An idea is born
The first seed for the idea to start a coffee business was formed in the second half of 2008 while preparing for our civil marriage that was going to take place in February 2009. My husband and I were discussing what we would ask from our guests as a gift, something that would we practical and that would last so that we could remember our wedding day everytime we saw our gift. Since we’re both enthuastic coffee drinkers and actually prefer drinking espresso over filter coffee we decided to ask our guests for a donation, to be used to buy an espresso machine as our wedding gift. And so we did; the weekend after our wedding we went to the store, looked at all machines and came home with a Quickmill espresso machine including a Quickmill coffee grinder. In the following months we started experimenting with different coffee as are offered in several stores around where we live and we learned to love some of the coffees while we spit out some of the others. In the summer of 2009 we went to Ecuador for our church wedding (my parents are from Ecuador) and in the weeks of preparation in Ecuador before the actual wedding we couldn’t resists checking out some Ecuadorian coffees. Although internationally not very well known as a coffee producing country we tasted some wonderful coffees and slowly the idea grew that it would be nice to be able to take some of those coffees back home and give them away or even sell them as others would for sure like them as much as we do. In fact, even during our honeymoon in Ecuador we visited some coffee producing areas to inform about the possibilities to import coffee from Ecuador into Europe. However, we didn’t really have a plan and therefore we didn’t really have any succes.
Learning about coffee
Once back home the idea developped further, from looking into importing roasted coffee (an idea discarded when we found out it takes 30 days for a ship to go from Ecuador to The Netherlands and so the coffee would have lost most of its taste by the time we received it) to importing green coffee and have it roasted somewhere in the Netherlands. In order to have any idea on what is involved in green coffee and roasting it more weekends were spent in looking for information. We realised that in order to be able to have green coffee properly roasted, we need to know how to recognize good coffee and so we decided to follow some courses, including an espresso making course and a roasting & cupping course. Finally, in the spring of 2010 I founded Engrano as a company, though at that moment it was just a company on paper. We bought a small home coffee roaster (an i-Roast 2, a very noisy little machine) and gathered from different stores green coffees from all over the world in order to experiment with coffee roasting in our home kitchen. It wasn’t as easy as we had hoped; it appeared that it made quite a difference how long the coffee was being roasted for the taste and though the roasting process in an i-Roast 2 takes less than 10 minutes, it was somehow either impossible to get a constant quality roasted coffee or it was simply a matter of seconds in timing when to stop roasting, but anyhow everytime we roasted the same coffee it somehow tasted different. My husband kept searching for information and found out that professional roasters actually have significantly larger roasting times than our little machine, and so we decided to try to stretch the roasting time to 12-15 minutes by more slowly and gradually increasing the temperature. That proved to be the trick; apparently we were roasting to fast because now we could deliver constant quality and considerably better tasting coffee.
To roast or not to roast…ourselves
In the mean time the search for a coffee roasting company had started, and that appeared to be a challenge by itself. In June 2010 we went on holiday to Mexico, and driven by our latest successes in home roasting we decided to spend some days in investigating the possibility to import coffee from Mexico. We were received very friendly by several coffee producers that were happy and willing to export to Europe but unfortunately not very well acquainted with the local paperwork needed to export coffee. So we came home with a bunch of samples of 4 different Mexican coffees, but also with the knowledge that exporting coffee from Mexico required a special customs agent with governmental permission to arrange the paperwork for exporting coffee. We used the coffee samples wisely to increase our roasting skills, but decided for now to focus back on Ecuador. There are sufficient coffee roasting companies in the Netherlands, but they all roast there own coffee and not for third parties. We found in the end the website of a coffee roasting company close to Amsterdam that clearly mentioned to roast for others and others only, hence they didn’t have any coffee selling business theirselves. Unfortunately several unanswered e-mails and telephone calls later we could only conclude that this company had ceased to exist. Hence, we were back where we started. At this point we were starting to consider to maybe, maybe, roast the coffee ourselves. We started looking for coffee roasters, which brands and where to buy them. We were stunned by the prices, but after a couple of weeks prices suddenly don’t look so frightening anymore as more information is gathered.
Searching for green coffee
In November 2010 we went to visit my parents in Ecuador and there we decided that we would buy a coffee roaster ourselves and roast our own coffee. Hence, we needed to buy green coffee! We looked into the yellow pages of Guayaquil and I started calling local green coffee distributors. Most of them were friendly, but only wanted to do business if we would buy at least a container (approx. 8000 kg of green coffee) which was clearly more than we wanted. Following a recommendation of a friend we found a distributor that was willing to receive us for an informal talk. We went there the next day and couldn’t find the place at all as it wasn’t exactly in the best neighbourhood of the city, but finally made it. We were received in a very friendly way, they showed us the coffee they had, where it was from, a video on coffee production and explained to us that they so far only exported to the US but where happy to export to Europe for any quantity we wanted, even if that would mean only 1 standard bag of 69 kgs. That was more like it and so we were invited to come back 2 days later for a cupping session of the different coffees they distributed so that we could choose what to buy. And so we did, two days later we spent more than 4 hours cupping and tasting and finally decided to buy 10 bags of coffee, hence almost 700 kgs. Quite a lot, but since a lot of export and import costs are fixed amounts we wanted to make those costs as low as possible per kilo of coffee. We closed the deal and slightly dazzling but happy we left to go back to my parents home, realising but not completely realising that I just spent a lot of money on green coffee.
Back in The Netherlands shipping was arranged and the distributor in Ecuador was very helpful and patient considering how little experience we had on import and export business. But finally the coffee was shipped just before Christmas and we had to wait 4 weeks for it to arrive in the port of Rotterdam. In the mean time we had to solve our coffee roasting problem and so I decided once more to invest seriously in a coffee roaster. Not to big, but big enough for continuous roasting. We picked it up ourselves from the importer who was very helpful to load the heavy roaster in our van. Another part of the puzzle solved. Two weeks later our coffee from Ecuador arrived. It took a while to get it really over the border as were completely unknown with the paperwork involved, but in the end we managed. We had already arranged storage space that we had thought would be far bigger than needed, but we found out that 10 bags of coffee is actually quite a lot, not to mention the bags of 69 kgs each are really heavy! Roasting could now start for real!
Since then Engrano has steadily grown. Some things have been automated, most things remain manual labour, but I’m enjoying every minute of it.