Behind the Scenes: Mercanta Coffee Hunters

07.01.2022

Brittany Viar

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Coffee doesn’t just miraculously appear on our shelves. Can you imagine that? We’d probably run our business quite differently if it did. While we don’t know much about witchcraft, we do, however, work with a company who we consider to be pretty f-ckin magical, and that’s Mercanta. They supply specialty roasters like us across the globe with excellent green coffees.

“Cartel and Mercanta first started working together in 2010, and over the past decade, both have truly flourished,” said Mercanta’s Managing Director & Founder Stephen Hurst. “Cartel was one of Mercanta’s first clients, and it has been great developing the relationship over time. With trips to Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala – we have had the great pleasure of introducing Cartel to our various partners all over the world. It has been amazing seeing Cartel grow and prosper over time. We continue to look for ways to grow with Cartel and provide quality, exciting and sustainable coffees.”

Before he founded Mercanta, Hurst was a coffee commodity trader for an investment bank in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He was inspired by a trend he observed in North America: Small artisan roasters were searching for high-quality, traceable, and ethically-sourced coffee beans. Hurst felt these traits would at some point become sought after by roasters all over the world. Three months following his departure from his job, in March of 1996, Mercanta was born.

From communication between farm and roaster, to financial resources, control over contracts, and purchasing of specialty beans, Mercanta is a unique company that values and invests in its producers and customers alike. This includes frequent trips and visits with partners, tracking average origin f.o.b. price, submitting data to the Specialty Coffee Transparency Report every year, and higher pay for quality beans.

“We have staff from coffee origins who literally speak the language in actual and rhetorical terms. Personal relationships are created, and sustained,” Hurst said. “We have partners, not business associates, and some producers are even interviewed for producer features on our Coffee Journal. We remain in touch with our producers throughout the year to ensure all is running smoothly.”

In the ever-changing coffee industry, Mercanta continuously keeps traceability, quality, and sustainability at the top of their priority list.

“Traceability – the real, honest, actual and factual description of where the beans come from – is an integral part of the specialty coffee value chain,” Hurst said. “Traceability is important not simply for someone to read stories but to put a face, an identity, a reality behind every coffee we buy. Even though this has been part and parcel of Mercanta’s business since the very early days, we continue to adapt and evolve with traceability with new programmes like RFIDER (QR code tagging actually affixed to the bags with traceability scanned) and Oritain www.Oritain.com  (trace element “fingerprinting” of source). Storytelling will always be the critical part of traceability but some new technologies can enhance the message.”

Quality goes hand in hand with traceability, and an important part of determining what coffees are suitable enough to sell is accomplished through tasting it – something you probably could’ve guessed. Those in the coffee industry utilize a tasting technique recognized as “cupping”. Interestingly, much of the staff at Mercanta are Cup of Excellence experienced international jurors. They cup blind and assess the coffee thoroughly. If it doesn’t meet their expectations, Mercanta, not the roaster customer, takes responsibility.

There is a method behind how Mercanta chooses its growers, too, which of course is an imperative first step in the seed to cup process.   

“Producer partners are selected through many layers of research,” Hurst said. “Some producers we have been working with for decades so history is one parameter. Cup of Excellence identifies and locates “new” or unknown growers from unknown farms and/or regions. Mercanta has in-country Coffee Hunters in Guatemala (also covers El Salvador), so boots on the ground is another resource. Referrals and shows and events is another pathway to find quality growers. Frequent origin trips and field trips are another route. Critically, Mercanta will take on the quality on arrival risk buying, importing and storing quality beans in consumer markets near to the specialty roaster clients. Quality on arrival risk is not well understood within the industry and this is a critical role for Mercanta.”

Like any crop, coffee changes depending on the season and weather patterns. Climate change has had a large impact on coffee farming, including volume and pricing, which is expected to continue. Certain regions may become more ideal for coffee production, while others may become less ideal.

“Mercanta has a number of partners who are enforcing climate smart agricultural systems including agroforestry, intercropping, natural fertilizers, and a reduction in chemicals,” Hurst said. “More adapted varieties are utilized in areas that are under threat, as well. We care about the wellbeing of our partners and ensure quality of life is maintained with the sale of the coffee.”

At Cartel Roasting Co., we’ve appreciated building the relationship we have with Mercanta, and we’re proud of the product we’re able to host on our shelves and serve our fellow coffee-sipping friends.

Now the burning question: What is Hurst’s favorite cup of coffee?

“(My perfect cup is) complex, intriguing, memorable, and more often than not, a cup of coffee found by chance at a friend’s house, cafe, restaurant or other venue not specially prepared on a cupping table. Quality and exceptionalism at the point of delivery.”

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