December 11, 2017

Micro Lot vs Macro Lot: What’s The Difference?


There are some pretty flexible definitions in coffee, and micro lots and macro lots (or community lots, as I like to refer to them) are among the terms that differ, depending on whom you ask.

So, let’s consider: What are the differences between macro lots and micro lots? Are they of equal quality? And which one is right for whom—or are there times when one is the better choice?

Spanish Version: Micro Lote vs Macro Lote: ¿Cuál es la diferencia?

coffee farm

Washed coffee dries on the farm of Pascual Teletor, a producer in Cubulco, Guatemala and a contributor to Genuine Origin’s Cubulco community lot. Credit: Genuine Origin

What’s a Micro Lot?

It’s easier to start with a micro lot . Coffee Shrub has defined it as “a lot produced separately, discretely picked or processed to have special character.” Similarly, The Roasterie blog uses the analogy of an apple orchard, and of a farmer setting aside the apples from a few exceedingly excellent trees and selling those separately. “Coffees that fall under the micro lot banner are different in their uniqueness and flavor,” it explains. “They are just ‘special.’”

Many coffee people would agree with this idea—of a microlot being special. But implicit in that idea is the suggestion that community lots, while they may be good, are inferior .

At Genuine Origin, where I’m the content and social media manager, our definitions are a bit different.

SEE ALSO: The Complicated Role of Money in Specialty Coffee

Our micro lots represent smaller amounts of coffee, yes – we receive fewer boxes of them than we do of our community lots. And they’re delicious. But they’re not superior to our community lots. In our model, they simply serve two different functions – for us, and for the roasters who buy from us.

coffee cherries

Freshly picked coffee cherries. Credit: Angie Molina

Micro Lots & Macro Lots: What’s The Difference?

A micro lot may represent one producer, or ten producers, or one portion of one producer’s farm – or several hundred producers, as is the case with many of our coffees from Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, where most producers have very small parcels of land, or even just household gardens.

Our teams select or create these lots because they’re delicious and unique — maybe circumstances of weather or fertilization or the age of the trees yielded something fascinating. Something that didn’t exist the year before and won’t exist the next year. We’re delighted to offer this so our customers, and their customers, can enjoy it. Looking for something special to offer for a short time? A micro lot can be just the thing.

Community lots, or macro lots, by contrast, represent a flavor profile from a specific region and community of producers — maybe chocolate and cherry or floral and acidic. We bring together beans that we’re confident will create a specific profile that our customers will love and want to consistently sell year-round, year after year.

One year, 20 producers may enable us to create the profile; the next year, perhaps two plots are surprisingly floral – in which case, we may offer those two as a micro lot and create the community lot with the 18 producers, or the 18 plus four others whose coffees complement the profile.  

It’s never about sacrificing quality. It’s about creating a coffee our customers can depend on. They can incorporate it into a blend or make it their house roast and never have to worry about it being unavailable.

And for producers, knowing that we want to buy from them each year is a relief. But if for whatever reason a crop doesn’t meet an expectation — if weather, say, reduces yields, we’re not counting on any one person to come through for us. We can look to the whole community to ensure that coffee exists.

coffee farm

Eduardo Cabrera has afternoon coffee with Amelia Teletor Ajualip, a coffee producer in Cubulco, Guatemala, and the mother of a Volcafe Way field assistant. Credit: Genuine Origin

Why Macro Lots Are Really Community Lots  

Another benefit, says Fernando Barzuna, the head of Genuine Origin and its creator, is that “over time, it helps to connect those producers to roasters and to create a sense of community through the supply chain.”

A green buyer who enjoys the jasmine-like florals of Mata de Plátano, for example, could go to this region in Honduras and meet the community that works with our team to create this coffee. Will it be the exact same producers next year that contribute to this coffee? No. But the majority will be the same. It’s a community effort – a community lot .

Also important to note is that there can be an implied idea in community lots that they’re of inferior quality because they’re “a mix” – that it’s unclear what’s in them or who contributed what. But with our community lots, we still know exactly who contributed, from where, how much and what the quality was. It’s information that we try our best to share on the factsheets that we create for each coffee.

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Screenshot from Genuine Origin’s Mata de Plátano community lot factsheet.

The Sustainability Dilemma

We often hear about green buyers meeting with a producer and securing the purchase of his or her best lots. It makes the producer feel good — he or she has a buyer, which is a relief — and it makes the buyer feel cool about his or her connection to the farm and about doing good in the world. But there’s an artificial value in that idea. The suggestion is that the buyer is doing some good for the producer by cutting out middlemen and providing a fair price (never mind that this producer now needs to figure out how to unload the less prime lots on the farm).

We can all wrap our heads around that idea, and how it feels good to put a face — sometimes literally — on a product. There’s a specialness being attached to the idea that a coffee attributable to an individual means the buyer “helped,” or supported, that person. Or maybe rather that the coffee is very, very good because it came from one person who we know the name of. There’s someone to attribute it to and to imagine caring for it, and that implies something about quality.

But then what are we to make of places where farmers have far less land and fewer resources and could logistically never, ever sell their coffees as anything standalone? By the time the highest qualities are sorted from their production, off the one or two hectares they own, they don’t create enough coffee to logistically or affordably keep separate as a unique lot.  

As Christopher Oppenhuis, of Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters in Kansas City, says, “People assume farmers have huge farms, estates, but some coffee farmers have just an acre or two. There’s not enough for them to provide for their own lots. In order to put together 100 bags, you may need more farmers.”

