Exporting coffee to Belgium
Belgium is one of the main points of entry and trade hubs for coffee in Europe. It is also an increasingly interesting market for certified coffees, following a consumer trend towards sustainable, traceable and high-quality products. The specialty coffee market in Belgium also registers growth, while maintaining the country’s tradition for smaller coffee houses and cafés.
There are two main types of green coffee beans:
- Coffea arabica: Plantations are generally located at altitudes over 1,000 metres, making it a so-called highland coffee. The average length of coffee beans of this variety is around 9 mm. Their colour is greenish to blue-green. The coffee beans have a strong, full flavour. Arabica beans have a caffeine content of approximately 1.2%.
- Coffea robusta: Robusta coffee can be considered a lowland coffee, as its plantations are below 1,000 metres. Robusta beans are small, round and generally brownish to yellowy green. Their beans have a higher water content than Arabica coffee. They generally have a less powerful flavour. Robusta beans have a caffeine content of approximately 2.3%.
In Europe, the Combined Nomenclature (CN) uses Harmonised System (HS) codes to classify products that are traded. The HS codes for green coffee beans are given below. The available data do not distinguish between conventional and specialty coffees.
Specialty coffee is defined by the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE, integrated into the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) in 2017) as the art of manufacturing a quality cup of coffee which is judged by the consumer to have a unique quality, characteristic taste and personality superior to the common beverages offered. This beverage consists of coffee beans which have grown at a designated location and been processed under the highest quality standards for raw processing, roasting, storing and finally preparing to a beverage.
Coffee, not roasted, not decaffeinated
Coffee, not roasted, decaffeinated
What makes Belgium an interesting market for coffee?
Belgian is one of the top 3 European coffee importers
Belgium is the third-largest importer of green coffee beans in Europe, only behind Germany and Italy. Of Belgium’s green coffee imports, 98% were sourced directly in developing countries in 2017. In the same year, the total imports reached 276,000 tonnes (€ 733 million).
Overall, Belgian imports declined between 2013 and 2017, registering an annual average decrease of -1.4%; however, imports peaked at 310,000 tonnes in 2016. In terms of value, imports increased slightly by an average annual of +2.3% in the same period.
- Access the Eurostat Statistics Database to analyse European and Belgian trade dynamics yourself and to build your export strategy. By selecting Belgium as your target market, you will be able to follow developments such as the emergence of new suppliers and the decline of established ones.
Belgium is one of the main distributors of green coffee in Europe
As one of the main trade hubs for coffee in Europe, Belgium only ranks behind Germany in re-exports of green coffee. With 211,000 tonnes exported, Belgium accounted for 32% of the total European re-exports of green coffee in 2017.
Belgian re-exports registered a strong increase between 2013 and 2017, with an average annual growth of +8.3% in volume. However, between 2012 and 2013, there was a significant 20% decrease in volume. From 2013 on, re-exports increased and surpassed their original 2012 level. After registering an annual increase of +8.7% in its coffee import value between 2013 and 2015, Belgium experienced an annual decline of -0.3% between 2015 and 2017.
The large role of Belgium as an importer and re-exporter is due to the specialisation of the Port of Antwerp in "piece-goods trade" (articles of standard dimensions), enabling it to handle commodities such as coffee efficiently. In addition, more than 300,000 tonnes of coffee can be stored in the Port of Antwerp at a time.
Belgium mainly re-exports within Europe. Main destinations in 2017 were its direct neighbours:
- the Netherlands (61%);
- France (19%);
- Germany (8%).
- See our study of trade statistics for coffee for more detailed information about the European trade in green coffee beans.
Which trends offer opportunities on the Belgian market for coffee?
Increasing sustainability certification
Sustainability, traceability and product quality become more and more important for Belgian consumers. As a result, sustainability labels such as Rainforest Alliance (now incorporating UTZ Certified into a single organisation), Fairtrade and organic labels are gaining importance in Belgium. Certified coffee in Belgium represented 20% of the overall Belgian coffee market in value in 2016. Fairtrade Belgium (formerly Max Havelaar) is the most widely known label among Belgian consumers.
UTZ Certified is the leading sustainability label in major Belgian supermarkets; Lidl, Delhaize and Aldi all have UTZ certified coffees. Most Belgian supermarkets offer coffees from the Douwe Egberts group (which has an alliance with UTZ; for example, L’OR capsules), while most Delhaize brands are UTZ certified. At the same time, it is important to note that supermarket chains are increasingly developing their own sustainable labels for coffee.
- Learn more about Belgian supermarkets and their preferred labels in the report on sustainable products in Belgian supermarkets.
- Access the website of Bioforum, the organic sector organisation in Belgium, if you want to learn more about opportunities for Organic certification on the Belgian market.
