Lot numbers are one of the tools that make single-origin coffee possible. Single-origin coffee is all about traceability or knowing exactly where your coffee comes from. When a coffee is certified as single-origin, you’re able to tell where it was grown. The lot number allows you to know exactly which farm it was grown on. But this information isn’t just about taste. It’s also about securing economic freedom for coffee farmers, ensuring they are paid fairly for their craft.
What is a lot number?
Lot numbers help achieve traceability. Simply put, traceability is how we track where products come from. Not only do lot numbers help us know where the coffee comes from, which ensures quality and can help track where problems in the supply chain originate, but lot numbers help us ensure that farmers are paid fairly for their work.
In order to achieve traceability in most agribusiness supply chains, we start by identifying the specific product within its physical form, throughout its evolution from start to finish. This identification is based on attributing an item to its direct unit called a lot (or batch). The unique identifier (lot) preserves the identity of a specific amount of product, including location, quantity, quality, etc. In the case of coffee, a lot number includes the name of the farmer who delivered the coffee to the mill and other specific details about the coffee, which establishes a chain of custody.
Why are lot numbers important?
Over 80% of the world’s specialty coffee comes from farmers living on 10x10 farms. On their own, these farmers don’t produce enough coffee to sell; Many don’t have the equipment required to process their own coffee and prepare it for export. So they come together with other farmers and sell their coffees to mills or co-operatives. When this happens, it’s easy for the farmers to be cheated out of money. With lot numbers, people who buy coffee from mills and coops, like Stori Coffee, are able to verify that farmers have been fairly paid for the coffee they provide to the mill or co-operative.
To a farmer, a lot number is how they link their product to their incentives and payments, and benefit from modern record keeping. This seemingly simple process empowers producers to have a historical ledger of their transactions, enabling them to receive loans on that basis so they can grow their own business. To the wet mill manager or co-operative manager, lot numbers allow them to prove their members are being paid, manage quality control, and achieve good agricultural practices. It’s important for the exporters and importers because they can prove where the coffee is coming from with authentic, real-time data while seeking ways to achieve repeatable transactions. It’s important to the roasters because it provides the lineage and history for the beans they’ll be roasting. Lot numbers provide quality assurance for everyone in the coffee supply chain.
Why is quality control important?
Because each lot is traceable, when an individual coffee is good or bad we can go back to the source and reward farmers for excellence and help those who are struggling. Lot numbers build accountability so that if one farmer doesn’t care or isn’t following best practices, he doesn’t bring down all the farmers in his co-operative. Lot numbers are one of the tools that make distinguishing and celebrating single-origin coffee possible. While single-origin coffee as a term could factually mean a coffee from anywhere in that origin, Lot Identity Preservation with the help of traceability allows us to be even more refined, with micro-climate grown coffee.
What happens without lot numbers?
Japan halted imports of Ethiopian coffee in May 2008 after finding pesticide residues in one shipment. Japanese officials requested that Ethiopia find the source and prevent future contamination. The Ethiopian Government said the likely cause was rural growers using sacks that previously contained insecticides or other chemicals. But because the coffee was untraceable, without any way to identify the original lots of the product's origin or its points of aggregation, the source was never discovered.
Imports of Ethiopian coffee to Japan were eventually resumed two years later in April 2010 after Ethiopia responded by improving its export screening processes.
Japan had previously purchased about 20 percent of Ethiopia's coffee exports, making it the third-largest buyer after Germany and Saudi Arabia. Exports had been reported at approximately $525.2 million for the 2008 and 2009 crops. On this basis, the value of the Japanese market would have been approximately $105 million per year. The accumulated losses to this market over the 2 years of the ban would therefore amount to more than $210 million, and the losses continue since the exports to Japan are still far below historical levels.
We share this story to help convey the importance of traceability through lot numbers. While some may be deterred by the investment in traceability, it’s only because they are asking the wrong question, or have a skewed definition of value. The question should not be, "How much does it cost?", but rather, "What value does it add to my brand?"
Are lot numbers included on coffee packaging?
Now that you know about lot numbers, you might be wondering where you’ll see them when you buy coffee. While not all our coffees include lot numbers, some do, like our Ethiopia Hambela Kirite Lot 118 Single Origin Coffee. We include lot numbers when one of our coffees has been segregated for its unique flavor attributes. While farmers usually seek to focus on both productivity as much as quality, there is a new wave of farmers pushing the envelope on innovation and processing micro-lots to achieve specific tastes. For special and prized coffees like this one, a lot number is meant to both highlight the coffee and celebrate with the farmers who created it.