A new wave of coffee companies is challenging conventional logistical and value-creation paradigms by roasting coffees “at origin” for sales directly to consumers markets such as the United States and Europe.
Historically, even in the case of vertically integrated companies that import green coffee directly from farms that they own, the act of roasting typically has taken place in the country of consumption.
The new model, meanwhile, involves its own set of benefits and challenges, which are being currently navigated by companies like Vega Coffee, which roasts to order from Esteli, Nicaragua, and Amor Perfecto, whose roastery is in Bogota, Colombia. Six-year-old Guatemala-based roaster Gento Coffee, founded by third-generation coffee producer and Q Grader Ashley Prentice, is another company making it work.
Gento Coffee operates like any number of conventional roasting companies, in that it buys green coffee from producers, then finishes the product on a Probat roaster at a roastery and lab. A key distinction is that coffees are roasted in Guatemala City prior to shipping via courier to consumer and wholesale customers in the United States and elsewhere abroad. The company also sells small quantities of green coffee directly to home roasters overseas.
By dodging expenses related to importing and transporting green coffee and operating in close proximity to farms, Gento says it is able to pay higher prices to farmers while also providing them direct feedback and support.
“It’s not a perfect model, we keep on improving and adjusting and adapting each year,” Prentice told Daily Coffee News. “But really what we wanted to be was a platform so that farmers can access better markets. I saw this huge opportunity in roasting and selling a finished product, but we also have roasters that buy the green coffee because I don’t buy all the green coffee from my producing partners. We become the platform, or the third party, in that we specialize in the quality, we’re centralizing the quality control in our facilities, and we help farmers be good and be better at what they already do.”
One of the farms Gento sources from is Prentice’s family’s farm in Fraijanes, Guatemala, although Gento is not positioned as “farmer-roasted coffee,” per se. The company sources from additional small producers in the area, and seeks to support as many producers as possible.
Growing up in Guatemala, Prentice regularly visited her grandfather’s farm. Her mother, an agronomist, is still is the farm’s manager. Yet Prentice lived and went to school in Guatemala City, then moved to Tennessee for college, before actually discovering her love of the brew.
One of Prentice’s college courses required her to formulate a sample business plan, which was the first time she took a critical eye to the coffee industry and began to internalize its imbalances. After college, she began writing about coffee for trade publications then took a job as a business development manager for South Carolina-based coffee importer Ally Coffee.
Later, Prentice returned to Guatemala for work on the Rural Value Chains Project collaboration between USAID and Guatemala’s national coffee association ANACAFÉ, then she went on to earn a master’s degree in coffee science and economics from the University of Udine in Italy, before founding Gento Coffee in 2016.
Daily Coffee News chatted with Prentice to learn more about the growing movement of coffees being roasted at origin for direct-to-consumer sales, and some of the challenges she and others face in that nascent segment of the industry.
[Note: Some answers have been shortened for clarity.]
Daily Coffee News: What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome in starting the roasting company?
Ashley Prentice: There is a big startup cost to a roastery anywhere you’re doing it, whether they’re down here or in any country. Coffee equipment is expensive. It did take me some years to build the business plan to get the savings to get the investment to be able to start it.
And then knowledge is a huge one. Yes, I had a coffee background in the sense that right after college, I started working in coffee and developing experience working with coffee companies. I also got the Master’s and I thought I knew about coffee, but then I started roasting, and I figured out I didn’t know anything about coffee.
Coffee is so big, in the sense that every area does require specific expertise. There is a big learning curve to start roasting, as there is to learn how to cup and learn quality. Even if we came from a producing background and we know coffee plants and green coffee and all these things, getting into industrialization or roasting is a whole different ball game.
Do you think the industry overall would be better served if more farmers were also roasters?
I do think it’s a big game changer. I don’t think we substitute a local roastery or cafe in a consuming country. I think there’s space for all of us, but I do think this model adds so much value because we’re keeping so much more profit in the country of origin.