- See the list of UTZ registered coffee actors in Belgium. You can find out who is certified and therefore qualified to buy your UTZ certified coffee.
- Explore the facts and figures of the Fairtrade market in Belgium on the website of Fairtrade Belgium.
Demand for high-quality certified coffee on the rise
Large international chains such as Starbucks are not as popular in Belgium as smaller coffee houses and cafés, especially in the large cities including Antwerp and Brussels. Coffee houses such as Bocca Moka, OR Coffee, Café de la Presse or Café du Sablon serve their own specialty coffees and mainly source from traders active in the country. Even if these companies do not source directly from exporting countries, they communicate their quality requirements along the chain and contribute to the development of the speciality coffee branch in Belgium.
In fact, the development of such coffee houses reveals a growing interest in and demand for high-quality and certified coffees. In the country, a typical coffee is a blend of 75% Arabica coffee and 25% Robusta coffee. In general, it is estimated that Belgians drink an average of 4.3 kg of coffee annually (ICO, 2016), while the neighbouring countries the Netherlands (5.3 kg/year) and France (5.6 kg/year) drink relatively more. Belgians mostly drink blends of Arabica and Robusta coffee.
- Are you interested in exporting high quality coffee? Learn more about cupping scores at the website of the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). You can also consider getting a Q-grader certificate to be able to cup and score your Arabica coffee through small and taste according to international standards. If you also produce and/or export Robusta coffees, it’s also possible to become an R-grader.
Gourmet coffee experience
Belgian consumers increasingly favour high-quality products, including coffees which offer a true gourmet experience. The preference for "slow coffee" continues to develop in Belgium, as explained on the website of Flanders Today. Slow Food is an international movement founded by Italian Carlo Petrini in 1986. Promoted as an alternative to fast food, it strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine as well as high quality in food products. Within this movement, high-quality/specialty coffees find an important market in Belgium. This movement also has an influence on the authenticity of the source and the social impact, which makes the storytelling aspect of coffee especially interesting (and often rewarded with a higher price).
- Build a strong story to promote your company. When based on substantiated facts, a good story can help a supplier to gain the trust of a potential buyer and create a long-term trade relationship.
Which requirements must coffee comply with to be allowed on the Belgian market?
Buyers in Belgium have strict requirements for coffee, just as buyers in other European Union countries. You can only export your product to European Union countries if you comply with these requirements. In our study of buyer requirements for coffee, you can find a detailed analysis of these requirements. The main issues are highlighted below:
You must follow the European Union legal requirements applicable to coffee, mainly dealing with food safety. Traceability and hygiene are the most important themes. Special attention should be given to specific sources of contamination. Pesticides, mycotoxins and Salmonella are the most common for green coffee beans, though coffee is considered low-risk.
- Read more about the European Union legal requirements at the European Union’s Export Helpdesk.
Quality requirements for coffee
The International Coffee Organisation (ICO) has introduced voluntary targets for minimum quality export standards for Arabica and Robusta under Resolution 420. The resolution aims to reduce the export of inferior beans.
Some coffee buyers might also require exporters to comply with a quality or food safety management system based on hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) principles. Adherence to these standards is more commonly required from exporters of roasted coffee beans, however.
- Familiarise yourself with food safety/Quality Management Systems (QMS). Read more about HACCP and health control on the website of the European Commission. Learn more about how to manage HACCP for coffee in the Coffee Guide of the International Trade Centre.
- Coffee exporters might also find it useful to visit the website of SGS, the world’s leading inspection, verification, testing and certification company, for further information on HACCP and other food safety standards.
- Read more about the different Food Safety Management Systems on the ITC Standards Map.
- Learn more about HACCP implementation of green coffee processing steps (fermentation, drying, storage) on the ICO website or directly on the FAO website.
Corporate responsibility and sustainability is growing in importance within the coffee sector. Adopting codes of conduct or sustainability policies related to the environmental and social impacts of your company can provide you with a competitive advantage.
Belgian buyers may expect you to comply with their supplier codes of conduct on social responsibility. This code can be the importer’s own code of conduct or a code of conduct as a part of an initiative in which the importer is participating. The adoption of those standards is the most common among large-scale importers, roasters, manufacturers and retailers. For example, see the sustainability policy of EFICO, including its engagement in the UN Global Compact iniative.
- Look for sector or joint company initiatives to increase your understanding of the sustainability strategies in Belgium. Search for initiatives that match your own core strategy and values. The website of Enabel can be a good point of departure to search for such initiatives in Belgium.
Green coffee beans can be classified using two methods:
- the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) green coffee grading protocols
- the Brazilian/New York green coffee classification (applicable to Brazilian coffee only)
Grading is usually based on the following criteria:
- altitude and/or region;
- botanical variety;
- preparation (wet or dry process, washed or natural);
- bean size (screen size), sometimes also bean shape and colour;
- number of defects (imperfections);
- roast appearance and cup quality (flavour, characteristics, cleanliness);
- density of the beans.
