Joanna Lawson: Procurement Manager at Kopi Coffee
In recent years, there has been a surge in consumers swapping mediocre lattes for high quality coffee.
Café culture continues to grow and coffee-orientated social engagements feature in our diaries where pubs may have dominated in the past. The big chains like Starbucks and Café Nero continue to thrive, but many coffee connoisseurs favour artisan coffee shops and stockists where speciality beans offer a new experience. In light of these trends, My Little Black Book interviewed Procurement Manager, Joanna Lawson, who sources, tastes and masterminds distribution of coffee for Kopi by Cafédirect’s speciality coffee club.
My Little Black Book: A career in coffee departs from the traditional employment options that many consider. Joanna, tell us about your career to date and how you became involved in the coffee industry.
Joanna Lawson: I started in the travel industry leading groups of intrepid tourists around the world. I then moved to travel marketing in a role that enabled me to use the language skills I had developed during my undergraduate degree. Whilst I enjoyed the marketing role, I became eager to move to a job where I could be involved at a more in-depth level. I wanted to get to be immersed in the real nitty gritty of a company.
By wonderful serendipity, I found an advert for an apprenticeship with an ethical coffee trading house in London. I had always been interested in coffee and was rather a coffee snob; luckily this was to my advantage and helped me secure the role. The trading house dealt with huge volumes of coffee (and therefore money) but all profits went to a part of the company set up as an NGO. During the apprenticeship, I worked in every section so obtained a great overview of all stages of the coffee cupping, sourcing and trading process. The trading house is still running but sadly I was the last apprentice they took on so it was very fortunate timing for me.
My LBB: That certainly does sound serendipitous! Moving from lucky moments to more testing times, what’s been your biggest career challenge to date and how did you deal with it?
JL: I’d say the biggest challenge has been deciding whether or not to take a gamble and brave a daunting new role. After I had worked at the coffee trading house for almost five years, I was offered a promotion that would have been a sensible long-term option. However, I’d also been presented with the opportunity of moving to Norway to run a start-up speciality coffee importer. I knew only one person in Norway (and had never even visited) and there were very few speciality coffee importers in Europe at the time so I knew I’d have to work extremely hard to make the company a success. I chose to take the job in Norway and it proved to be a career accelerating decision as I learnt an immense amount in just one year.
MyLBB: Moving on to practicalities, what does an average day sourcing and cupping coffee entail?
JL: As we work with contacts all around the world, I usually arrive in the office to find a raft of emails sent overnight from different time zones. For a large part of the day, I will be corresponding with our producers and logistical contacts to ensure that we have the coffee we need to meet our orders. I have to plan my day carefully to ensure that I synchronise with each time zone, so in the morning I speak to people in African countries and in the afternoon I speak to people in Latin America.
If I am cupping (or coffee tasting), I will roast beans the day before using our specialist roasting equipment then I spend a significant amount of time training others to roast and cup coffee correctly. Coffee tasting is very similar to wine tasting – you look at the colour, smell, then taste of the coffee. Acidity, body and flavour are the key factors and your goal is to identify the fragrance, structure and balance of the coffee. Thankfully, it’s a very open industry, so we’ll often get together with experts from different companies to taste new samples or experiment with roast techniques.
MyLBB: Kopi sources coffee from a vast number of countries. What’s been your favourite tasting trip to date?
JL: Coffee grows between the tropics so there are a large number of coffee growing countries for coffee buyers to visit. I have travelled most extensively in Central/Latin America and am enamoured with the region. I studied Spanish at university and have now learnt Portuguese, which is a big advantage. My favourite coffee producing location to date is Brazil, where I first went around five years ago. I feel a particular connection to the Brazilian culture as I love the music and dancing traditions that are so central to society there.
MyLBB: Consumers place increasing importance on ethical sourcing of products. How do you ensure that Kopi coffee is ethically sourced and fairly traded?
JL: Ethical practices are integral to all of Kopi’s fundamental principles and our coffee absolutely must be ethically sourced. I was schooled in the ethical way and that has really shaped my approach. Once you’ve seen the reliance on coffee in some areas of the world, you can’t go back to buying mass produced products where farmers get a minimal cut of the profits. I’ve been in the industry long enough to know the ethical credentials of all our suppliers so can carefully select whom we decide to work with.
There’s a general misunderstanding about “Fairtrade” and what it means. Fairtrade has only ever been about a financial mechanism and it’s not about quality. You can get fantastic quality Fairtrade coffee, as well as lower grades. We would always encourage consumers to buy Fairtrade products rather than mass-produced non-Fairtrade alternatives, but when you are looking at speciality coffee from small producers, Fairtrade certification isn’t the only signifier of ethical sourcing. Often in the specialty arena, the focus is purely on quality; however our sourcing principles hold ethics and quality in equal regard.
MyLBB: There seems to be a vast amount of excitement about kopi luwak coffee, made from coffee beans excreted by Indonesian palm civets (cat-like mammals). This sound pretty strange to us; have you tried kopi luwak coffee and, if so, would you recommend it?
JL: “Kopi” is the Indonesian word for coffee but our company, Kopi, is not affiliated with kopi luwak in any way. There has been controversy over kopi luwak coffee as it started as a genuine phenomenon occurring in the wild when civets ate coffee beans but since people have tried to commercialise the process it has become a cruel practice. Civets are kept in cages, often in poor conditions, to create as much kopi luwak as possible. I have tried it once and didn’t like it at all so my advice would be to write off kopi luwak!
MyLBB: Buying coffee can be a minefield for the newcomer. Do you have any tips for our readers when buying coffee and when making coffee at home?
JL: There are two basic rules that you should always follow. The first is buy decent coffee. Look for small artisan sellers selling speciality coffee and remember that you get what you pay for; £8 – £10 is a reasonable price for good quality coffee and if you break the price down to cost per cup then you’ll see that this is still a reasonable price.
The second rule is invest in a coffee grinder. You can buy a reasonable grinder for £12 online, or spend a little more and pay £20 for a good one. A grinder makes an enormous difference as pre-ground coffee inevitably goes stale as the beans are so exposed to oxygen. Take some time to play around with brewing methods and find your preferred option but don’t feel that you have to use a hi-tech coffee machine. If you are making coffee for one then I think filter coffee (pour-over, not using a machine) offers a brilliant, clean and simple option without the sediment left by some cafetieres.
MyLBB: Excellent tips, thank you! Finally, what are your career plans for the future?
JL: One certainty is that I will remain coffee-focussed, as it’s such a great industry and a fun job. I have a few personal projects in the pipeline linking consumers directly to farmers, and starting some coffee education programmes similar to wine tasting offerings in the market. For Kopi, expansion plans remain top secret but watch this space as we have exciting new developments up our sleeve for 2015!