Coffee Talk: Castillo

CastilloBy Danny Pinnell, SCAA

“This is a story of redemption,” Peter Giuliano said as he began his most recent coffee talk.

Beginning with a brief background on cultivars–plant varieties that have been produced in cultivation by selective breeding–Peter told the story of the Castillo cultivar, a story that has proven controversial in the past.

In the mid-20th century, plant breeders became very intense about breeding new cultivars that were intentionally developed to produce significant yields or to be disease resistant. Sometimes a cultivar can be really productive and disease resistant but struggle with maintaining quality in taste.

For this reason, a lot of people have developed enthusiasm for “heirloom” varieties–a slang term denoting a traditional variety of plant or that is not associated with large-scale commercial agriculture and is relatively uncultivated.

Early coffee cultivars such as Typica and Bourbon, due to their “heirloom” variety, are viewed more positively and as a better quality with a better taste than the new cultivars that have been designed to be disease resistant and more productive. Although these varieties do not have the benefits of the newer cultivars, they retain their original, delicious taste.

A few years ago, the Colombian Coffee Federation (FNC) developed a new cultivar, Castillo, which was designed to be rust-resistant and started to actively promote it among coffee farmers. The FNC encouraged farmers to take out the old “heirloom” varieties and replace them with Castillo. Coffee farmers became suspicious of the large institution, and backlash against Castillo began.

“There were people that were distributing t-shirts that said ‘I Heart Caturra’ and ‘I Hate Castillo,’ and there was a push back,” said Peter. “I got a call from The New York Times once because the farmer that won the Cup of Excellence three or four years ago said at first that he was using Caturra and then revealed that he was using Castillo and there was an outcry with judges claiming that it could not possibly be Castillo because they knew what was good and what was not.”

Some people have started to examine this controversy and this question people have about Castillo. Michael Sheridan, one of this year’s Symposium speakers, was one of these people.

Michael works with coffee farmers in Colombia and Ecuador, and they were coming to coming to him asking what they should do–whether or not they should trust the FNC’s new coffee variety because they want to have access to the specialty market.

Through an unscientific–but detailed–project, Michael gathered coffee buyers together, and in a different instance, a group of Q graders, and they tasted these two different cultivars from the same farms. Although Michael will be sharing his results at Symposium, I can give you a sneak peek: Castillo performed very well.

During the US Coffee Championships in Long Beach a couple weeks ago, at least six or seven of the competitors started talking proudly about how they were using Castillo variety coffee. Oblivious to the controversy, they were just using the coffee that they thought was best.

Michael, along with the farmers that he works with, watched the live stream and were very excited about this. This is great news because this is a cultivar that was developed with the intention of being disease resistant, productive, and able to perform well in a cup.

“There was suspicion among foodies that you can’t do that. There was some intrinsic difference. There was some magic to antique coffee varieties that meat they were automatically disease susceptible, and something about their deliciousness was in being disease susceptible,” said Peter. “The reason that this is a story of redemption for plant breeder is that it is possible to do all of those things.”