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Great Coffee in Common: Grant Rattray

Grant Rattray - Green Trader at Mercanta Asia/Pacific and all-round awesome guy.
Update - Grant passed away suddenly in late-January, 2019; this article now serves as tribute to him and to the inspiration he was.
Who influenced/inspired you on your coffee journey?
Back in 2004, my beginnings in coffee were the result of a very conscious decision to enter the industry and not really influenced by any role model or acquaintance. I was seeking a complete change from my career in pharmaceutical research and data analysis and wanted to trade in a more tangible physical world where I could travel, continue to use my Spanish and explore and learn in a new sensory environment. Coffee offers all of this…and a whole lot more.
Best ever coffee you have ever tasted?
Of course, there are many but for me they all share a few common characteristics that always stop me dead at the cupping table. Clean and sweet are the absolute fundamentals but those coffees that can balance this with acidity and body and also bring exemplary flavors such as stone fruits and florals are for me the true standouts. I’ve no problem awarding these 90+ points and I’ll make an immediate decision to buy. When you consider the price of Panama Geisha (that’s 10 times more expensive that a good Brazil estate coffee) then most other standout coffees are really not at all expensive, especially in a roaster/retailer environment. For me, my perennial favourites are washed Ethiopia, the very best Kenya and also some of the lots in the past year from Colombia, Guatemala, Rwanda and even PNG.
Describe the perfect setting to enjoy a coffee:
A few years ago, on an early morning hike before work up the Sentinel in Missoula (Montana, USA) with John Lewis – we both worked then at Cup of Excellence – we took along a Primus camping stove, grinder, scales, Aeropress and bottled water and brewed up one of the Cup or Excellence winning lots at the summit at sunrise.
What has coffee taught you? 
No one individual in coffee – save perhaps for the farmer – can claim genuine ‘ownership’ of quality. I’m not comfortable when anyone else claims a coffee as their discovery or whatever. To get the most from the green beans, the coffee still needs expert roasting and brewing and these cannot be underestimated. Everyone has their role to play and adds value at every step. Bringing coffee from the farm to the consumer requires that many people do their best to protect quality. Knowing and trusting your partners in the supply chain is critical to ensure you source, ship and take delivery of the best qualities.
What opportunities has coffee given you?
Along with a global network of friends in the industry, the biggest rewards in my career have come since returning to Mercanta and setting up the Asia regional office in Singapore. Our company functions exactly the same as the larger UK office and we manage our own inventory of specialty grade coffees which we ship at the start of each season from many producing origins direct to Singapore and then supply locally or export to roasters throughout Asia. Balancing the needs of a diverse range of clients while maintaining the widest selection of fresh in-season coffees is a continuous challenge.
From your perspective as a trader, what is something you wish coffee drinkers of your coffee knew about coffee?
Seasonality! This still seems to me like the biggest missed goal in terms of honest and easy-to-explain marketing. Seasonality in espresso means managing your shipments and inventory and carefully selecting the right origins to offer genuine year-round freshness and integrity while maintaining the profile of your blend. Seasonality in single origin coffees for espresso or brewed drinks means having the knowledge and skills to react quickly to select coffees based on samples, cuppings or reliable recommendation. Too many roasters overthink this small but important aspect of their green coffee inventory and miss out or play it safe. A confident green coffee buyer will buy a great coffee straight off the table and know if the price will work for his or her business.
What’s your favourite story to tell from origin?
I was lucky enough to visit Tanzania several years ago to meet with Michael Gehrken at Blackburn Estate on the fringes of the Ngorongoro park. The farm is unfenced and is full of wildlife which makes it a Garden of Eden during the day. Michael has built a small viewing platform in one of the large trees at the top of the farm where the thick jungle starts. We took a picnic and a few beers and a rifle and the farm dog and headed up the tree at sunset to wait for the animals to emerge. We were hoping so see elephant and Michael has spent many nights stuck up the tree and unable to get down. But that evening a pride of lions emerged. The dog was shaking and we had to jump out of the tree and get back to the Land Rover before the lions got to the tree!
