Coffee News: from Seed to Cup

Micro Lot Coffee: How to Limit Risk & Improve Quality

Micro lots are the golden child of the specialty industry. For buyers and consumers, they signify exceptional-quality coffees with distinctive flavour and aroma profiles that can be traced back to origin. And for producers, they offer significant financial benefits – but they also come with risks.

I spoke to specialty coffee importers The Coffee Quest and several of their producing partners to learn how to ensure the highest possible quality while also reducing risks. Read on to discover what I found out.

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coffee expertsCupping micro lots at Peralta Coffee lab in Nicaragua. Credit: The Coffee Quest

Micro Lots: Better Coffee, Better Incomes

Octavio Peralta, General Director of Peralta Coffees in Nicaragua, tells me that micro lots can result in increased and more stable incomes. This is because producers like him and his family not only get paid more per pound of coffee but are also able to plan ahead. Before they set aside a section of their farm for micro lots, they can negotiate a contract with the buyer, which may mention specific production and processing methods, cup scores, and more.

Because of this, as Marilec Sevilla, a Q Grader and Quality Control Analyst at Peralta Coffees, says, producing micro lots can lead to greater employment as well as numerous other benefits for the community.

Yet there will only be this positive impact if the risks are anticipated and adequately managed.

screen sizeSorting green coffee beans by screen size at Peralta Coffees, Nicaragua. Credit: The Coffee Quest

Micro Lots: A Risky Business

Producing micro lots means a lot of extra work for a producer. Ronald de Hommel is a Co-Founder of The Coffee Quest, a Netherlands-based importer that works directly with Peralta Coffees in Nicaragua, along with other Central American, South American, and African origins. He tells me that a producer needs to manage the processing much more closely. Sometimes, he explains, they will use longer fermentation and drying times, carefully controlling the shade, temperature, and more to achieve this. In turn, this requires extra time and money.

Friso Spoor, another of The Coffee Quest’s Co-Founders, is in charge of quality control and European imports. He adds that it’s not just during processing that the producer’s workload is increased. For example, they need to invest more time in checking ripeness and sugar levels during picking. And, as Octavio tells me, while this investment should pay off in the long term, for now, it means spending more on labour.

Moreover, quality improvements – while expected – are not always guaranteed. “In general, we see at least a two-point rise in the score,” Ronald explains. Yet there’s always a risk.

Never forget that coffee farming is an unpredictable business. As Octavio points out, sudden rain can damage crops, causing over-ripeness. Producers need to be ready to take immediate action if this happens, possibly even changing the planned processing methods. And if they are unable to prevent too much damage to the cherries, they may see a significant reduction in cup quality.

There is no way to eradicate risk. However, it’s imperative that producers and buyers work together to minimise it. Let’s look at how Ronald, Friso, and their partners do this.

coffee cherryRipe red cherries ready to be harvested on the farm plot Montañita on Finca Samaria. Credit: The Coffee Quest

1. Quality Separation

Minimising risk starts, as always, with good planning. My interviewees tell me that the first step is to work out which plots will probably create the best micro lots.

As Friso says, “During picking, all lots are picked on the same day at the Peralta farms. Some farm plots will have the right microclimate for niche production, while others might lag behind. Experience will obviously play a role [in determining the best plots], but also agronomy (inputs and use of shade) and signalling good lots at the beginning of the harvest and testing this during the first pick.”

It’s important that rigorous care is taken to keep each lot separate, as well as to follow the planned harvesting and processing methods.

For example, at Peralta Coffees, they use multiple drying methods depending on their aims for the coffee: African beds with complete sun exposure, raised beds in a polytunnel, or standard poly mesh. A red or yellow honey, Marilec tells me, might be dried for 12 to 15 days, while for a natural, it might be closer to 18 to 20 days.

Learn more! Read Red, Yellow, & Black Honey Processed Coffees: What’s The Difference?

Each lot has a label describing the whole process from picking onwards. This will include the date of harvesting, the cherries’ sugar level, fermentation process, and drying time. Tracking this information is crucial to ensuring best processing practices are followed. It also avoids any possible confusion when moving the micro lots from one place to another.

As Friso says, “by segmenting by quality, you can segment by volume and price and it’s easier to pay for high-quality coffee”.

raised bedsMicro lots are dried on raised beds with direct sun exposure at San Ignacio Mill, part of Peralta Coffees in Nicaragua. Credit: The Coffee Quest

2. Good Logistics

Friso tells me that, from the moment the coffee cherries are picked to the moment they’re bagged, a rigorous logistical process is followed. He emphasises that this is key to ensuring quality and reducing risk, especially for the micro lots.

Keeping everything well-organised, ensuring that the next stage is always prepared, and allocating managers for every stage – all this means extra work for employees, who are already checking cherry ripeness before weighing, processing, and drying them. As Friso tells me, the workers arrive at the mill as late as 10 pm sometimes, and the work doesn’t end there.

