Colombia’s Arc Over the Specialty Coffee Landscape (& Vice Versa)

IMG_6490By Timothy J. Castle

From the beginning, perhaps before the term “specialty coffee” was coined, the specialty coffee industry and Colombian producers have had a special relationship. Each adds value to the other’s coffees, and each pushes the other toward incremental quality improvements and additions to the monetary value of Colombian coffee and specialty coffee in general.

Specifically, from the time the “specialty coffee industry” became aware it was an industry (and Erna Knutsen first used the term) in the late 1970s, Colombian coffee producers had helped make the North American and European markets (and later various markets in Asia, especially Japan) aware that there was such a thing as a single-origin coffee (although no one was using that term either back then). Essentially, by promoting Colombian coffee (as the “Richest Kind”) to coffee drinkers, Colombian coffee producers were also communicating that there was such a thing as origin-specific coffees, and that there might be qualitative differences between them. This allowed coffee roasters to list Guatemalan coffee, for example, or, on the west coast, Sumatran coffee, as having special characteristics and offering their own unique coffee experiences.

Not that this was all new. A&P, my grandfather used to tell me, had in-store roasting shortly after the turn of the 20th century, and it was possible to ask one’s grocer for freshly roasted Guatemalan, or Javanese coffee (or even “Mocha,” whatever that may have been), either straight or blended.

With the advent of two world wars and the “industrialization” of coffee and the means to distribute it, single-origin coffees became less available, and coffee drinkers less aware of them. (Trains and trucks allowed for the delivery of freshly-roasted coffee over greater distances; world wars decreased the availability and placed lower priority on imported goods from exotic origins. The introduction of canned coffee also made it possible to distribute and stock coffee that would remain stable–if not totally delicious–over greta lengths of time.) It was primarily the promotion of the Colombian coffee that kept the market for single-origin coffees conceptually alive.

As the market for specialty coffee began to grow, specialty roasters began to explore the variety of Colombian coffees that might be available with the help of their importers. Those brokers and importers with longstanding experience were already aware that not all Colombian coffees were created equal, and that just as single origins offered different flavor profiles, so too did coffees from Bucaramanga, Cauca, Huila, Nariño, and Antioquia, to name a few prominent coffee-producing regions of Colombia. It became apparent to everyone in the “supply chain” (a relatively new term in the specialty coffee vocabulary) that a region-specific Colombian coffee could command more value among avid coffee drinkers if the promise of different, unique, and/or better flavor could be fulfilled. This phenomenon lead to a similar search in other producing countries, notably Brazil, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Indonesia.

Thus, the example of Colombia helped lead specialty coffee roasters and importers to search for better and more specifically “sourced” (another newer term) coffees.

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Along parallel lines, specialty roasters and importers began to travel to origin much more than previous cohorts of industry professionals, beginning in the late 1970s. Before that times, it was possible to find roasters and importers that had never traveled to origin. This was certainly not out of lack of diligence, but again a reflection of the changing economic, societal, and technological environment. Travel had become cheaper and safer; consequently a trip to Guatemala, for example (my first “origin visit”) became less forbidding and exotic. The length of trips decreased with increased speed and reliability of air travel. Communication while away also became cheaper as well, especially with the introduction and widespread use of mobile phones in the 1990s.

There was one area where Colombia did not, and really could not, lead the way, and that was single-estate coffees. It was not until only at the turn of the 21st century that the specialty coffee industry had reached enough of a critical mass in credibility, commercial clout, and market momentum to even justify discussion of single-estate coffees from Colombia. From other origins, where larger farms had the resources already in place to process their coffee to green, export-ready coffee in their own bags, this was not a problem. Estate coffees from origins with large established farms (such as Brazil and Guatemala) became available for roasters to offer. This is not to say that these coffees were not available before, but it was more the industry norm, even among many of the first specialty coffee roasters, not to identify where particular coffees came from. A good deal of the impetus for that concept came from such organizations as ANACAFE in Guatemala and the Brazilian Specialty Coffee Association.

It was not until coffee importers and roasters started visiting the coffee producing regions of Colombia in the early to mid 2000s that the feasibility of obtaining and offering single-estate coffees from Colombia became apparent. Very few farmers in Colombia process their coffee all the way to finished green coffee bagged for export, and the assistance of the farmer’s co-op or the private mill they were selling to was essential. Very few, if any, farmers, co-ops, mills, or exporters were even aware that such separation and delineation was possible or desirable. In this sense, it was the specialty industry’s turn to encourage Colombian farmers, millers, and exporters to catch up with the next phase of specialty coffee’s evolution. NGO’s, some with funding from USAID, that were charged with the mission of finding aletrnative sources of income for Colombian farmers in general, immediately realized that the opportunity for farmers to sell their coffee as “estate-grown” gave them the opportunity to achieve much higher margins (and thereby have a viable alternative to illicit crops). Money channeled through some of these organizations became available through some of these organizations became available to promote the single-estate model of marketing Colombian coffee.

