It may seem like a silly question, but let's really think about this. Obviously, there is more than one reason for a coffee roaster or buyer to travel to where their product is actually grown. There are three main categories of motives we can discuss. First is the qualitative element; a buyer will be able to taste many coffees and earmark the handful that fit his or her requirements. Second, we have the marketing aspect. Being able to say that you met a farmer and bought their coffee is very impressive. Finally, there is the rejuvenation of passion that can only be attained in an environment of origin.
The Hunt For Quality
It is not uncommon for a green coffee buyer to taste well over 100 different coffees on a single buying trip. Some of these are coffees they may have contracted in previous years that they are checking on. Others might be brand new coffees, either from new farms altogether or new experimental lots from farms they already know. Tasting this many coffees in a short period requires an honest (and ruthless) decisiveness. It becomes less of an exercise in poetic flavor interpretation and more of a binary quality control event where you ultimately describe coffees as either a 'yes' or a 'no'.
Hashtag Buying Trip
The marketing side is pretty straightforward. It's exciting to see your roaster taking extra steps to make sure your cup will be very personal and very delicious. The current 'farm to table' culture is all about this kind of integration. We all prefer to know a full narrative, involving real people, behind the things we enjoy. It is for this reason that a green buyer will often have to play the journalist and the taster—alternating between holding a camera and a cupping spoon.
The Ultimate Coffee Experience
Most industries have big inter-mural events that help encourage core values and promote networking. Specialty coffee does have its own version of this, involving a few classes and some coffee service contests. But the value of these events cannot compare with the recharging of passion that takes place on an origin trip. Meeting 8th generation producers and seeing firsthand that coffee has timeless heritage encourages humility and perspective. Every buyer will admit that they learn something new about coffee on each trip they take.
The pursuit of excellence in service and roasting are not the only manifestations of coffee passion. Some extremely inspired farmers feel the same connection to their product that roasters do. What becomes obvious is that coffee passion, whether at origin or in a coffee lover's kitchen, is a type of universal language. Quality focused producers are looking for roasters they can connect with just as much as roasters are looking for great coffees.
Coffee is not coffee without people connecting over it. This is either going to be in the form of a shared cup, or an awareness of all the crafting hands involved in its journey to your table. Either way, it's easier to really enjoy your coffee when you know more about it. Because coffee passes through so many hands before getting to yours, there is a lot to know about a lot of people.