Meet Your Ally: Bram de Hoog
Bram is from the Netherlands, studied as an exchange student in Costa Rica, and worked for a Nicaraguan coffee exporter to build transparency and alignment into the supply chain. Bram is Ally Coffee’s new Central America buyer and brings with him to the role a varied background in everything from hospitality to research, together with his insatiable curiosity.
As a kid, Bram was in the kitchen making brownies. His love of chocolate was what drew him to coffee.
“I remember going on one of my first flights out of the Netherlands, and the Starbucks at the airport was the only Starbucks in the country. I remember looking up at the Starbucks menu and it was so interesting — there were lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos; I was amazed by all the differences. That’s where it started — what’s the difference between a latte and a cappuccino? That was the first thing I wanted to learn.”
From there, Bram became more enthralled with coffee and got a job at a franchised shop in his hometown of Gouda, where he did the dishes. One day the owner asked him to make an espresso. “I was so nervous, and I did everything, ground the beans, tamped it, pressed the button, but I forgot the cups! So the espresso was just pouring away…that was one terrible first experience making coffee.”
Undaunted, Bram continued exploring. After completing high school in the Netherlands, he enrolled in an exchange program in Costa Rica to learn Spanish and see the world before college. There, he lived in the small fruit growing town of Orotina in the West Valley. Costa Rica was where he learned to drink black coffee and to appreciate the culture around coffee drinking, even though, at the time, he did not realize he was only twenty minutes from coffee farms.
When he returned to the Netherlands the next year, he made up his mind to go back to work in a coffee shop, this time making coffee. He landed at a café with commercial roasted coffee. He learned to make cappuccinos, pour latte art, and began a degree program in hospitality management, all of which solidified his dream of one day owning his own coffee shop where he could design the space and serve coffee the way he wanted. During his first years at university in the city of Breda, Bram became a coffee sponge, reading about third wave coffee and brewing with Chemex and siphons. He joined a subscription service that sent roasted coffee monthly and contacted one of the roasters, Schot Coffee, to see if he could participate in a coffee tasting.
“I went there and tasted six different pourovers. It wasn’t even a cupping, just a tasting. One of the coffees was an Ethiopia Suke Quto from Sidamo, a washed coffee, and it just blew my mind. That was my specialty coffee revelation. I didn’t know that coffee could taste like that. It was a real moment for me because I realized that I knew nothing about coffee. I knew the difference between a latte and a cappuccino and I thought I knew everything.”
Bram was officially hooked and began gathering all the resources he could find to learn more. As part of his university program, he held a six-month internship at a hotel in Melbourne, Australia. It was still his goal to one day open a café, so he scoured the city attending public cuppings and marveling at the knowledge, expertise, and service of the baristas. This was where he learned that people go to origin to work with producers as part of the process for buying coffee. He knew that was what he wanted to go: go to origin and see a coffee tree. He regretted not having known about specialty coffee while living in Costa Rica.
When Bram returned from Melbourne to Breda, he next went to work at a newly opened café called Kamu, supplied by White Label Coffee. He traveled to the Amsterdam Coffee Festival that year, where he met Lennart Clerkx of This Side Up Trade, whom he later ran into again when he visited White Label’s roastery, which shares a space with This Side Up. Bram had decided to go back to Costa Rica during his university vacations to visit his host family and asked Lennart if he knew of any coffee farms to visit. Lennart told him that he did not, but that he had supplier partners in Nicaragua, called Expocamo. Lennart had not been able to travel there and asked Bram if he would be willing to visit the farms in Nicaragua to take photographs.
“I said I would do it. The travel time from where I was in Costa Rica to the farms in Nicaragua was about 20 hours on three different buses. It took two days to get there, and I spent most of my holiday time to meet Francisco Valle at Expocamo. I spent five days cupping, meeting all the different producers who were supplying Lennart, and I was blown away by my first origin experience.”
Back in the Netherlands, Bram’s next internship was with White Label Coffee. Having met the producers who supplied White Label through This Side Up made the role a uniquely circular coffee experience. Bram’s main internship project at White Label was to build a visual tool for understanding the connections between different coffee tree varieties. Then, Francisco messaged Bram, inviting him to work with Expocamo in Nicaragua compiling producer profiles, complete with background stories and photography to offer to clients.
“I finished making the tool for White Label and a week later bought a one-way ticket to Nicaragua. I ended up staying seven months. During those months I cupped about 40–60 coffees every day. I built a website for Expocamo, wrote profile pages for almost 60 producers, and on top of that started getting very into quality control. Francisco is a great mentor; I had cupping experience but not on this scale. By the time February/March came around, we had roasters coming to visit us on their origin trips to meet producers. As I spoke English and Spanish, I was assigned to host their cuppings. Every single person I met during those months I saw as a resource — roasters, importers — and I was able to ask them anything I wanted about coffee. The more I learned, the more I learned I don’t know.”
After seven months, Bram returned to the Netherlands to finish his studies. He had experienced the specialty coffee industry from several perspectives but kept coming back to the same conundrum: everyone wants to serve transparent coffee and the information to do so is there, but it was not getting across. The supply chain of information was clogged.
This seemed worthy of further investigation, so Bram chose to complete his bachelor thesis on the added value for hospitality managers of transparency through the coffee supply chain. He researched the market and its segments: commercial, certified, specialty. He interviewed roasters, consumers, and importers on their views of transparency in the industry. He graduated cum laude and went back to Nicaragua to work for Expocamo for another season.
This time, things were different. The market price was lower and there were more setbacks and pitfalls than the previous harvest. Through these unfortunate circumstances, Bram was able to further understand market dynamics at origin. He also experienced another pole of the industry, serving as a Cup of Excellence judge in Nicaragua and Honduras. Earlier this year, Bram moved from Nicaragua back to Costa Rica, where he will now manage Ally’s Central America buying from an office in San Jose.
Entering into his new role, Bram reflected on the experience he brings and the perspective with which he approaches his sourcing job.
“Now as a buyer, I am coming into the role with a very deep understanding of internal dynamics in origin countries, between the banks, the producers, the exporting companies, the fertilizer companies, the dry mills, the wet mills, and the ports. I know everything that goes into getting a coffee bean from a tree to the port. I have seen how each step affects another step.
I also think it is very important to understand the role of money and cash flow in specialty coffee and its effects at origin. What I value most about Ally Coffee is that we pay 24 hours after receiving documents.
At Expocamo I learned that the coffee industry is not built on 86+ microlots. What I feel is most important is identifying a coffee for what it is and finding a home for that at the best price point possible. It’s about putting each coffee in the market where it belongs. The more that is aligned in the supply chain, with coffees in their appropriate markets, then that is sustainable growth on every level possible.”