Spilling the beans with Mercanta's Coffee Hunter, Stephen Hurst
Updated: Feb 24, 2020
If ever there was to be a comic book worthy coffee superhero, I could picture the form this character would embody: He (or she) would don a distinctive fedora, sport a khaki colored cargo vest loaded with pockets for collecting coffee samples, maybe even carry a bullwhip (because, why not?), and lets face it, they would be equipped with a pair of very practical shoes for navigating all sorts of unforgiving terrain. Turns out, maybe some of these elements may be fictional, but there truly is a real life version of this character: coffee hunter Stephen Hurst of Mercanta Coffee. Hurst is the founder and CEO of Mercanta Coffee, a company that travels the globe in search of the world's very best sources of green coffee. These treks have taken Hurst and his team of coffee hunters through remote regions, over rickety bridges, and up steep cliffs in coffee growing regions all over.
It all sounds so audacious and romantic but Hurst shared with me that the beginning of the tale was anything but romantic. As a young man in early 1980's London, Hurst worked for an English merchant company, a trader in spices, tea, cocoa, and coffee. By 1985, investment bank Goldman Sachs established a foothold in London and owned a coffee trading arm called J Aron & Co. An intrepid, young Hurst was hired to become a coffee trader for J Aron & Co. "We had a coffee lab on the trading floor of the bank, and my clients in those days were big multinational commodity roasting companies," he described. By 1996, however, the big investment banks were starting to get out of the physical coffee trading business, and Hurst lost his position with J Aron & Co. Hurst, however, was not at a loss. While at J Aron & Co, he began to notice that small roasting companies were regularly approaching the firm, looking for microlots of the best Guatemalan or highest quality Rwandan beans. It was his first hint that the coffee business was changing. That's when he took the money he received from his severance package from J Aron & Co and founded Mercanta in 1996. "I started Mercanta having had the idea that specialty coffee would be a growing business, back before the word or idea of specialty coffee much existed at all in Europe, at least," he explained. "Note that the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe was only formed in 1999, three years AFTER I started Mercanta."
In those early days of Mercanta, there really weren't many who had the skill set to properly evaluate coffees and differentiate them into specialty lots. Specialty sellers were rare and so were specialty buyers (at least outside North America). Hurst truly helped usher in the "third wave" of specialty coffee, which he often refers to as "differentiated coffee", capturing a movement at its very inception. As he tells it, back in the mid 90's and earlier, "green beans at a premium was a laughing stock."
That was over 23 years ago, and, of course, much has changed. And much of that change can be attributed to the contributions of Hurst himself through Mercanta. Mercanta took an early ethical stance that help decommoditize the specialty end of the coffee business by paying premium prices to farmers. The company pays at least double the current commodity price for high quality coffee. "We are in the business of nuance," he says. "We pay the producer a price he is more than happy with to find those rare 'differentiated coffees' and provide market access." That is what Hurst describes as the "virtuous circle" that keeps that farmer around producing the high quality coffee for the next year. Certainly a win on both ends.
Hurst has also helped usher in an era of higher quality coffee through an ongoing involvement in both the Specialty Coffee Association and the Alliance for Coffee Excellence. "I was on the Board of the Specialty Coffee Association for four or more years," he shares. He was also an original participant and later chairman of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence for eight years. The Alliance is a non profit global membership organization that upholds the highest standards in specialty coffee through their program The Cup of Excellence. The Cup of Excellence is a juried annual competition held in several coffee growing countries. Hurst was an early juror in the Cup of Excellence and Mercanta was a buyer in the first auction in 1999. Each coffee in competition goes through six rounds of testing. Competition is rigorous and the top ten coffees end up being cupped at least 100 times.
