only motivates producers to push the boundaries, it also transfers the feeling and passion onto the consumer.”

Today, Daniel and Valentin Kimenyi, the manager of Gasharu, are in the third year of their collaboration. Volumes are growing steadily, from 4 bags to 13 and then 25. The two meet in person for the first time at World of Coffee in Milan this June but there is already a constant exchange over WhatsApp. “The relationships we built with farmers through Algrano are just amazing. The only ones in the same level I built so far have been with La Palma y El Tucan and with El Vergel but I've been there [Colombia] and met them in person. It’s so easy on Algrano,” Daniel says.

Despite his focus on quality, Daniel is also aware of challenges in the supply chain and the intense competition for great quality coffee, which can sell out really fast. If he likes a coffee, he buys it first and samples later. “I buy Valentin’s coffees blind. Same with Vava Angwenyi. If I like the story, it doesn’t matter. I’ll do my best to make it taste great. There is a risk and, at the same time, there is no risk. With this kind of producer, there is a full circle of quality control before the coffee gets to me. It’s not like buying something for 3 dollars/kg.”  

Valentin, centre, with a team of pickers and washing station workers in Rwanda (Photo: Gasharu Coffee)

Collaborating to move coffee forward

The roaster is not scared to feedback either. He remembers finding an “annoying” number of quakers on Intego when he first bought it. The coffee still tasted great, there was just a huge amount of cleaning when a batch was roasted. He told Valentin about it, suggesting that the issue could be related to picking or sorting, and never had to worry about it again. “There was a huge difference the second time. The coffee was brighter and had more fruit.”

Daniel explains that he would never suggest to a producer how to process their coffee but that he “dares to give feedback” based on what he can taste and see after roasting. When he and Valentin talked about quakers, “I said it because I thought it might help Valentin and because I am rooting for him to get even better than he already is,” he starts. “I know there’s a limit where I can give suggestions on the subject, but this is who I am. I speak my mind, even though I might be wrong about it. And I don’t see this as feedback or recommendation. I see it as a collaboration to improve and move coffee forward.”

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