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Reflections on Coffee in Colombia

July 04, 2011

Reflections on Coffee in Colombia

I find myself with some extra time in Bogota, so I thought I would try to articulate some of my present observations on coffee production here in Colombia.

While I tried my best to make this post readable by all audiences, in the end, its content is considerably more advanced than our usual blog entries, as I wanted to properly present the complexity of the situation in Colombia.
I have visited several other producing countries on buying trips, but this is my first time in Colombia.  Coming here, all I really knew was the country can produce some great coffees but there are many challenges due to its weather and due to the present commodity coffee price situation.

Before delving in, I should mention that my observations are based on farm visits and discussions with about 70 farmers in Huila.  I am very grateful to have Spanish as my native tongue, as it afforded me the opportunity to engage producers at a deeper level.  Although my sample space is relatively small, I spoke to a number of other buyers and exporters who agreed that some of my observations apply to the rest of the country.  In addition, I want to add that most of the issues that I discuss in this post are present, to some degree, in every coffee producing country.

The following covers a set of challenges I observed in Colombia, and towards the end of the post, I reflect on what we are attempting to do to overcome these challenges.

PRODUCTION
Colombia is one of the largest coffee producers in the world (3rd in coffee, 2nd in Arabica coffee), and as such, there is a strong culture of high production and yield.  Most of the producers I spoke to have a strong background in agriculture and the majority of their resources (from the Federacion Nacional de Cafe – FNC) are focused on agriculture and yield.  As a result, most of our conversations revolved around their farm, the age of their trees, the new varietals being planted (more on this below) and their tree density.  These are all production-centric topics, and while they are (and should be) at the forefront of the farmers’ minds, they do not, on their own, create any means of improving the quality of their coffee.

I want to elaborate a bit on the FNC, and its role and impact on Colombian coffee.  The FNC is a strong organization with a great deal of influence over producers.  From what I learned, the FNC has invested a great deal of resources in helping producers better understand agriculture, soil management, certifications and yield.  The FNC stands to gain 6¢ per lb of exported coffee, regardless of quality.  While the FNC plays an invaluable role in educating producers on the agricultural and production part of the farm, there is little evidence of quality-based education.  For instance, none of the farmers I visited felt that they have received training on how their harvest and processing precision affects the quality of the coffee.  This lack of focus on quality results in a great deal of potential being lost in poor harvesting and processing practices.

Going back to the focus on production, in a number of my farm visits in Huila, I saw some of the highest densely planted coffee farms I have ever seen.  I am used to seeing densities of 2000-3000 trees/hectare and from most of the reading I have done on planting, it is recommended to have a minimum tree spacing of 1.5m, which depending on the planting pattern could result in densities of up to 4000 trees per hectare (of course all of these recommendations are averages based on specific varieties, soil and climatic conditions).  In many of the farms that I visited in Huila, I saw densities of 6000 trees per hectare, which is more than double what I have seen from many other countries. A byproduct of such high density planting is the lack of presence of other plant-life.  This man-made monoculture has strong implications on soil sustainability and is creating a heavy reliance on synthetic fertilizers.

COFFEE LEAF RUST (ROYA) AND CASTILLO
Over the past three years, Colombian coffee plantations have been heavily affected by a fungus called Coffee Leaf Rust (Roya in Spanish).  This fungus quickly infiltrates the coffee plant and within a few months, can render the tree unproductive and all-but dead.  Most farmers with elevations 1500m-1700m have seen a considerable portion of the production (15%-80%) affected by roya, while farms at elevations above 1700m have been more sheltered from roya (15%-30%), (note that elevation is not the only factor that affects roya).  This loss in production has made many growers reconsider whether they want to remain exposed to this fungus and continue using the caturra variety or re-plant with rust-resistant varietals such as the Colombia variety or the newly introduced Castillo variety, both of which are believed by many (including myself) to have an inferior cup profile (disclaimer: I have not cupped enough Castillo and Colombia to conclusively state that they are inferior, but based on a number of cuppings, they do appear to show diminished cup quality).