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Simultaneous with this, Cup of Excellence, COE, began holding competitions and auctions in Colombia and so, too, did private exporters. It soon became apparent that Colombia was an ideal source of  small lots of single-estate coffees that gave, in turn, small specialty roasters the opportunity to sell coffees that they could tell their customers were truly exclusive to them. They could also market these coffees as ones with which they were working in partnership with the farmers they were buying from. The popularity of this concept gave the mills, exporters, and importers enough coffee lots to efficiently ship full containers, although the logistics of doing this proved to be much more complicated than the industry, as a whole, was accustomed to. For that reason, many participants have chosen not to focus on this model.

During the same period of time that the single-estate model of marketing Colombian coffee came into practice, many specialty roasters and importers began to understand that they could greatly increase the quality and consistency of their Colombian coffees by ensuring that either the mill or co-op cup each lot that went into the amalgamation of small lots that would become full container shipments. Previously, full lots of Colombian coffee would be assembled from deliveries by individual farmers who brought their coffee to receiving stations operated by their co-op or a private mill (there are sometimes middlemen in this process, but the end result is the same). Coffee would be delivered to receiving stations, and a sample of it would be sampled and graded, but not cupped. Based on the physical grading, the coffee would be assigned to at most two qualities, and the farmer would be paid a small premium if his or her coffee was determined to be the better quality. Keeping the lots separate, many of them sometimes five bags or less, and not blending them together before cupping, is an expensive alternative, but it greatly improves the quality and consistency of the final product. The delivery of just one bad lot, say one that is fermented or phenolic and may not be identified during the physical grading process, can ruin an entire 250 bag lot. This methodology often necessitated the installation of cupping facilities at co-ops and receiving stations that previously did not have them. It also catalyzed direct communication with importers and roasters in order for cuppers to understand exactly what style of coffee each roaster and/or importer was looking for.

All in all, the phenomena both of the single-estate lot and cupping each small lot to be blended into a full container shipment stimulated the development of greater expertise at a grassroots level throughout many coffee-producing areas in Colombia. This stimulated the development of many programs within Colombia to promote the production of better coffee on a more consistent basis. In Antioquia, during the recently completed term of Governor Sergio Fajardo, coffee camps for young farmers and other education programs for coffee farmers in general helped gain berths for Antioquia on the CEO’s top ten coffees in a recent nationwide contest, and have also engaged more young farmers to stay involved with their family’s farms as their parents retire. The average age of coffee farmers in Antioquia is now slightly lower than the national average, although it cannot yet be verified that the programs mentioned here are the direct cause of this difference. The efforts in Antioquia were judged to be successful enough that the former director of these programs has been hired to deploy similar initiatives on a nationwide basis in Colombia. Further, several roasters, such as Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, a large food service operator, and allied industry participants, notably Bunn Corporation, extended significant assistance to support the programs in Antioquia.

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The future of Colombia, as a viable (profitable and sustainable) coffee producing origin depends upon it achieving the highest possible premiums for its coffee, since due to its topography and climate, it will never be able to achieve the cost savings and efficiencies of the mass mechanization and production of countries such as Brazil, for example. (Not to diminish the quality of coffees that some Brazilian farmers have been able to achieve).

The success stimulated by the input of roasters and importers has once again led to a round of efforts has once again led to a round of efforts on the part of the coffee growers of Colombia and the organizations that support them, to increase not only the productivity and disease-resistance of the coffee tree varietals in Colombia, but to increase the quality as well. It has become apparent to the entire coffee industry in Colombia that the coffee in a container, or that produced by a small municipality, can only be as good as the coffee of the least competent farmer. At the same time, it is becoming very well understood, just as the coffee farmers have been telling the world through their umbrella organization, the FNC (Federación de Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia) for the past eighty-plus years, that the coffee of Colombia truly can be some of the world’s best.

Tim CastleFor 30+ years, Timothy J. Castle has sold green coffee and has been writing about coffee and tea. Castle co-authored The Great Coffee Book (Ten Speed Press, 1999) and wrote The Perfect Cup (Perseus Books, 1991). In 2003 Castle received the SCAA’s Distinguished Author Award and was the Association’s president in 1991.