Coffee Logistics:
A Supply Chain Overview

Creating the delivery masterpiece

The physical separation from the coffee tree to the cup is enormous. Miles need to be covered before coffee can work its magic into our coffee cups. Logistic experts stand at the heart of this long and winding journey. They orchestrate complex logistic processes to make sure coffee reaches you in time.

From a logistic perspective, each container is in itself a delivery masterpiece. Greg Graves, one of our Logistics Supervisors, takes you on a journey through the complicated process of delivering coffee safely around the globe: from the forests and fields to your doorstep.

The many hats of Trabocca’s logistics team

Logistics is a nebulous term. It conjures images of planes, trains, trucks, and vessels of all shapes and sizes. More broadly, coffee logistics spans every movement and documented exchange within the end-to-end coffee supply chain, crisscrossing finance, fulfillment forecasting, compliance, manufacturing, risk mitigation, and transportation.

The core focus and challenge of logistics

These days, great coffees are fairly easy to find. Trabocca’s charge and challenge is to stare down variable harvest schedules, distant origins, complex quality needs, and external political and societal pressures to deliver exceptional coffees reliably, in-spec, and transparently. Roasters place immense trust in our ability to deliver, and we take that seriously.

Aligning the teams, every season

Logistics planning starts long before the first ripe, red cherries are picked from coffee trees. The cyclical nature of coffee movements allows for periods of reflection and strategic planning, which is why Trabocca empowers global operations team members to convene for an annual Logistics & Quality Summit, often in Addis Ababa or Amsterdam. Striving for constant improvement, the goal is to promote cross-cultural team-building, initiate vendor reviews, make site visits, and to ask a lot of questions and generally “talk it out.”

The bedrock for process optimization

During the summit, we ask ourselves questions like, what went well? What didn’t? What challenges did we face, and did we effectively conquer them? How can we incentivize faster export timelines for a specific vendor? What quality risks or opportunities exist for the next harvest cycle? And finally, what can we teach and learn from each other and our partners? Curiosity and open, honest communication are the bedrock for process optimization.

Pre-booking coffee makes the difference in timely logistics

With fresh ideas and further-streamlined processes presented by logistics teams, traders encourage roasters to commit to coffee reservations or contracts early; at the start of the harvest, if not slightly before. Especially when considering an origin like Ethiopia – in recent years home to at least some degree of annual political unrest, and certainly regulatory variability with respect to coffee exports – pre-planning can make all the difference.

Early volume projections and commitments allow Trabocca’s operations teams ample lead time to not only find the right coffee quality and profile, but also to build, present, and execute detailed fulfillment forecasts with our export partners. In a year like 2020, in which Covid-19 disruptions loomed large, the Ethiopian harvest was 5-8 weeks late, and political unrest at origin resulted in multi-week internet outages, our deliveries barely skipped a beat.

In fact, some of our vendors delivered top lots to the US West Coast in May, a real win in light of long transit times and an uncertain global environment. Join us in this early planning process, and we will thank each other later.

How coffee moves in origin

With contracts and forecasts in place, the real grit of the logistics season builds steam. Parchment begins to arrive from the hinterlands in earnest, aggregated in well-marked and segregated stocklots. Processing mills, clean and nearly empty during the annual Logistics & Quality Summit, begin to fill rapidly. The hum of conveyors, physical sorters, color sorters, bagging lines, and trucks fills the air in an incessant crescendo of production and movement.

Sample approvals set the wheels of logistics in motion

In Addis Ababa, Trabocca’s 8-person origin operations team works around the clock, battling traffic and crowded schedules to draw samples in-person and to oversee and tweak milling processes with our export partners and in line with our grade and quality standards. Samples – requested by our logistics teams against open Spot and B2B contracts, and screened by our quality teams – pour into Trabocca’s Minneapolis and Amsterdam offices, and onto the cupping tables of roasters worldwide. From there, final approval by the roaster literally sets the wheels in motion.

In some cases, lots move against pre-finance payments issued to exporters at the start of the harvest, or against pre-payments made at the time of pre-shipment sample approval. In all cases, exporters align permits and reserve vessel space against ocean carrier contracts that are negotiated and managed directly by Trabocca with some of the world’s largest lines.

Empty containers arrive at coffee warehouses where bags are loaded by hand, a process that is often overseen by our origin teams as a final quality and accuracy check. Is the bag count correct? Are the marks and destination clear? Is anything amiss? Once the container is closed and sealed, there’s no going back and it begins its long journey around the world.

How containers packed with coffee travel the globe

Depending on the final destination, a container of coffee may transit up to four ports, terminal complexes, and vessels; origin, destination, and several transshipments in between. Origin trucking, time afloat, and destination trucking and inbound handling to a secure warehouse can sometimes take up to 2.5 months, even in the absence of unforeseen delays. We are more connected to our origin partners than ever, but nothing will change the fact that we are physically oceans apart. Extended transit times offer yet another compelling reason for sound pre-planning and lengthy lead times.

Keeping a firm grip while coffee is afloat

While coffees are afloat, our logistics teams are communicating in a number of directions and executing a variety of functions. Lot documentation is reviewed and approved with vendors. Final documents are issued. Payments are wired for contracts with Cash Against Documents terms. Warehouses are alerted to impending arrivals. Customs brokers are filing entries on our behalf. All the while, roasters and internal partners are receiving continuous position and tracking updates detailing the whereabouts of their purchases.

The last mile

On arrival to a destination warehouse, marks and bag counts are once again verified against shipping documents before safe and clean storage. While Trabocca’s trade and quality teams work through arrival sample approvals with roasters, the logistics team moves towards the final phase of delivery: the last mile. When a roaster issues an approval and a PO for just-in-time delivery from existing contracts, our global logistics teams are ready to work with a variety of Truckload and LTL providers to get any quantity of coffee to a roaster’s dock both timely and intact.

Our specialists are conductors

This all-encompassing logistics and supply chain operations work involves many hands and a whole host of collaborators. Our logistics team members don’t drive trucks or operate machinery. Instead, they are like conductors of an orchestra, energetically working and communicating with a host of contributors to create a delivery masterpiece.

Know what to roast tomorrow

Curious what our logistics experts deliver to warehouses near you? Then sign up for our newsletter. Every Thursday, you will receive a short scannable email with all the key-information about spot coffees, like flavor descriptions, scores, available bags, and background stories of coffee farmers. Sign up today and know what to roast tomorrow.