Gu Qinru: a green coffee buyer's story
When hearing the term “professional buyer,” people generally think of the glitz, glamor and power of the fashion world. But there are many other buyers in different industries and none more demanding than in the coffee industry.
Professional buyers examine goods and have to work within a budget to make competitive bids for products which they have to resell.
In the coffee industry, a green coffee buyer is a pro who visits coffee farms in their origin countries, cups a wide range of coffees on site and buys the beans for target consumers’ markets.
“In my view, a green coffee buyer requires not only professionalism in coffee knowledge but they can understand targeted markets and predict upcoming coffee trends,” said Gu Qinru, founder of Cupping Spoon and partner of Latorre & Dutch in China.
Before entering the world of coffee, Gu worked for a foreign bank in Nanjing, capital city of Jiangsu Province.
“It was kind of boring when every day is exactly the same,” the 34-year-old said. “You know what is going to happen every day and you could get all of your work done by early afternoon.”
So instead of climbing the bank career ladder, Gu chose a different path and set up an import company after three years’ service in the bank.
Gu met a Colombian in 2012, who brought green coffee into the Australian market. This chance meeting inspired her to import quality green coffee into China.
“But the market in China was not quite ready for green coffee at that time,” Gu said. “Many people only knew instant coffee, Starbucks or cappuccino. A lot of people knew little about coffee at that time so it wasn’t until 2016 that I brought it to China.”
Some friends suggested avoiding the green coffee import trade due to its small domestic market.
However, the intriguing coffee culture of the West, especially Australia, impressed Gu.
In a bid to find out how to bridge the coffee gap between China and the West, Gu took an accredited coffee sensory course. She was excited to find out that she could taste and describe the subtle differences and flavors in coffee.
“I think it is a gift inherited from my family,” the married mom-of-one said, recalling her childhood in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, when the family loved discussing the differences of prawns and shrimps, such as sweetness and texture. “We loved to compare the origin of prawns and spot the differences.”
Compared to a fashion buyer, the road of a green buyer is far rockier. The determination to bring better quality coffee to China led her to personally look for beans.
“I have been to most origin countries across Africa, south and central America since 2015,” she said. “It’s challenging not only to your professionalism but also to your calling in life.”
The hunt for green coffee means you need to visit a coffee farm, check green beans, detect defects in flavor by cupping and predicting coffee conditions in the next six to eight months.
“This period includes the time for picking and processing coffee cherries, packaging, shipping, clearance and more,” the Nanjing-based buyer said. “The understanding of the targeted market and prediction of industrial trends and possible changes in coffee, say defects, body and flavors, matters a lot.”
It’s crucial to find the right coffee, and a green coffee buyer should be able to break cross-cultural communication barriers and quickly adapt to a new environment at origin.
“Some cuppers may have problems in sensory abilities at high latitude,” said Gu, who has managed to spot several talented cuppers, judges and green coffee buyers.
“Many of them are female. I think we have a gift in detecting the subtle flavors in coffee and food,” she added.
Gu has not only established long-term partnerships with farmers at coffee origins but also a number of coffee professionals.
“We import coffee from a selection of coffee farms. We personally know the farmers and know about the conditions of their farms and how they grow and process coffee,” Gu said.
Like many other industries, the global coronavirus pandemic has changed a lot in the coffee industry.
“Coffee farms are struggling at the moment because there aren’t any laborers due to the coronavirus prevention and control measures taken at origin,” she added.
Normally, a medium-size farm needs around 100 people for a harvest season.
The shortage of farmers causes a series of problems, such as more defects in green coffee because it takes a longer time to pick cherries and process green beans; the production gets low and the farmers’ income shrinks.
What happens to the consumption market also affects origin countries. Coffee shops close temporarily or permanently and then orders of green coffee shrink.
“It’s tough for farmers too. They don’t want the price to go down, which is normally based on the demand and quality,” Gu said.
“So we are the people who make things work in these hard times.”
Luckily for Gu’s team, the long-term partnership she’s struck up with farms makes it easier to import quality beans today.
In 2018, Cupping Spoon and Latorre & Dutch worked together to launch the Equator Explorer Back to Coffee Origins’ program. This charity program raises money through a photo auction — of Gu’s visits to coffee origin countries.
In January the money raised was handed to local farmers and organizations in Ethiopia and Uganda to support their daily life, work and education for kids.
Gu set up an annual coffee forum, Innovation in Origins (IO Forum), four years ago, which invites coffee professionals from all around the world to share their expertise and findings in China. It’s everything from farming, processing, roasting to brewing and tasting.
“We gather coffee gurus to share their latest findings in the past year. We want the sharing to be fresh, intriguing and practical to coffee professionals,” she said.
Participants can learn innovative ideas and industrial trends and take part in a range of workshops and competitions. The fourth edition of IO Forum is rescheduled for 2021 due to the pandemic.
“We’ve seen many really good coffees as well as those who grow and process them with their hard work,” Gu said.
“I wish Chinese consumers would be able to taste such coffees. Our roasters can use such beans.”
It is Gu’s faith and belief in green coffee that keeps her going, and she is in no doubt it will eventually succeed in the Chinese coffee market.