Being able to grow our skill set in producing a finished product instead of selling only raw material really develops the local economy. Another reason why I think this model really is valuable for industry and more countries of origin should be doing it… is because the farmers don’t have any bargaining power. They just have this crop and they depend on buyers; they are price takers.
We at origin should be building our own skill about quality, about negotiation about marketing, really being able to add the value down here, and not depending on consuming countries to do that for us. We should be the experts in the product that we’re producing, right?
What are your perceptions regarding the desire among other producers to learn roasting and make that investment?
I think it depends on the producer…
What I’m seeing is that this is an opportunity for newer generations to get involved. One of the big things for me was… we have this farm, we have great customers in the world that buy directly our specialty coffee, they pay great prices, but the farm wasn’t necessarily going to employ me as a full-time job.
This was a way to diversify my income and actually make a permanent living with coffee. I think this is a great opportunity for the newer generation that’s coming more with this mentality about social media and adding value to the product and selling a finished product. I think this is a good way to get them involved.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected this model?
Obviously, the pandemic threw us all off, but one of the big benefits, especially when there were all these logistical problems, was that we had closer access to producers and to the coffees, so we really never had this supply chain issue of running out of coffee.
And for roasted coffee, most of what we sent is via courier and air flight, and that wasn’t affected during the pandemic, either. Another important thing is that home consumption increased and people were buying more online, getting more home subscriptions and working from home, too. So this grew a lot during the pandemic.
How do you see roasting at origin progressing as a movement?
I see more producers or cafes and people at origin, like the third generation, getting involved and doing this ‘farmer roasted’ / ‘roasted at origin’ business model. I do also see more expertise growing in the country of origin, where we’re looking to vertically integrate and get closer to the market and shorten that supply chain. I think it’s slowly growing… In this globalized world, there’s more opportunity to do it from any country of origin.
I think there needs to come a lot of education to the end consumer, or to even roasters in the U.S., on the benefits of buying more directly, doing that extra effort to make sure that we are paying fairly, that we have transparency in the value chain and that we are actually benefiting our producing and roasting partners like it’s a mutually beneficial relationship…
It’s just a very different model. There are still many barriers to break and I think there’s still a little bit of skepticism. But I think the important thing is to get consumers involved on the importance of wanting to know more about the origin, wanting to know more about the farmer, and really building brands or buying from brands that are doing trustworthy work, regardless of the country [they’re] selling in.
Three Questions with Ashley Prentice
What about coffee inspires you the most?
What inspires me is how coffee can bring people together from different countries, different regions. A cup of coffee brings families and friends together, and so many conversations. Also coming from Guatemala, where we produce coffee, it’s the tradition that coffee brings, and the pride that it becomes with families and producers, coming from generations before, and how do we continue and improve that and make it better and actually sustain it.
What about coffee troubles you the most?
It’s that a lot of the farmers that depend on coffee live in continuous cycles of poverty. There has to be something as an industry that we can do to improve the market, improve the form we trade coffee in and not depend on a very antiquated trading system that depends on the C-market and is not even based on the physical product anymore.
What would you be doing if coffee didn’t exist?
I would be working in something that still would try to have an impact down here, maybe like with artisans or promoting things that we are producing here in-country. I think that would still be a passion. I’ve always liked marketing and sales; I guess I would be doing it just for a different product, like hand crafts or something like that.
Is there someone in coffee who inspires you? Nominate that person for DCN’s ongoing “Three Questions” feature.
Howard Bryman is the associate editor of Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine. He is based in Portland, Oregon.
As a producer, roaster, retailer, I have strong concerns about the quality and timeliness of roasting at origin. Some chefs in Guatemala City attempted this several years ago and it wasn’t sustainable. Roasted beans too old. It must depend on the consumer that is your customer and level of quality both in the beans and roasting they require. It did not work for our customer base. Something is lost in this otherwise romantic version of “seed to cup”.