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How To Choose A Coffee Supplier

July 9, 2018

How To Choose A Coffee Supplier Fairtrade mug

With so many options to choose from, and so little transparency in the process, picking a coffee supplier can be a bit daunting.  We’ve pulled together a quick guide to choosing a coffee supplier to help you out. It factors in lots of variables including your base knowledge level, coffee’s importance to your business, and what’s important to you when it comes to the coffee you and yours drink.

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How important is coffee to your business?

Coffee is a massive industry with new brands entering the market all the time. It is important to think about how important coffee is to your business, because that will drive a number of your decisions. Are you serving it to discerning and bleary-eyed potential clients? Are your engineers, firefighters, doctors, attorneys, phone banks or investment bankers working all hours of the night? Do you run a coffee shop?

If you are planning to open a café or coffee shop, then the coffee you serve is probably the most important decision you’ll make (unless you’re a massive chain). If you are a superstar office manager or caring CEO wanting to reward your employees, your focuses will be different.

Coffee quality

A coffee’s quality and taste change dramatically based on a number of  factors including (but by no means limited to):

  • The coffee’s provenance
  • How fresh the beans are
  • Shade grown v. not
  • The soil and altitude
  • Heat and humidity
  • What techniques and equipment the roaster uses
  • Arabica v. Robusta
  • Single origin v. blend

With this in mind, research the coffee as much as possible. Find out where the coffee was grown and how it was picked, processed and roasted. Suppliers should be able to give you free samples to help you taste the coffee and make a decision. If a potential coffee supplier can’t answer questions about all those bullet points above, you may want to move on.

You can cup the coffee yourself to compare several samples against each other.

You can see how our Fairtrade coffee stacks up against a few competitors here.

Artisan coffee or chain blend?

We are obviously a bit partial to artisan coffee here, but there are pros and cons to each. With a chain, you get consistent quality and taste, (usually) lower prices and a quite structured approach to procurement. With smaller more artisanal producers, you’ll enjoy:

  • Fresher coffee
  • Better quality coffee
  • A closer relationship with your supplier
  • Usually better customer service
  • Local sourcing, which is more eco-friendly
  • The feel-good factor of helping out the little guy

Fairtrade Logo PNGEthics

Coffee drinkers expect more than ever when it comes to ethical sourcing, so it is probably something you should factor into your decision. Growing demand means many high-end coffee brands now specialise in the certified coffee market: Fairtrade, organic andRainforest Alliance among others. Fairtrade is a recognised certification that ensures a fair wage for the farmers and encourages community and environmental development. This is the most recognisable ethical certification, and some (many?!) coffee drinkers look for it when making their decisions.

We offer a range of ethically-certified coffee on Bibium, including the ever-popular Underdog Coffee. You can choose from Fairtrade, Fairtrade and organic, or if you’re feeling well up for it, Fairtrade, organic and Rainforest Alliance. We believe wholeheartedly in the ethical farming and sourcing of coffee, and do everything we can to support growers around the world.


Do you want an exclusive or own brand coffee? Are you worried the coffee shop down the road will be selling the same beans? Or do you maybe take some comfort in selling or serving a branded coffee people will recognise?

There are two types of exclusivity:

  1. Exclusive to you – you’re the only company in the world who will be selling or serving this specific bean and roast profile. Truly unique.
  2. Exclusive to the coffee supplier – your coffee supplier sources its own beans and applies its unique roast profile to them. You might be surprised how many coffee suppliers just white label other peoples’ roasts. If this is important, it’s a question to ask.

It’s something to think about and will very much depend on what type of business you are. If you’re an office looking for coffee in the canteen, you probably don’t mind too much if the coffee you’re getting is exclusive to you. If you’re a coffee shop or restaurant, though, this may be a very big deal.

