The coffee industry must demand more from its definition of “micro lot”

processing micro lot coffee
  • Panama-based coffee company, Ninety Plus, has sold the most expensive micro lot coffee ever at $10,000 per kilogram
  • Roasters use micro lots as a tool to push their brand.
  • In some countries, such as the DRC, there is an expectation that micro lots have a socio-economic impact on coffee-growing communities

The coffee industry generates a lot of jargon – buzzwords that seem to separate industry “insiders” from industry “outsiders”. Often used to gain a new market segment and edge out the competition, these words can be assigned to practices, equipment, and consumption habits across the industry.

One that has seen increased usage is “micro lot”. The term emerged in the industry around the same time as when coffee professionals started identifying single origins. However, to be considered a micro lot, farmers must meet additional criteria.

Generally, micro lot refers to a traceable and exclusive single origin coffee produced with great care that often has outstanding flavour characteristics.

But micro lots do not necessarily come from small farms. Larger farms or estates may grow certain high-quality coffees in limited quantities; picked and processed completely separately from the rest of the farm’s lots.

Amina Ngabo is a coffee quality control expert from the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Amina explains that in the DRC, micro lots are coffees exported in any quantity less than five tonnes. These coffees can be shipped without giving a quality certificate. Instead, a sample is transported and assessed for cup profile characteristics.

“There are two things that are important: traceability, and what people define as high quality. A micro lot would indicate high-quality coffee harvested from the best cherries, in limited volumes”, says Friso Miguel Spoor, the co-founder of The Coffee Quest.

Micro lots can offer producers greater independence. For example, Costa Rica’s Cordillera del Fuego micro mill opened in 2001. For the first time, producers were able to process their crops themselves and retain greater control over the process, rather than delivering their cherries to large industrial cooperatives. This mill now produces 25 micro lots for local producers each year, totalling about 8,000 bags.

However, the term has become somewhat diluted in meaning, with roasters using micro lots as a marketing tactic to push their brand and increase their prices.

micro lot farmer

Marketing tactics

As Amina explains: “Roasters use micro lots as a marketing tactic because it’s coffee they bought expensively, are sure of its quality, and that’s how the price per cup goes up.”

Micro lots typically only form a small percentage of a roaster’s coffee output. If they wish to scale, roasters begin selling more blends than micro lots – as blends are more consistent and cost-effective.

Yet roasters often market their micro lots more than their other coffees, pushing them as a small run of a limited-edition coffee. Thanks to their finite availability, exclusivity and urgency drive marketing for many micro lots – and with that, prices can be pushed higher.

The term micro lot is often new to customers. According to Friso, roasters try to find a way to market what they have as unique to the consumers. “There will always be people marketing their coffees as micro lots, in the same way as words such as direct trade and single origin are used to promote coffees.”

While these coffees may sit at the front of their branding, they are just a small percentage of a roaster’s output. Micro lots are being used as a tool to position brands within the speciality sector, having the appearance of roasting exclusive, special coffees – but they mainly work with blends that are scalable.

a micro lot can require specific roasting profiles

Is it time to reassess what a micro lot is?

Amina explains that in the DRC, a micro lot also signifies a coffee that has had a positive impact on the community from which it was grown. “There are so many definitions for the micro lot because each country has its own regulations.”

She adds: “We export a micro lot which is less than 5 tonnes. It can also be due to the fact that it impacts the socio-economic level of a given population.”

Promoting micro lot coffee in its current sense should not be a priority for everyone because not all producers have the resources to grow, process, and manage the logistics of small-batch, high-quality coffee.

Even for farms or estates that do grow micro lots, it is difficult to provide consistency year in, year out. On the other hand, roasters must provide consistency. This is where blends can come in, with an ability to provide consistency and stability for producers as well as roasters.

A part of the conversation around micro lots is an acceptance of blends and coffees that offer producers stability – without losing the traceability that comes with single origin coffee.

Moreover, roasters are using the term “micro lot” to market their coffee, skewing customer perceptions of their overall output and increasing the prices they charge across their offering – with producers seeing no additional reward.

With this current definition, social capital and money are flowing in the wrong direction and are not serving the industry in reaching our social sustainability goals. “Consumers are starting to know these words. I think the semantics are important from the professional and the consumer point of view,” Friso says.

It is important that we reassess what the term “micro lot” should mean. As we strive towards a more resilient and sustainable future for our coffee industry, this should be represented in the words we use.

A micro lot should denote a coffee that adds value to the producer end, supports growing regions and offers stability – as Amina describes. This definition does not have to lose its sense of “quality”, but purchasers need to buy into the sustainability of the coffee they purchase.