Burundi coffee worker carrying dried coffee for bagging.
By Alf Kramer
Morten Wennersgaard is a new kind of coffee trader. He may own a tie, but you will never see him wearing it—he does have several pairs of boots.
Growing up in rural Norway he didn’t know the first thing about the coffee trade. But his profound interest in fine food and beverage, combined with insatiable curiosity and a sense of adventure, has served him well.
Wennersgaard’s work as a professional chef flowed from a keen interest in fine food and beverages. He became very proficient in transforming ordinary raw materials into a rich and memorable meal. He also mastered the bakery craft, where he studied the science of cooking. He advanced his understanding of physics and food chemistry by pursuing a bachelor’s degree in food science and technology. This led to yet another detour on his way to coffee. Wennersgaard next worked in research, product development and quality control at an international chocolate manufacturer.
Only then did he embark on his current passion for coffee.
Wennersgaard takes a holistic view, monitoring the entire coffee community from farmer to consumer. His emphasis on direct trade combines cultural knowledge, empathy, transparency and social skills with his adeptness at social media. He calls his importing company the Nordic Approach, a venture he began in 2011 with famed barista Tim Wendelboe.
Structural changes in the coffee trade
While Wennersgaard was developing his skills Norway’s coffee industry experienced dramatic structural changes. At the time there were only three large roasters in the country, with perhaps 8 to 10 smaller ventures. Norwegian coffee traders were a vanishing breed.
Brands had become blasé.
It was then that the specialty coffee movement took hold. Beginning in the late 1990s consumers began to take an interest in what they were drinking. They wanted to know describe its flavor, the roasting style; to identify its origin, and compare coffees from different parts of the world. The timing was perfect for Wennersgaard to join the coffee movement.
He began working at Oslo’s Solberg & Hansen, a roaster that for several decades had sold unbranded fresh roast from several origins and single estates. When the new trend hit Solberg & Hansen did not have to reinvent the wheel, but there was room for improvements.
During this time the first international coffee championships were launched in Norway, and the country fostered several champions among them Wendelboe. Roasting became a highly competitive business. Sourcing fine coffees, individually roasting to bring out the best attributes in each lot was a vital part of his new job.
He was energized and felt really present in life. He participated in every coffee event and developed close relationships with his customers, consumers and coffee suppliers. Sourcing ultra fine coffees became an increasing challenge. A roaster the size of Solberg & Hansen was just another brick in the coffee wall for most international traders. Wennersgaard needed and wanted something more so he decided to go directly to the source, taste and select coffee. He put on his boots and began traveling to origin where he became deeply involved with growers.
He was happy at Solberg but in time left seeking new adventures and to broaden his coffee horizon.
In search of arabica
He was not alone; he brought along his wife Anita and their 4-year-old daughter Thalma. The family toured a half dozen countries expanding Wennersgaard’s knowledge of coffee, discovering new ideas and a new partner. He teamed up with Wendelboe to form Nordic Approach trading before he left and shared his adventures online with old and new coffee lovers in various social media.
And so the adventure began. Wennersgaard did not even have an office or a postal address. Wendelboe let him use his while on the road.
He entered the emerging micro age. Microbreweries were in fashion and soon micro roasters began roasting micro lots. Wennersgaard decided to become a micro trader, dealing in 60-kilo bags rather than 250 bag container loads. Adapting to the needs of the new “micro” regime soon became a hunt for 10-kilo nano lots even smaller than micro lots.
This new breed of trader different values and priorities that traditional coffee traders.
His philosophy is simple: “Quality. Traceability. Social responsibility.” Anyone who has been around in coffee for a while knows that “quality” is an elastic expression, explains Wennersgaard. “Coffee trading can be like selling elastic by the meter (sometimes stretching the truth). Integrity and solid evidence in the cup are fundamental, but quality should also include personality,” he said.
There are always third-party certifications (with several to choose from) attesting that growers conform to specific guidelines. But the nano-, micro-, and small-roasters need more than that. Certification does not guarantee a coffee will taste great. Roasters want trustworthy taste profiles fitting their own chosen style. Their customers demand nothing less.
Wennersgaard lived at origin cupping through the seasonal harvest monitoring the milling, drying, and the shipping of each individual lot and then reported every aspect to buyers. His report extended the meaning of traceability and are closely linked to the individual perception of quality. This transparency also involves a deeper and more profound relationship to the farmer. The Nordic Approach assumes farmers should be rewarded for their efforts in supplying outrageously fine coffees, repeatedly. If the standards do not measure up this year Wennersgaard offers personal advice to insure further improvement. This kind of interaction is time consuming but adds value to every participant along the entire supply chain.
To please customers modern roasters want more than roasting profiles and hard facts. They also want to know about family life at the farm. A modern trader provides that in detail. Sharing descriptions with photos and videos of farm life are welcome. Successful roasters often develop long-term relationships with the farm which extends and adds new meaning to the value of single estate.
“Connecting producers with consumers, through a roasters branding of the single farms etc., is in my opinion key to more sustainable farming and coffee production,” writes Wennersgaard. “It can really be emotional observing a farmer or a coffee farming family looking at a coffee bag with their name on it. Specially when it is the first time they have ever experienced it.”
Thalma is now a 9-year-old school girl with a little sister, Maria, 3. The the new approach has been successful. Nordic Approach has expanded from a few nano roast customers to clients in 20 central and western European countries.
“UK and Scandinavia are our biggest markets and we randomly sell to clients in 15 countries worldwide including Australia, Asia, the US and Saudi Arabia,” he says.
“Working on product development together with growers is probably the most satisfying thing for me as a coffee buyer,” he says. “Small things in the process can make huge differences in the cup, and for the premiums received by the grower. But most importantly when it works and you commit it builds trust and strong relationships,” said Wennersgaard.
The staff has expanded from one to six highly skilled professionals all recruited from the core of the quality coffee trade. Sourcing remains focused on East Africa but has also led to direct trade relationships with growers in Central and South America.
There is a new office, with a new lab including options to test how coffee behaves and pleases under different roasting and brewing regimes. This is as close to the essence of coffee as it gets. One thing remains the same though.
Wennersgaard still wear boots half the time, and he still cannot find his tie.