Making your own private label

By: Edward Denyer

In my experience in the coffee business over the last twenty years, I've come to realize that the connections we make through networking tend to be the most interesting and fruitful. Usually, people come to us with a specific need or goal in mind but don't know exactly how to get there. It's our job to make their coffee vision come to life. Still, some might find the prospect of developing their own private label a little intimidating because they don't understand what is required. Let's fix that.

The other week I had one of our resellers contact me about a company interested in private-label roasting, so I thought I might share this experience with all of you to shed some light on the process. But first, why use a third party roaster to create your own brand? Well, roasting and labelling in smaller batches while having the flexibility to make adjustments on the fly provides a path into having a personalized brand to place on a shelf and thus opens the door to start selling your coffee of choice specifically customized to your desired profile without a massive financial investment.

Our reseller connected me with Alice Duerr-Mburu (pictured above), the founder and owner of Tobmarc Home Decor & Gifts. Alice is interested in roasting, distributing, and retailing some very special Fairtrade-certified coffee she is bringing from her homeland, Kenya.

We set a date, and Alice and a friend arrived promptly on a chilly, snowy late-December morning with a green coffee sample in hand. I had told Alice we could sample roast two batches in different profiles so that she could have an opportunity to taste them on the cupping table, so we did just that. While Austin took the samples to the back for roasting, Alice and I had our first opportunity to chat in person about what she was hoping to achieve in the coffee space.

She told me that although her business is centered on promoting craftspeople and artisans, she wanted to find a way to support a broader community. She had found a connection to a Fairtrade-certified source of coffee in Kenya and travelled to Nyeri county on the South Western slopes of Mount Kenya to speak to the farm cooperative that would be providing her with the single-origin beans she planned to feature.

She brought this coffee to us in hopes of creating her own brand to sell from her Port Credit store. Still, ultimately, her goal is not just to generate sales for herself but to help these farmers in Kenya by providing a platform through which they can reach a broader consumer base. Over time she hopes to expand the operation to importing full container loads and connecting with more roasters like us who will help manage the storage, roasting and distribution.

Back to the task at hand, we needed Alice to create a definition for this private-label product. We can roast, package, grind, label and ship any volume as long as she defines the basics. We start with the type of bag; what size does she want to sell in? What material does she want her bag to be made of? Does she want it to be recyclable? Is her vision closer to the artisanal fresh and organic packaging made out of unbleached paper with a lower shelf life or more of a modern poly-based version with a freshness barrier and valve to release carbon dioxide? These are the first decisions that are made by any customer looking to create their own private coffee label. Ultimately, however, it comes down to time and the availability of materials from various specialized suppliers.

The next step is for Alice to provide her label designs formatted to fit the defined sizing so that we can print this in-house. We are able to use third-party design services to create labels if the customer does not provide finished artwork, but Alice had her own labels ready to go. In her case, she wanted to carry two profiles of this Kenya AA Fairtrade-certified coffee; a medium and a dark. Each roast would have a unique front label for the bag to differentiate the roast profiles visually from each other but would use the same back label to provide more information about the coffee itself. Lastly, Alice needed to decide whether she wanted to sell whole-bean coffee or have it ground before packaging. She chose to go with whole beans. If a customer wanted to sell ground coffee, we are able to grind the coffee for various extraction applications before we seal the package but they would need to determine what method they want their customers to use to brew the coffee.

Personalized packaging can be generic enough to be recognizable while still being considered custom. The final differentiation in the bag can then be represented with smaller labels defining the specific content but 100% representative of your collective brand. This method also allows ordering the minimum quantity, which can otherwise be difficult to justify as a static inventory investment for start-ups.

Now that the packaging aspects are settled, we return to Alice and her friend. We invited them to the cupping table to taste the two sample roasts with Austin. We usually recommend that a coffee sits for 24 hours after being roasted to allow the flavours to settle and meld so that we can get a more accurate sense of what the coffee will taste like for the majority of its shelf life, but we didn't have long with Alice, and the weather seemed a bit suspect, so we cupped the coffee fresh out of the roaster. Cupping this fresh cannot give us a true sense of the range of this coffee, but it can let us get an initial understanding of the possibilities and reveal possible defects.

Alice had never gone through a cupping protocol, so we had a chance to show her how we evaluate a coffee systematically to gain a sense of its quality. We've been developing our cupping process over the last year using a mixture of the SCAA approach and other popular methodologies, producing a unique hybrid approach that is adapted to a consumer-facing coffee business like ours.

Alice was happy with the results. The lighter medium roast was brighter and more complex, allowing the coffee to express a broader range of flavours while not allowing the acidity to hijack the whole profile. In comparison, the darker roast was richer and much more grounded- the kind of coffee that you could just keep drinking.

As we move forward with Alice and once we have the feedback from her clients, we will make adjustments to the product design and to the roast. We use roasting software to define each roast profile, so replication is not a problem, and we can just as easily make any adjustments Alice feels are necessary. Once we create the initial bag prototypes and can ship them wherever they need to be.  

I hope this little anecdote helps to dispel some of the apprehension people might have about going through this process

What are you waiting for? Let's roast.

Head over to our contact page to see a list of basic requirements and to book a meeting to determine specifics of your new brand!