What do you see being the biggest challenge facing coffee farmers?
If we think of coffee farmers in general (and not the few who have found fame and accessibility to international markets though initiatives such Cup of Excellence and more recently ‘direct trade’), there are many major challenges that coffee farmers continue to face and over which they have very little control. These are primarily coffees diseases such as leaf rust, climate change, the supply/demand balance, a reliance of fluctuating commodity markets and, to a lesser extent, access to international marketplace. These are perennial challenges and none is about to disappear.
What is the most exciting thing about [what] you do?
As a green coffee buyer, the process of selecting, cupping, approving and then matching a coffee with a buyer’s requirement is a fascinating and highly rewarding part of my job. All the cupping we do is blind so we don’t know exactly what we’re cupping. This makes the whole exercise more objective and allows the better coffees to show themselves. And it’s not always what we’d expect or necessarily the more expensive coffees on the table that stand out. As an importer, our challenge is to continue to seek out great coffees that also offer value and not slavishly follow patterns of simply buying from the same suppliers, regions, or even origins year after year. Of course, continuity and relationships are important but coffee is an agricultural product and crops vary from year to year. This ever-changing landscape keeps our work interesting and challenging with every new crop.
Who has been the biggest inspiration or mentor for you in your coffee life? 
That’s an easy one – my boss Stephen Hurst at Mercanta in London. Stephen started Mercanta in 1997 – before Cup of Excellence even existed – with the vision of bringing high quality green coffees direct from origin and making these available to the then nascent specialty roaster scene in Europe. Stephen has doggedly stuck to his guiding principles of cup quality above all else while still ensuring sustainable prices to producers in all market conditions, strict seasonality and long-term relationships and has never been distracted by passing trends in the souring and supply of high quality coffees. We’ve seen all these trends come and go but throughout Mercanta has always backed quality above all other considerations. Stephen’s philosophy and that’s testament to his vision and convictions in building a leading globally green coffee sourcing and supply company.
What are some of the trends have you observed in coffee roasting throughout your career?
Since I began working in the coffee industry in 2004, there has been a genuine ‘professionalisation’ of many positions that in the past were valued little more than roles such as waiter or wholesale supplier. This has been underpinned by the education of the then SCAA and SCAE (now the SCA) and supported and expanded with the emergence of many dedicated training schools and independent consultants. Coffee is now a genuine career with well-defined paths for development and growth. It’s a lot easier to get involved now that it was 15 years ago. The specialty industry is much bigger and skills are genuinely transferable and this is propelling the industry forward and creating opportunity for individuals who have ambition and drive.
What would you like to see happen in the coffee industry over the next 5 years? 
So many things and all are absolutely achievable. But most of all I’d like to see quality at the lower end of the market improve. This will have multiple benefits not least for values for green coffee at the farm gate. For the consumer, it will mean good coffee is easier to find and should spark their interest in learning more about what they’re drinking. This is turn will push quality in the middle and higher ends of the market.
In your opinion what makes a good coffee?
In the cup, good coffee needs to tick the usual boxes: in-season, well-sourced, freshly roasted, correctly brewed. But for the green coffee itself to be good in the first place, that’s the result of so many elements including skilled agronomy, favourable weather and environment, careful processing, packaging, shipping, roasting and brewing. Quality can fail anywhere along the line and being able to trust the others players in the supply chain is critical in safeguarding quality and protecting freshness.
Why do you think people love coffee?
Ritual, routine, stimulation for some, relaxation for others, I guess. But for most I think simply represents a slightly habit-forming but essential start to the day.
How do you like to drink your coffee?
At home and at work, just black. In a sense, every cup I drink is ‘work’ and part of a continuous learning process. But if I’m in a coffee shop in the morning, it’s usually espresso with milk – just however the barista recommends.