There will be minimum order quantities if you want a truly unique and exclusive coffee; perhaps 50kg per month at a minimum if you’re very lucky. Some roasters will ask for an entire pallet load per month, or around a half tonne. That means you’ll need to go through at least 60,000 cups of coffee a year to make it worth it to your coffee supplier to do something bespoke for you. This will likely cost a bit more as well, of course. Be prepared to pay £2 – £3 extra per kg if you want truly exclusive coffee.


Underdog Coffee Packaging Banner

You usually get what you pay for, though there are a few notable exceptions (but our mums told us not to say anything at all if we didn’t have something nice to say). Higher quality (SCAA Specialty rated) and ethically-certified coffees tend to cost more, and you can usually taste the difference. A few extra pence for a much better bean can mean a regular customer instead of a one-off – or happier employees working through the night. Further, you may be able to negotiate volume pricing as your orders increase.

All that said, the retail margin on coffee is usually around 80% – even the highest quality coffees are only around £0.16 per mug at trade rates – so price probably shouldn’t matter quite as much as it does.

Any coffee that costs less than around £12 – £15 per kg probably isn’t going to be awfully nice. Either the green bean itself will be substandard, or the roasting will be rushed. Or the beans will be cracked. Or you’ll find too many (!) insects in the beans. Or they’ll actually be jelly beans. Ok not the last one, but be wary of anything less than around twelve quid. £25 per kg is about the most you’ll pay for a really nice coffee (though pods work out to £42/kg), so anyone charging more than that is taking advantage of you.

For reference, our single origin specialty grade Fairtrade coffees start at £19.90/kg and get a bit cheaper if you buy in volume.

Commercial coffee machines & ancillary items

Most coffee suppliers can help sort out the equipment for you as well. They typically serve as distributors or middlemen arranging a purchase or lease with the actual equipment manufacturer. This is what we do.

There are a few options for this–renting, leasing or outright purchase–and there are pros and cons to each.

Schaerer Coffee Art

Don’t be afraid to ask for detailed information on the coffee machines including performance, drinks capacity, cleaning, power and plumbing requirements and extra fees. They are an expensive commitment, so you want to get it right.

Many coffee suppliers will ask (force) you to buy their coffee when you lease a commercial coffee machine from them, and the quality of the coffee can be pretty hit and miss. This is called product bundling, and–according to the FCA–it’s illegal. They’re actually not allowed to tie a coffee machine’s ongoing functionality to the purchase of another product unless it’s via proprietary technology (like pod machines, which are immoral but not illegal).

Most coffee suppliers can do other things (usually called ancillary items) for you as well – tea, sugar, filter papers, chocolate, jetpacks, maybe even snacks. If you’re getting these bits in anyway (or would like to), it’s worth asking, as you may be able to get a deal.

We offer a variety of commercial coffee machines. If you don’t see what you want on the site, get in touch, and we’ll help you out.

Things to look out for

  • Ask if installation and delivery are included with the purchase of the coffee machine and whether they can carry out required plumbing work. This will be expensive and time-consuming if they don’t sort it for you.
  • Does the machine come with servicing and maintenance? Ask about average response times and charges. Remember every minute your machine is out of order, it is costing you money (or hacking off your workforce).
  • Is there a minimum order quantity tied in with the price, for either the coffee or machine? If so, check the figure is feasible and penalties you may be subject to. Single serve pod companies, ahem, are notorious for this.
  • Long contracts – leases and rental contracts can range anywhere from two to five years, which can be a serious commitment. Make sure you are happy with the agreement and that the warranty covers the entire duration. Many suppliers will make a loss on the machine and hope to make it back on coffee sales so work together on the best option for you.
  • Is the coffee supplier happy to give you references for other clients? If not, that should be a warning sign. If so, get in touch!

Buying coffee (and coffee machines) shouldn’t be as fraught as buying a used car, but it can be. If you have any questions about anything, please get in touch. We’re happy to offer advice even if you’re already working with someone else.

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Like things a bit more visual? Check out a Slideshare version of this post (expand to full screen for best viewing).