Higher quality coffee (specialty coffee) is graded according to a cupping score. Fragrance, flavour, aftertaste, balance, acidity, sweetness, uniformity and cleanliness are important topics in the grading process (see below for more information).
The definition of specialty coffee has not been formally established within the coffee industry. A cupping score below 80 is considered standard quality and not specialty. This is in line with the Coffee Quality Institute, which states that coffees graded and cupped with scores above 80 are considered specialty coffees. The cupping protocols of the Specialty Coffee Association also consider a score of 80 as being below specialty quality. However, the exact minimum scores defining specialty coffee differ per country and buyer. Some buyers consider 80 as too low and demand a cupping score of 85 or higher.
Coffee can be roasted in several ways. In general, lighter roasts are less heavy and more acidic. They have more flavour than the darker roasts. Darker roasts have more body.
The degree or darkness of roast, as well as its duration, has a direct impact on the flavour profile of coffee.
There are other important variables which affect the flavour or can develop the potential of the coffee. Some of them are:
- roasting time;
- charge temperature;
- rate of rise;
- drum speed or air flow & cooling speed;
- first and second crack timing;
- sensory experience of the roaster.
Labelling of coffee exported to Belgium should be written in English. Labels should contain the following topics to ensure the traceability of individual batches:
- Product name
- International Coffee Organisation (ICO) identification code
- Country of origin
- Net weight in kg
- Certified coffee: name/code of the inspection body and certification number.
- The transparency of the supply chain is an asset in the specialty segment. In addition to labelling, communicate a traceable, clear and direct link between producer and consumer.
- Do you sell specialty coffee? It is important for buyers to know what the cupping score of your coffee is. It is not mandatory, but it could be relevant to add to the documentation for the coffee that you are exporting.
Green coffee beans are sensitive to water absorption. As a result, they are transported in woven bags made from natural fibre (jute or hessian). This process allows for free circulation of air.
Most green coffee beans of standard quality imported into Belgium are packed in container-sized bulk flexi-bags. These bags hold roughly 20 tonnes of green coffee beans. The rest of the green coffee is transported in traditional 60-kilo jute sacks, which have a net volume of around 17–19 tonnes.
Materials such as GrainPro or other innovative materials can be used to pack specialty coffees.
- Check the website of the International Jute Study Group (IJSG) for manufacturing specifications of jute bags for the food industry (IJO Standard 98/01). Take these specifications into account when exporting to Europe.
- Ensure the preservation of the coffee quality. Thoroughly clean and fumigate containers before loading the beans. Protect the cargo from moisture during loading to avoid mould. Ensure appropriate temperature, humidity/moisture and ventilation conditions during processing and transport. Protect the cargo from pests such as beetles and moths. Prevent contamination of beans by foreign materials (such as dust) by keeping facilities and equipment clean.
Requirements for niche markets
In Belgium, both Fairtrade and Organic certifications are used in niche products and markets. Mainstream roasters such as Jacobs Douwe Egberts use Fairtrade and Organic certifications to distinguish specific product assortments, but they do not use these labels on most of their products. Most Belgium supermarkets, such as Delhaize, also have Organic and Fairtrade certification in their assortment.
- Search for a certification body whose standards are recognised by the European Union. It will help you to ensure that your organic certification is recognised. The European Commission’s Agriculture and Rural Development website provides a thorough explanation of import regulations and other related issues.
What competition do you face on the Belgian coffee market?
Brazil and Vietnam remain by far the leading suppliers to Belgium.
The main suppliers of green coffee beans to Belgium in 2017 were:
- Brazil (26% of the total Belgian imports, in volume);
- Vietnam (19%);
- Honduras (9%);
- Uganda (7%);
- Peru (7%);
- Colombia (6%).
Brazil’s supplies to Belgium increased slightly in volume at an annual average rate of 0.6%, and more substantially in value, at a rate of 2.5%. Brazil remains the largest exporter of green coffee beans worldwide, at an estimated volume above 35 million 60 kg bags in 2018/2019. Vietnam’s supplies increased in volume at an annual average rate of 1.6%, and in value at a rate of 7.0%.
Supplies from Honduras and Uganda remained relatively stable between 2013 and 2017, growing by slight average annual rates of 0.3% and 0.6% in volume (respectively); supplies from Colombia grew at a more significant annual rate of 3.2%. In the same period, imports from Peru decreased at an annual average rate of -2.1%. All these supplying countries experienced an increase in the value of their exports to Europe between 2013 and 2017.
