The New Colombia: Specialty Coffee Driven by the People

Colombia is vast and I can easily admit that it’s one of my favorite places to visit in the Americas: for its beauty, its proud culture, and friendly people. La quiero mucho!

Although some distances may look short on a map, traveling East to West within Colombia usually means flying through Bogotá, which ends up taking a full day to get where you want to go. Upon landing from the international flight, sometimes additional flying is required, which can be through gusty mountain passes where you are at the mercy of the winds and rain storms. “Will this plane land?” Generally, proximity to the equator in the South, along with proximity to the Pacific coast in the West, combined with proximity to wet and warm lowlands in the East makes for incredibly different climates and temperatures. The hills and rocky mountains make for varied elevations, sun exposures and rainfall patterns. I have visited this vast and diverse country extensively during the last ten years and even more frequently than ever over the last 24 months.

This happens to be The Time when many new and interesting things are happening at this beloved coffee origin. The issue of drying coffee has been a particular source of concern for many years and while progress has been made, new techniques are being introduced constantly. Castillo: the varietal and the controversy, has been an integral part of what I, perhaps bluntly, refer to as the New Colombia emerging in the last half-decade or so, bringing the world’s second biggest (after Brazil) provider of Arabica back on track.

Carlos Arévalo at La Palma y El Tucan facility in Bucaramanga, Colombia. Elisa Maria Madriñan (co founder of La Palma y El Tucan) in the background.
Carlos Arévalo at La Palma y El Tucan facility in Bucaramanga, Colombia. Elisa Maria Madriñan (co founder of La Palma y El Tucan) in the background.

Not coincidently, maybe even symptomatically of the Castillo-and-Volume-focus, there is a new generation of coffee people in the country coming forward: farmers who, as well as a whole community of coffee professionals, evidently want to reach a growing specialty market outside the county’s borders. Just as much as this is a story of new trends in an old coffee country, it is also a story about a better-connected world and the empowerment of coffee farming people.

E-mail and social media apps are now on everybody’s smartphones, including the ones many coffee farmers carry with them in their pockets. This means that farmers are able to be in touch with the ‘market place’, and can be in direct contact with their (green) coffee buyers. The world has opened up, connecting both ends of the chain – along with everybody in-between. Your favorite suppliers are now bombarding their Instagram accounts with photos of the new crop and new developments at his beneficio. New times.

Omar Viveros brewing Chemex at his house in Pitalito, Huila. He is avialable on Instagram at @FINCAMIRAFLORES
Omar Viveros brewing Chemex at his house in Pitalito, Huila. He is avialable on Instagram at @FINCAMIRAFLORES

The coffees themselves trigger excitement for their quality and flavor attributes, yet the underlying currents for why things are happening in the first place—why things are changing, why things are diversifying and getting better—intrigues me just as much the coffee itself. We want to understand what is going on right now and support the people that are making the push.

For some funny and inexplicable reason, most coffee farmers I have met in my career have always seemed initially shy about joining for cupping, as though it is something that one inherently will not master. They seem to not want to risk feeling intimidated. That is of course not the case.

As a cupper and green coffee buyer this scenario can be a rather awkward position to be in: tasting and assessing a coffee in front of the farmer who is constantly studying your facial expression and looking for hints of appreciation, making it all the more difficult to explain the results when you have not had the same sensory experience as them. It can be devastating on a personal level.

Personally, I love it when we get to cup with farmers. It is such a great learning experience for everybody involved. The sharing of opinions can then happen in a much more fruitful way. Fortunately, a growing number of coffee producers are eagerly learning to cup and are thereby in a position to understand how and why we value their product.

Eider Perdomo Claros (far left) is always cupping his coffee with the Virmax-team when he submits at the Virmax warehouse in Pitalito, Huila. More than 80% of his production is 86+ pts.
Eider Perdomo Claros (far left) is always cupping his coffee with the Virmax-team when he submits at the Virmax warehouse in Pitalito, Huila. More than 80% of his production is 86+ pts.

As we all know, as calibrated as a group may be, a tasting experience is inherently subjective. Thus, having a chance to let a supplier understand what I prefer and what we look for is an important dimension of coffee buying. Then the next time around a farmer may understand what another customer of his prefers and may choose to prepare a different coffee to their liking.

Unless a farmer is tied to a buyer due to credits/loans, which commit them to sell their crop to the person or institution that granted it in the first place, they are free to sell to whomever they choose. The FNC is always the default buyer for any Colombian farmer. Such is Colombia’s coffee history and this is still the law. Yet it isn’t the only buyer, and with a growing demand for specialty coffee, other middlemen and buyers are setting up cupping facilities and logistical networks to get hold of the best lots.

By requesting not only a better quality, but simply a different product, one is subject to paying higher prices to the farmer. As obvious as paying higher may sound, this is where things sometimes get complicated.

What is the value for specialty coffee outside the FNC sphere? And when is it Specialty Coffee, by the way? Is the (specialty coffee) marketplace developed and sophisticated enough to establish a fair marketvalue for 86+ point lots? Castillo has a ‘certain reputation’; does Caturra always deserve a better price (to incentivize farmers to keep them)? How much higher is the value, then, for Bourbon, Typica and other varietals that are even more ‘endangered’?

This is the situation:

- The Castillo varietal is here, and it is here to stay. Can one disregard it then?

- At the same time, the Traditional Colombian Wet Processing of coffee cherries – as we know it - is scrutinized and analyzed. Simply put: It is being challenged. Big time!

It makes a whole lot of sense to see these things altogether.

Farmers are realizing that they will not get the best possible prices for their Castillo coffee, so they are seeking out ways to ‘build value’ into it. With this, they are reaching out to the marketplace with an altogether different product. The rhetoric is out there and invested people are talking about: “Enhancing the Quality”; “Adjusting the Flavor Profile”;Changing the Cup Character”; “Making it sweeter”.

At the same time green coffee buyers continue to travel, people interact, trends move. Before you know it, an Australian buyer has met a farmer and talked about his preference for sweetness and body, while a Russian buyer may have met and talked to a middleman and voiced his curiosity for fruity flavors (that he just tasted in a ‘new wave natural’ from El Salvador). This while a Japanese buyer may be keen to get hold of a little something that is made ‘only for him’: an experiment with fermentation-time, hopefully making the coffee a little more juicy than the other (Castillo) lots.

In my next article I will present some of the processing techniques that we’ve seen out there, mostly to the Castillo varietal. These approaches and processes are themselves ‘catching on’ and are being used to twist and tweak the flavors of Caturra, Tabi, and other varietals as well.

In the meantime you may enjoy listening to a great podcast: Ferment in Colombia with Leo by our good friend Tom Owens at Sweet Marias. It is an interview he conducted with Leonardo Henao in Colombia and is such a great conversation about this topic.

We are very pleased to announce that one of our own partners in Colombia, the knowledgeable and energetic Carlos Arévalo, a long time coffee consultant in the Americas, currently at the La Palma y El Tucan farm in Cundinamarca, will be presenting these topics in-depth at LCDC in Paris, January 25-27.

- Robert W