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More on Coffee Middlemen

This blog is no stranger to the rising phenomenon of retail web sites selling other people’s coffee, a.k.a. the coffee middlemen. In the past, I’ve reviewed the offerings of the Roaster’s Club (1,2) and Go Coffee Go. I found the coffees offered by these two sites to be quite good and the overall experience was at least neutral. Costs are comparable to what you pay when purchasing directly from the roasters and they tend to offer some degree of curating. Both retailers have their flaws, but if I had less access to good coffee or didn’t know how to find it (by frequenting coffee knowledgeable coffee blogs and discussion boards – see the blogroll to the left), these types of coffee middlemen might make good sense.

Enter ROASTe, Stage Right

My experience with these two sites made me receptive to ROASTe, which is yet another coffee e-tailer which contacted me to try out their site. I took a quick look around and noted six roasters with whose reputation for quality coffee preceded them: Ecco Caffe, Espresso Vivace, PT’s, Kickapoo, Paradise,  and Higher Ground (ROASTe has since added Klatch). These are roasters whose coffee I wouldn’t hesitate to drink (or try) on any given day. The fact that ROASTe offered me some credit (for about one bag) and the site was offering free shipping sweetened the deal. I figured I had nothing to loose.

The basic operations of ROASTe are essentially identical to those at Go Coffee Go. You navigate through the website using various coffee-specific filters (roaster, country of origin, etc.) and then, if you chose, pay attention to various awards the coffee or roaster has received and/or user ratings. Coffee is shipped directly from the roasters themselves and, ROASTe, for the most part, charges prices identical to what you’ll find on these roasters’ own sites.

Separating the Bean from the Chaff

The major difference between ROASTe and Go Coffee Go is the size of the inventory. ROASTe does bill itself, after all, as the world’s biggest coffee marketplace. I didn’t see any verification of this claim. More to the point, though, I’m not convinced of its value. The size of the inventory seems like a detriment to anyone seeking out quality coffee, especially since so much of that inventory is not on a par with coffees by the roasters mentioned above. Within the roasters section of the site, I spotted several roasters about whose products (e.g. very dark roasts, flavored coffees, lack of transparency in blends, little detail about origins, etc.) I was very suspicious (but have not actually tried). Furthermore there is another section of the website called “coffee brands,” which appears to refer to big retail coffee, such as Douwe Egberts, which I most closely associate with those bad “dispensers” one finds in budget hotel breakfast buffet lines and gas stations. I should note that ROASTe also sells equipment and accessories – much of it quite good, but some of it more questionable.

Sorting through the chaff then is the major consumer challenge. ROASTe offers features like their “How would you like your coffee” selector, which I found included several “chaff” options no matter which item I chose. I could have also used reader recommendations, but nearly every product scored at least a four out of five beans, making it hard to trust this metric given my opinion about some of these products.

Instead, I relied on my outside-of-ROASTe knowledge of roasters and resources like Coffee Review to help me select the coffees I purchased. While I ended up with two really wonderful coffees, which I’ll review in the next two posts, I’m not sure how my experience was all that different than purchasing these coffees from the roasters themselves (minus the voucher and free shipping). There’s good coffee here, but you have to know where to find it.

Stuck in the Middle?

The post by The Shot referenced at the top critiques the central notion of these coffee middlemen. I’m not convinced. To the extent that these sites have flaws and that a culling will occur, it will be due to the execution failures of these sites – Are the sites offering good coffees? Is it easy to find what you like? Are the terms of purchase and delivery favorable? – and not something inherent in the concept of a central site to purchase high quality coffee from multiple roasters. After all, the multi-roaster format appears to be a (slowing, but hopefully increasingly) growing trend in cafes. Why shouldn’t that model exist online as well?

One reason the middleman website might not be like a multi-roaster cafe is that the intended clientele is different. As I noted above, I’m probably not a typical client. For that matter, I figure the same is true for most coffee aficionados. At best, such sites will become another tool in the purchasing arsenal; if there’s a good deal to be had (such as free shipping) then middleman sites might see a slight uptick from such users. The real value of these sites, though, is most likely from new business. They stand to attract new customers of quality coffee who need a little guidance as they find their way to it.

It’s that expanded audience for quality coffee speaks to the way these middlemen could be beneficial to the industry. The argument against adding middlemen goes that middlemen increase the supply chain, taking their cut and ultimately diminishing the funds roasters have pay producers (more) for their work. In short, the existence of middlemen works against the notion of direct trade – the admirable, if somewhat territorial and often too opaque practice of paying farmers better than fair trade prices.

If these middlemen, however, increase overall sales in ways that roasters themselves can’t do or can’t do without a substantial cost, then the roaster is free to pass along some of that increased profit to the farmers. The devil is in the details here. What is the size of the cut these middlemen take versus the costs roasters would have to invest to widen their market? I’m assuming, however, that there are some savings in the aggregating approach of these middlemen that an individual roaster could never afford to do.

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