- Identify your potential competitors and learn from them in terms of marketing (website, social media and trade fair participation), product characteristics (origin, quality and value addition (certifications and processing techniques). Well-structured websites where you can learn from your competitors include O’Coffee (Brazil), Bourbon Specialty Coffees (Brazil) and La Meseta (Colombia).
Through which channels can you get coffee on the Belgian market?
Distribution channels in Belgium
Belgium plays a significant role in the European coffee trade. Trading activities are mainly concentrated at the Port of Antwerp and, to a smaller extent, at the Port of Zeebrugge. Belgium has a number of large-scale importers which operate across various countries of origin and destination markets. For example, EFICO offers a wide range of coffees and also has representation in producing countries; its main sourcing operations are at the Port of Antwerp. Another example of an important coffee merchant in Belgium is 32 CUP, specialised in specialty coffees from various countries of origins.
The largest roasters in Europe, including in Belgium, maintain their own in-house buying companies that buy directly from countries of origin as well. These roasters also buy their coffee from international trade houses or from specialised import agents who represent specific exporters in producing countries. Jacobs Douwe Egberts is the largest coffee roaster active on the Belgian market.
Working with an importer or a large roaster will usually require large volumes (commonly starting at 10 containers), standard/consistent qualities, competitive prices and probably certifications such as the Rainforest Alliance certification.
If you are able to sell higher-quality coffees or even micro-lots which can attain superior prices, it might be more interesting for you to target smaller, specialised roasters. Requirements in terms of volume and certification might not be as strict as on the mainstream market. However, your capacity to support your sustainability and quality claims will be very important (for example, in terms of cupping scores). An example of a Belgian coffee-roaster sourcing directly from farmers/cooperatives in countries of origin is OR coffee.
While the direct contact between exporters and roasters is increasing, most of the trade still happens through trade houses or importers, such as in the cases of Pelican Rouge, Maes Koffie and Rombouts. However, roasters still have influence over the origin and quality of the coffee purchased.
Retail market in Belgium
The Belgian retail market is highly concentrated. Delhaize, Colruyt and Carrefour accounted for nearly three quarters of the retail market in 2016. In addition, supermarkets have strengthened their leading position in the retail distribution of hot drinks, including coffee.
In most European countries, including Belgium, retail sales for in-home consumption generally account for most of the overall market. Around 70% of coffee consumption in Belgium takes place at home, which is becoming an increasingly diverse segment because of new, innovative coffee consumption methods such as coffee pods.
Figure 4: Market channels for coffee in Belgium
- Visit the websites of the Port of Antwerp and the Port of Zeebrugge to learn more about their facilities and potential trade partners based there.
- Target specific market segments depending on the quality of your green coffee and your volume capacities. If you have very high-quality micro-lots and are working through an importer, for example, discuss the possibilities to link up with high-end small roasters. You can also explore direct trade possibilities and connect with specialised roasters. If you work with bulk coffees, discuss certification trajectories and linkages to larger roasters operating on the mainstream market.
- Use the website of the Royal union of coffee roasters to find potential buyers in Belgium. The Belgian members (associations) of the European Coffee Federation should be able to provide listings of possible trade partners.
- Learn more about the profile of smaller roasters in Belgium such as Beyers, Koffie Kàn, MIKO and Java Coffee Company to gain a better insight into consumer preferences in the country.
- See our study of channels and segments in the European coffee sector for more information.
What are the end-market prices for coffee?
The end-market prices for coffee vary depending on which segment of the market is targeted. Our study of channels and segments in the European coffee sector provides an overview of the upper end, middle range and lower end on the coffee retail market, as well as their main characteristics. Typically, the export prices of green coffee only account for around 5–25% of the end-market prices, depending on the coffee quality, the size of the lot and the supplier’s relationship with the buyer.
- Upper end (specialty): Caffènation – Spro JOE Espresso, € 35.00 per kg, Mok – Ethiopia Limu Gidey, € 36.40 per kg;
- Upper-middle range: € 21.20 per kg (Rombouts – Congo – 250-gram packaging), € 27 per kg (Delahaut – Maragogype – 500-gram packaging), € 29,95 per kg (Vascobelo – Le Roi – 1-kg packaging);
- Lower-middle range: € 12.60 per kg (Delhaize – Café Colombia Fairtrade Belgium – 250-gram packaging), € 14.98 per kg (Rombouts – Cachet d’Or – 500-gram packaging), € 15 per kg (Douwe Egberts – Aroma 1753 Superior Blend – 250-gram packaging);
- Lower end: € 3.98 per kg (Delhaize – 365 Café Robusta – 500-gram packaging), € 5.98 per kg (Delhaize – 365 Café Moka – 500-gram packaging), € 6.58 per kg (Aldi – Café Dessert Markus – 500-gram packaging).
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