How Does the Entire Coffee Supply Chain Operate?

How Does the Entire Coffee Supply Chain Operate?

Posted by Meera Nair on

How many people work behind the scenes to ensure we get our daily dose of coffee? 

It’s not something we often stop to think about. However, each role within the coffee business is an important cog in the system, ensuring that the entire trade moves smoothly.

Multiple skill sets, varying work hours, responsibilities, and levels of pay - the coffee supply chain experience looks different for everyone. Yet, the result of it all is a product that has been woven into the hearts of millions across the globe.

One could almost say, we are all elves working in Santa’s workshop making sure sacks of gifts are ready to be distributed. Don’t you think? 

In this post, we are exploring how the coffee supply chain works.

Cultivation & Harvesting

Coffee plants (trees or bushes) are grown in regions across the Bean Belt. Coffee growers are at the start of the supply chain. They are usually smallholder farmers who work on small farms often around 1-5 hectares. Not all coffee farmers own the land they work on. Some are simply employed for a fee by the landowners.

It can take anywhere between 4-7 years for a coffee plant to bear coffee cherries. 

In some countries, coffee cherries are hand-picked. In others, a mechanical coffee picker is used to harvest the entire plantation’s worth of crops in one go. After the coffee growers have gathered the crop, they sort, dry and hull the cherries before handing them over to the processors.

Based on a report in 2019, coffee farmers earn as little as $2.20 per kilo of coffee they sell.


The terms coffee farmer, grower, and producer are sometimes interchangeably used. Nevertheless, it refers to people working on the agricultural side of the coffee supply chain. 

coffee processing in the supply chain

Coffee processing is often handled either by coffee farmers themselves or through the farmer co-ops they are a part of.

Depending on the type of coffee processing they choose - natural, wet, or honey - the processors work with the equipment they have access to, transforming the fruit from coffee cherry to coffee beans. 

Exporting & Importing

Along the coffee supply chain, the product exchanges hands a few times. 

Once the green beans are ready, intermediaries or exporters buy the coffee beans from coffee farmers in bulk. 

As the people who bridge the gap between two crucial phases of the bean-to-cup journey, exporters have the knowledge to determine where to source good quality coffee beans. They also need to have relevant licences to trade coffee internationally.

While exporters primarily reside in the country where the coffee originates, suppliers are the ones in the destination country who buy from exporters and sell to roasters. 

Roasting & Packaging

Individual roasting companies often have long-standing partnerships with suppliers to ensure they get a regular supply of green coffee at mutually agreed prices.

Roasters then do what they are the most skilled at - converting green beans to brew-ready coffee beans. Since they also handle client relations on the coffee distribution and consumption side, they are well-versed in what kind of coffee would suit their audiences best. 

coffee supply chain - coffee roasters

With this expertise, they can either directly sell coffee to the end user through their own sales engine or further hand over wholesale supplies to cafés and retailers. 

Coffee packaging occurs at this level. The coffee packs sold to the consumer contain the information of the roaster in addition to other necessary details about the origin, the roast level, expiry date, etc.

Based on some statistics, Europe is said to have the largest coffee roaster market. Some of these European coffee roasting companies account for 35% of the world’s coffee.

Distribution & Consumption

The final phase in the coffee supply chain is that of marketing and distribution. As mentioned earlier, this can be managed by the roasters themselves. 

But in the alternative case, coffee is distributed by coffee shops, restaurants, tuckshops, small and large retailers, boutique sellers, grocery stores, and so on. 

Consumers can either buy bags of beans to brew by themselves at home or enjoy a cup of coffee prepared specially for them in the coffee shop.

Business owners and baristas cater to the desires of their customers. The former does so by stocking up on the correct blends based on demand. The latter does so by tweaking the recipe of the coffee according to the requests of the customer.

There can be many differences in the coffee supply chain with each case. Sometimes, there may be more people involved, sometimes fewer. 

For instance, some roasters directly buy coffee from coffee growers. With the rise in the third-wave coffee movement and the demand for specialty coffee, roasters are increasingly becoming involved in understanding how coffee is grown. 

They may also guide the coffee farmers about techniques and developments that would help them produce better quality coffee. In such a situation, the middlemen are removed from the picture, allowing coffee farmers to be paid better prices for their produce.

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