This new wave of castillo planting will likely result in a more generic cup profile, thus creating a new challenge for green coffee buyers: how to properly incentivize producers in Colombia to resist the temptation of planting castillo.  The math is simple, if a farmer can risk an average of 30% of their crop to roya, then the premium we would have to offer as buyers is at least a 30% price increase.  At today’s prices, a farmer can sell their coffee to a cooperative for approximately $2.50/lb, so 30% additional would be an additional $0.75/lb for a total price of $3.25/lb.  This price is still manageable for us to pay as a premium and incentive to continue to plant caturra (by the way, we are often paying more than this), but if the price of coffee continues to climb, we will be in a position where we cannot pay 30% higher.  For instance, if the price were to go up to $4/lb, then we would have to pay a $1.20/lb premium, which would be a difficult amount to justify.  On the other hand, if the price of coffee were to drop to $2.00, then we could easily pay a 30% premium to the grower for their higher quality varieties.  Finally, simply having a preferred variety of coffee does not guarantee that the farmer will produce high quality coffee, so the premium would still be based on the quality of the coffee delivered by the farmer.

The conclusion is that we cannot tell a producer to plant one variety or another, all we can do is impart our opinion that replacing their caturra with castillo is not in the best interest of producing high quality coffee, and if and when prices drop, then those producers committed to quality will be able to sustain themselves through the sale of high quality coffee, from which they will be able to obtain price premiums.

HARVESTING
Colombia is the only country in the world that produces coffee year round (Kenya is an exception, other countries may also but in negligible quantities).  While this presents certain logistical challenges (i.e. needing to store coffee in Colombia until sufficient qualities are built up), the main issue that arises from year-round production is extremely uneven ripening of the coffee cherries on trees.  This unevenness in ripening poses a serious challenge for picking only ripe coffee cherries.  Picking is at the heart of quality and although there is an enormous amount of agricultural potential in Colombia (despite the aforementioned challenges), a great deal of this potential is being lost in the picking process (i.e. by picking too many under-ripe and over-ripe coffee cherries).  From many of the conversations I had with growers, I sense there has been so much focus on agriculture and production that there has been little emphasis on picking ripe coffee cherries.  To make things worse, the current coffee prices and the FNC Purchase Guarantee create a situation wherein cooperatives purchase poorly harvested coffee for nearly the same price as well processed coffee.  Please note that I am not saying that there is only poor quality coffee in cooperatives, this is not the case, but it is a certainty that the vast majority of the coffee that goes through the cooperatives is purchased with little regard to harvest quality.

Harvesting all year round has one further implication on quality.  In most countries, the harvest lasts 3-5 months, so the labour force is concentrated for that period of time.  In a year-round harvest, there are times where it is more difficult to find and/or justify a labour force.  This forces many growers to extend the length of time between pickings, which results in coffee cherries becoming over-ripe.  This, coupled with rain, causes some of the over-ripe fruits to fall to the ground.  Over-ripe cherries on and off the tree attract a pest called broca (coffee berry borer).  Coffee in most of the world is susceptible to this tiny beetle, which attacks very ripe coffee cherries and lays eggs (larvae) inside of it.  This not only hampers the bean’s development, it has a severe implication on quality.  For a great read on broca, please visit http://www.jimseven.com/2011/03/02/coffee-berry-borer-global-climate-change/.  I am not in a position to comment on whether broca is worse in Colombia than it is in other countries, but from what I saw it is a considerable problem for most Colombian growers.

PROCESSING
This is perhaps the topic that most surprised me.  Colombia is very unique in that almost every single grower processes their own coffee at their farm.  To clarify, the processing involves taking the harvested fruit and removing its skin, fermenting it to facilitate the removal of the mucilage and drying the resulting bean (in parchment) to a certain moisture content.  In most coffee growing countries, the majority of farmers do not process their own crop; they simply sell their harvested fruit to a cooperative or private mill.

Most of the training and education provided by the FNC is on the agricultural side and from my experiences many of the farmers do not have any formal training on processing.  The processing methods used by most farmers are based on tradition and are purely functional with little or no appreciation for the implication that the processing of their coffee has on the resulting quality.  I saw a number of farmers who were processing their coffee in ways that greatly reduced the quality of their coffee.  I am not blaming farmers or the FNC for this lack of knowledge, after all, Colombia has over 500,000 coffee farmers, and so disseminating this type of information is not easy.

Without getting technical, there are simple ways that most farmers could improve their processing without requiring heavy infrastructure investments.  It’s a matter of finding farmers who are interested in learning and spending the time to change their processing practices and introduce further rigour into their various processing steps.

DRYING
This is another major topic for Colombian coffee.  Once the skin and mucilage is removed, the bean (along with its surrounding parchment) must be dried to a sufficient moisture level so that the bean has no risk of becoming moldy in transit.  This moisture level is traditionally between 10-12%.  Drying in Colombia has two main challenges: the actual drying, and storage of dried coffee.