But in the long run, this increases efficiency and reduces errors. And when dealing with multiple micro lots that are as small as seven kilos, organisation becomes even more important. It’s necessary in order to keep the lots separate and make sure harvesting, processing, and drying goes according to plan.

coffee farm infoFarm plot Esperanza on Finca Santa Maria de Lourdes, Nicaragua. Credit: The Coffee Quest

3. Technical Support

The more support producers have, the easier it will be for them to select the best processes for each lot and then ensure that procedures are being followed. At Peralta Coffees, the Agronomist, Edwin, defines the different lots (taking into account varieties, climate, location, and more), checks the sugar level of the cherries and determines when they’re ready for harvesting, analyses the weather and soil, and also oversees wet processing and fermentation.

Then you have Lilieth, a Food Engineer in charge of experimenting with new processing methods for the micro lots. Mayerly is responsible for drying, traceability, and certifications, while Marilec, as a Q Grader, checks and provides feedback on sensory quality at every stage.

While the amount of technical support possible will depend on the farm’s finances, it’s worth investing in this if possible. National coffee associations, cooperatives, and buyers may also be able to support producers in accessing technical support.

micro lotA natural micro lot dries on raised beds in a greenhouse at San Ignacio mill. Credit: Julio Peralta

4. Trial Lots & Experimentation

Octavio tells me that constant experimentation is important since coffee-growing conditions change with every harvest. “If we want the coffee quality to be the same every year,” he says, “then the climate conditions would ideally be the same. However, since they constantly change… experiments work to give early insights.” (Translated from Spanish by the author.)

Marilec says that they take five to ten quintals, or 500 to 1,000 pounds, and process these first. If the results are positive, they replicate it on a larger scale with the rest of the coffee. If the results aren’t positive, however, they can tweak their methodology.

Additionally, Peralta Coffees is open to adopting processing methods developed in other regions and countries, such as honey processing. But before experimenting with new methods, it’s crucial that the team first runs small trial lots. This allows them to check that, despite the differences in climate and terroir, and their relative lack of experience, they can produce good coffee with these methods – without the risk of losing an entire micro lot if it goes wrong.

Trial lots allow the farm to ensure they always use the best possible processing methods for their coffee, keeping quality high, while also reducing the risk of large losses.

Micro lot coffeesMicro lot coffees dry in a greenhouse at Beneficio San Ignacio, part of Peralta Coffees. Credit: The Coffee Quest

5. Tracking Data

For Peralta Coffees, there’s a lot of data to manage. They own five farms, from which 40% of the harvest is produced and processed as micro lots. This adds up to four to six lots per farm plot per harvest, each lot between seven and 920 kilos in size.

But it’s not just this year’s data that they collect and examine; they also refer to the data from previous years. Doing so allows them to understand trends, how the best production methods vary according to the weather, and to experiment from a position of knowledge. The whole team has access to the data; they can also automatically see when Marilec, the Q grader, has done her daily physical and sensory analyses of each plot.

Having access to precise, comprehensive data during processing helps the team to respond immediately when there is a problem. Mayerly, as the person in charge of drying the coffees, tells me that when she sees a coffee with irregular or unexpected data or appearance, she can look back at the previous phases, ask what happened, and take swift action.  

Constant information is crucial. It reduces errors before and during processing, keeps the team and buyer up to date with developments, and supports them in experimenting. In this way, it helps to ensure that the coffee is of the highest quality.

Cupping coffeeCupping coffee lots; the results will then be added to the data tracker. Credit: The Coffee Quest

6. Constant Cupping

We all know the importance of cupping coffee to evaluate its quality – but this isn’t just useful information for buyers. It’s also helpful for producers, especially when their aim is exceptional quality.

Every day, lots come off the drying bed and are cupped by Marilec. This allows Peralta Coffees to separate the most remarkable coffees from those with more conventional profiles. They also use Marilec’s notes to evaluate their processing techniques and, from there, make any necessary tweaks.

Next, the coffee is stored until it’s ready for shipping: a wait of two to four months. Before milling the coffee for export, the lot will be cupped again. This is to ensure that the quality hasn’t changed – or that, if it has, it’s an improvement! And then, finally, once the coffee has been milled, it’s cupped one final time before export.

Peralta Coffees constantly monitors the quality of their lots and shares this information with the buyer. They will also send samples throughout the harvest, to build trust and reduce the risk of disappointment. Constant cupping is crucial: it ensures the buyer’s final lot matches or exceeds the quality of the pre-shipment sample received several months before.

cupping micro lotsMarilec cups micro lots at the Peralta Coffees lab in Nicaragua. Credit: The Coffee Quest

Producing exceptional micro lots is not an easy task. Buyers and consumers have high expectations; meeting these requires rigorous standards throughout the process. And there is always a risk.

Plan for these risks. Make sure that information is being gathered, quality is being analysed, and good processes are being followed at every stage. Get as much technical support as possible. And, perhaps most importantly of all, maintain good communication across the supply chain.

Because although there’s a risk, if it’s managed well, there are also significant rewards for everyone involved: the producers, who can see greater and more stable incomes; the buyers and roasters, who work with these exclusive and profitable micro lots; and the consumers, who get to enjoy unique coffees of the highest quality.

Written by Angie Molina.   

Please note: This article has been sponsored by Coffee Quest.

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