Are we to believe that those people are less accountable, less good at what they do, less deserving of the income or appreciation? Of course not. But when we place more value, whether literally or emotionally, on coffees traceable to an individual, that’s what we’re doing.

“Single farmer lots don’t exist in Uganda,” says Matthew Seaton, General Manager at Kyagalanyi, Genuine Origin’s sister export company in Uganda. Well, he says with a laugh, “not unless we sell less than ½-bag micro lots!”

SEE ALSO: A Roaster’s Guide to Ugandan Specialty Coffee

coffee farm

Coffee being dried on raised beds. Credit: Amec Velásquez

Supporting Producers Through Macro Lots

Seaton adds that Kyagalanyi (chug-uh-la-nee) plans to work on creating micro lots, however, because they “allow for more variety of high-quality coffees with very targeted stories, which lead to a higher price of sale, which means we have more cash to give back to the farm, via both price and investments in machinery, more trainings and more personnel on the ground.”

I believe, like the rest of the team at Genuine Origin, that our twin objectives should be to provide our customers with the best green coffee possible, as simply as possible, and that our partnerships with coffee-producing communities should allow them to thrive.

We take the latter as seriously as the former, for two reasons: If coffee communities don’t thrive, they’ll cease to be coffee communities and we’ll cease to have a product to sell. And further, it’s not possible to work with people and not care that they and their children are hungry.  

We have made a tremendous effort through our Volcafe Way program to give producers the assistance they need — whether agricultural training and guidance or small business training and guidance. We’re continuously investing in our supply chain so our partners can create not only environmentally sustainable farms but businesses that are financially sound and profitable, year after year. (And those services are absolutely free and no strings attached. They’re under zero obligation to sell us their coffees—they can sell to the highest bidder.)

“If we buy coffee from one producer, does it help? Yes, it helps that producer and his or her family,” says Teresa von Fuchs, formerly head of Sales and Marketing at Genuine Origin.

“But if we work with communities to help them improve their quality and profitability, and we buy from whole communities — selecting the best for Genuine Origin customers and finding other homes for the rest — then we’re creating partnerships that have lasting consequences.”

Community Lots Lift Communities

Mitch Richmond, President Director of Volcafe in Indonesia, oversees Volkopi, Genuine Origin’s exporting sister company there. Volkopi purchases on a weekly basis from farmer groups, which consist of 20 to 40 farmers whose main income is coffee.

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Mitch Richmond (right) and producer Marlon Sianturi, a contributor to Genuine Origin’s Narata Nauli community lot. Credit: Genuine Origin

“Meeting with them each week enables us to keep track of their quality, issues and new developments. We also use those moments to give mini trainings,” he says. “And that contact also creates trust.”

One outcome of that trust was a project that entailed mapping all the varieties in the area of a single farmer group.

“We wanted to find out which notes every single variety brought to the cup of their normally blended supply,” he explains. “Out of the three predominant varieties, we picked the best-cupping coffees and asked our colleagues around the world to cup and provide their feedback. This resulted in immediate interest from clients, and two years down the line we have set up a nursery for the best-cupping variety and are promoting planting it inside the group.”

He goes on, “Developing better market access has an immediate impact on their circumstances and quality of life. And because Indonesia has only smallholder farmers, they can only improve — their coffees and their circumstances — if they act as a community.”

coffee farm

Coffee being dried in drying patio. Credit: Amec Velásquez

How Can Community Lots Improve Market Access?

Similarly, in Guatemala, an estimated 98 percent of coffee producers are smallholders. The challenges they face, explains Eduardo Cabrera, Purchase Manager at Waelti Schoenfeld, Genuine Origin’s sister exporter in Guatemala, range from low yields to limited access to markets, since many live in remote places with sometimes no access to roads.

“These producers have access to the market,” he says, “but most of them do not have access to the market they deserve .”

“For them to gain access to better markets and opportunities, it is very important that they change the way they have been selling their coffee in the past years. Unfortunately, for smallholders, many economic challenges stand between them and the ability to deliver their coffee to the final warehouse: Transportation of a small lot is expensive, payment sometimes takes more time and they have to wait for their whole harvesting to finish, among other factors,” Cabrera explains.

coffee farm

Ripe cherries ready for processing. Credit: Gisselle Guerra

Communities Supporting Communities

“This is where community lots come into play. Producers are not individualists — they usually work together with friends and family, so why not consolidate as a group, where all of them will benefit?” Cabrera continues. “Transportation costs are reduced, quality is maintained and, most importantly, more people benefit from the transaction as they will reach better markets.

Unlike with single-estate or single-producer lots, with community lots, it’s not just one producer who improves his or her living conditions.”

Cabrera explains that Guatemalan coffee production is going through one of its most difficult moments ever. In addition to pricing challenges, producers are challenged by pests, such as coffee leaf rust/ la roya, as well as old coffee plants and the effects of changing climate conditions, including severe droughts over the last few years.

SEE ALSO: What Are The Main Challenges Faced by Coffee Producers?

“But as a country, we have a very important factor working in our favor: our producers! They are hard working, tenacious, sometimes even a bit stubborn, but very much in love with coffee and what coffee represents to the country,” says Cabrera.

“We’re seeing many producers get involved and ‘push’ each other to improve, even while the impact of each individual practice in a farm will have a more limited impact on the final quality of the coffee,” he says. “By having a group of sustainable farmers in a community, we secure the sustainability and well-being of the entire community.”

Which makes the larger coffee community, too, more sustainable — if not also very much in love with coffee and what it represents.

Please note: A version of this was previously published on the Genuine Origin blog and was republished with permission.

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