Drying presents an interesting dilemma for the average producer.  On one hand, the producer will want to dry the coffee as quickly as possible he/she can sell it to the buyer (cooperative, exporter, roaster) and get paid.  On the other hand, buyers like us want the producer to take their time and dry the coffee slower.   Why is slower better?

Some background first: most small producers sun dry their coffee in covered drying patios (called parabolic driers).  If the farmer closes off all the sides to the parabolic dryers and there is a good amount of sunlight, then the coffee can dry in as little as a few days, which again is advantageous to the grower from a cash flow perspective.  From a quality perspective, the story is quite different.

The drying of coffee in parchment works from the outside in: first the water dries off the surface of the parchment, then the moisture of the bean (inside the parchment) begins to dry from the outside in.  If the coffee is dried quickly (i.e. 4-5 days) then there is a greater chance that the inside of the bean (the part with the most moisture) is much more moist than the outside of the bean, creating a wide moisture gradient from the inside to the outside of the bean.  This gradient may go unnoticed by the grower (and even moisture meters) but in the course of the few days post drying, the moisture of those beans will equalize and the result may mean that the redistributed moisture is now not 11-12% but 12-13%, which means that the coffee is not moisture stable.  This can lead to degradation of quality during transport or accelerated aging upon arrival.  In order to avoid drying too quickly, a farmer will have to manage the airflow and temperature inside his/her parabolic dryer in order to achieve drying times of 7 days at minimum.

Most coffee growing countries enjoy a single harvest per year, where the weather during the harvest is predictably dry.  Correspondingly, the storage humidity for dry coffee tends to be very good (60%).   Although Colombia does have a drier season, its multiple harvests and/or year-round harvests means that a great deal of coffee is harvested (and dried) during rainier periods, which Colombian growers combat by having covered drying facilities.  Although it is debatable whether rainier weather is bad for drying (many argue that slower drying is better and I tend to agree), it is certain that high moisture levels are prejudicial to the storage of coffee.  Although the drying of coffee at the farm level still requires a great deal of rigour, the problem of dried coffee storage at high humidity is yet another challenge that is exacerbated in Colombia.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
You may think that given everything I have written so far I am ready to move on and give up on Colombian coffee but that’s not going to happen.  Colombia, specifically the province of Huila, has some of the most diverse and stunning terrain I have ever seen.  Giving up on this region would be nothing short of tragic.  So, how do we (by “we” I mean, us buyers, roasters, consumers and producers) overcome all these massive challenges?  In my opinion, the answer is to establish long-term relationships with individual producers built on quality, transparency and trust.

So, the first step for us has been to taste hundreds of coffees (literally) from Huila and to try to identify producers that show the potential to create quality (based on taste).  When I visited a number of these producers and we got to know each other; I told them about us, what we’re trying to accomplish, who we are, who our customers are.  Then they told me about themselves – their story, their farm, their harvest, their processing and their goals.  When I speak to a producer, I am looking for signs that this producer is truly interested in producing quality (many are, but are not sure how to achieve it), this producer is passionate about his/her product and that he/she has the ambition to be better.  If the farmer has great agricultural and intellectual potential, then there could be a great fit to try to work together long-term.

The goal is to find a true partner in a producer.  One who appreciates how their actions on the farm affect the quality of their coffee.  In return, our commitment is to taste their coffees, give them feedback on their production, pay them well for their efforts and work with them to understand their challenges in producing better quality.  If the farm has great agricultural potential, then most of the time, the challenges are infrastructure based (processing equipment, processing facilities, drying facilities, access…) and our goal is to be able to contribute towards overcoming these challenges and helping the grower in producing larger amounts of high quality coffee.  This is an important point since even established farms that are known for their exemplary coffee are known to produce a significant percentage of “commercial grade” coffee.

Many of my peers are lamenting the fact that the world’s supply of high quality coffee is shrinking.  While I share their sentiments I also see an incredible amount of high quality coffee being wasted away by a lack of education in harvesting and processing, so this gives me a great deal of hope and motivation.  Based on some educated math, I believe that approximately 0.19% of Colombia’s coffee is currently being exported as the type of coffee that we call quality, which means that the other 99.81% of the coffee is not what we call “quality”!  This figure gives me hope.  Over the past couple of years, I have had the pleasure of meeting like minded coffee roasters, buyers, and exporters who are as committed as we are in, not only finding quality coffee, but also helping produce more good quality coffee.  With their help, I know we can build on the 0.14%.  The potential is here.  It’s up to us.

- Sebastian


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