Cupping is the practice of assessing a coffee's essential characteristics: fragrance, aroma, acidity, body, flavor, sweetness, cleanness, balance, and aftertaste. It involves using a spoon to obtain a small sample of the brewed product and slurping the coffee in order to spread it all over the tongue to taste the full range of flavors, capturing the sensory aspects of the coffee. The coffee is then scored on a 100 point scale. Coffees that score over 80 points are considered specialty grade. Coffees that score over 86 points can be entered into the annual Cup of Excellence competition. The competition winner's coffee is then auctioned off to buyers who are breathlessly standing by. In 2019, Brazilian farmer Andre Luis Aguila Ribeiro won the competition with an overall score of 92 points. His coffee, which was produced in the Sul de Minas region, was described by one of the jurors as "multidimensional," rewarding cuppers with new flavors at each tasting. His coffee sold at auction for $300 per pound. "If you ever want to buy something super prestigious and of exceptional quality, buy from Cup of Excellence," Hurst advises.
An interesting side note to the story is that Hurst and his wife Alda Maria own a coffee farm in Brazil (Fazenda Inglaterra) and one coffee from their farm came 0.17 points short of qualifying for the Cup of Excellence two years ago. "My dream would be for coffee from our farm to make it into the finals of the Cup of Excellence," he shares.
As purveyors of specialty grade green coffees, Mercanta shoulders the responsibility that comes with such a logistically challenging operation. There are many perils that can befall a coveted lot of fine coffee: trucks breaking, pallets snapping, forklifts falling over, and the unfortunate reality of theft. Mercanta takes responsibility for the product every step of the way until it is delivered to the customer. "We own custody of the quality," he says. "We live in that logistical world." That chain of custody is long, starting from the farm of origin, to the mill, to transport, export, customs, ships, containers, and ultimately, delivery to the buyer. Hurst finds getting the product to its ultimate destination to be quite rewarding. Mercanta moves coffee from remote regions in places like the Andes to sometimes other just as remote destinations. Mercanta ships worldwide to over 40 countries. They have shipped their beans to roasteries as remote as the Maldives Islands in South Asia and the Arctic Circle. Hurst finds it thrilling to discover his coffee in unexpected places the world over.
Hurst also founded The London School of Coffee several years ago in order to facilitate excellence in all aspects of the coffee business. Students come to the SCA certified campus from all over the world to take courses in brewing, latte art, professional cupping, roasting, and even to learn the basics of starting a brick and mortar coffee business. The courses are taught by world class trainers, each with the passion and skill set needed for success in the industry.
I asked Hurst to share his favorite coffee farms with me. With a lifetime in the business, his list was lengthy. He has trekked many miles and has established strong relationships with many farmers over last 23 years. Many he calls personal friends. One of his personal favorites is small producer Jose Arcadio of Finca La Falda in Colombia. Hurst describes a rickety wooden plank bridge that grants access to this isolated farm. The perils of crossing that precarious bridge are well worth it as the farm routinely produces 86+ scoring coffees year after year. There is also the Blackburn Estate in Tanzania. "Although I have not personally been there, this beautiful African estate owned by Michael Gehrken is a real 'Out of Africa' experience. One of the coffees from this farm we call 'Elephant Walk' as elephants cross the plantation," he explains. There is the Bibi Plantation in India that contains not only coffee trees but rice paddies, chicken coops, and a small dairy. "A very real working farm and environment," he comments.
There is a long list of other special farms, not the least of which is Hurst's own farm, Fazenda Inglaterra in Pocos de Caldas, Brazil. Hurst has planted just under eight hectares of coffee there (one hectare is roughly 2.5 acres). The farm grows bourbon and canario varieties that are processed naturally. In photographs the farm appears lush, gorgeously fecund, and as Hurst describes, "full of wildlife like toucans, monkeys, porcupines, armadillos, and inglaterra." The farm also boasts a number of mineral water springs and decent altitude (for Brazil = high point 1275 meters).
To sample the fruits of Mercanta's labor here in the Phoenix area, visit one of the four locations of Cartel Coffee Lab in the valley. Cartel procures the majority of its green coffees from Mercanta and roasts them at their location in Tempe. I recently tried a beautiful cup at Cartel's new Paradise Valley location at the intersection of Tatum and Shea in the Paradise Village Gateway shopping plaza. Their expertly trained baristas will brew you a wonderful sample of what Mercanta has to offer.