Co-packing: Why we don’t usually do it, and an exciting exception

White label. Co-packing. If you haven’t heard of it before, ‘white label’ is when a coffee roastery roasts for another entirely separate brand, and just charges a fee for the service of roasting and packing the coffee. It’s lower risk for the roaster since you don’t “own” the green coffee, and you basically just serve as contracted (specialized) labour. White label is one of those things that most people in the industry do, but very few talk about. There are a couple of clear reasons why: From a roaster’s point of view, they see it as sort of quick and dirty cash, or an admission that they’re not maxing out their equipment with their own demand. From the point of view of the white label customer, usually they’re trying to pretend like they are roasting the coffee themselves (they usually present themselves as a roastery). Either way, it’s a business relationship that isn’t usually very sexy.

From our point of view, often white label coffee brands are cynical cash grabs by celebs or people with lots of money to burn… It’s usually along the lines of “are you rich and famous, and would you like a coffee brand with none of the work of learning about coffee?” These projects rarely have “coffee people” at the helm, and they don’t usually add very much value to the industry. So why have we been doing white label roasting and co-packing for the last year or so? It’s quite simple: our white label customers are Colombian coffee farmers.

Tambia is the UK roasted coffee brand of the Oro Molido farms in Antioquia, and we roast their coffee for the UK market. They are excellent farmers (Our much beloved La Sierra Pink Bourbon is from them), and lovely people to boot. They also know a thing or two about branding and publicising a coffee company, so they’re truly in control of both the growing and the selling of the coffee… We just do the little roasting bit in the middle. We’ve gotten to know Maria Cristina, Alejandro, Sarah, Kim, and the rest of the team over the last couple of years, and we’re proud to be roasting and packing their coffee!

What are we always saying at Skylark? Essentially roasters make too much money and farmers and cafes don’t make enough. Usually, adding another layer (like a white label agreement) creates just another middleman sucking up profit, but in this case we’re really working FOR farmers as a sort of roasting utility… We as Skylark are the middleman in this situation, but the purpose isn’t to add an extra layer of profit taking, but to give access to market for farmers. 

To us, this project has a few purposes: a) To provide access to the lucrative step of roasting for farmers. b) To deconstruct white label – another taboo topic in the world of coffee roasting. c) To add a bit of income to help keep our packing team paid a living wage every month… We do get paid for roasting and packing the coffee, but we keep the unit price on the lower end of industry standard in order to hopefully help the project succeed!

Roasting is by far the most lucrative step in the coffee supply chain. We’d love for it to be practical for this to happen at origin so more of the value capture could happen there… Unfortunately this isn’t really practical from a freshness standpoint, but we think roasting and co-packing on behalf of farmers themselves is a really interesting and potentially viable option! We’ve increasingly seen farmers take control of export and import, but roasting is possibly even more important. We think Tambia have some great green coffee, and they also offer a more broad range of roasts than we do at Skylark. If you have a relative that thinks your “specialty coffee” is always too fruity or tastes weird with milk, consider putting them on to one of the Tambia “espresso” roasts. We think that they’re really tasty in a more traditional way, and the best part is they’re completely “specialty” in terms of how the coffee is traded — the producers are in control from end to end. To us, that’s the most important thing.