Scouting out the world's best coffee

Although Alvaro Gaviria's birthplace of Pereira, Colombia, is part of the region known as the Coffee Axis, he knew almost nothing about coffee until he started working in the bean business in New York 33 years ago.

Eventually he landed at White Coffee Corp., the Long Island City distributor that roasts 6,000 pounds of java an hour and generates $34 million in annual revenue.

Gaviria's job in logistics at White Coffee quickly led to an opportunity for him to buy unroasted—or green—coffee on the global market.

For the past 10 years he's been the company's chief sourcer, spending more than $10 million a year on raw beans from Central and South America, Africa and the Far East, and keeping track of political and climate changes that can affect prices daily.

"That in itself is very stressful," said Gaviria.

Perhaps the most important part of his day is spent roasting, blending and sampling as many as 60 coffees in order to fill a void in White Coffee's product line, create a specific mix for a customer, match a competitor's flavor or simply try a new bean before buying it in bulk. On a recent weekday he hunched over a rotating table set with more than a dozen small glasses. He slurped a spoonful, swished it in his mouth and then spit it into a nearby spittoon, just as wine tasters do. Gaviria relies on his knowledge of bean pigmentation, coffee acids and the role of evaporation to judge a brew's body, acidity, aroma and taste and determine if it passes muster. "Tasting is the culmination of everything I do," he said.

With the help of White Coffee's 105 employees, the coffee Gaviria sources can end up in a cup at Peter Luger Steak House or a Hilton hotel. Or it can show up in one of the company's 400 blends and flavors sold under the White Coffee, Entenmann's and Kahlua labels by retailers including Amazon, T.J.Maxx and Walmart.
Last year Gaviria passed 22 tests covering theory and sensory skills to become licensed as a Q grader by the Coffee Quality Institute. "I took the test to verify what I already knew," he said. Buyers of unroasted coffee can earn anywhere from $50,000 to more than $100,000 a year, depending on their experience and their employer's size and location, industry experts say.

"Every day is something new and a different challenge, and it's absolutely never boring," said Gaviria. "Coffee was something I fell into, but in coffee I found my passion."

Crain's | Cara S. Trager

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