It’s been four years and eight harvests since we began buying coffee from the Guzman brothers, and maintaining a healthy coffee buying relationship is much like maintaining a good relationship. It requires strong communication and a deep understanding of your partners’ needs. I visited the Guzmans this past week knowing that it was important for all of us to talk openly, discuss what’s working, share our goals and file our grievances.
We have a variable fixed price contract with the Guzmans. Before you scream, “wait a minute, how can something fixed be variable?” let me explain. It is fixed in that it doesn’t fluctuate with the ups and downs of the commodity market, but is variable in that the higher a lot of coffee from each of the brothers scores, the higher the price we’ll pay for that specific lot. The coffee we receive in Calgary is a blend of the many individual lots from each of the brothers’ day lots during one harvest, so the final price we pay is also a blend.
In this model, the Guzmans are placing a great deal of trust in the scores we give each lot. Specifically, they’re placing trust in our buying partner on the ground, Virmax Colombia, whose Quality Analyst cups every Guzman delivery. We actually only cup a subset of them (there could be up to 60 deliveries in one harvest). If the Guzmans felt that their coffee should score more (and therefore be paid more), then the model breaks down. In recent times, although they were not feeling that their scores were intentionally being brought down, they were frustrated and confused as they had implemented some major improvements to their farm and processing methods but the scores hadn’t been increasing as high as they had hoped. I can understand this as it can be deflating to see limited results from hard work. From my perspective, I’ve also been somewhat frustrated that the coffee had not reached its full potential. When I first met Audenar, I encouraged him to learn how to cup and score his coffee, so that he can provide himself with feedback. Although he didn’t really take to cupping at the start, over the past two years he has been taking it seriously and has become a competent cupper. I spent my first day cupping nearly 35 samples of Guzman coffee with him, and we were both happy to see that I was scoring his coffees just slightly higher than he was.
Although the Guzmans’ coffee is delicious and has been one of my favourite coffees over the years, I have seen only glimpses of its incredible potential to be extraordinary. The rest of the coffee has been really solid, super sweet and balanced. I would be happy to pay the higher prices rewarded to the super high scores if it meant the coffee as a whole reached that incredible potential.
We discussed all of this at length, and tried to get to the bottom of the reason why their coffee is only very solid and balanced but not earth shatteringly amazing. Their farms are in very good shape. They have mostly caturra and typica varieties, which are known to produce great cup quality. Their picking seems very good. They have strong processes at the fermentation stage to ensure a clean and efficient fermentation. Their drying is exemplary and arguably one of the best in the whole country. So, what gives? What can they improve or modify? One of Abelardo’s (the oldest brother) biggest complaints was that sometimes he does everything the same to two lots of coffee from the same part of the farm and one scores 87.5 points and the next one 86 points, resulting in a price difference for him. But when I asked him some detailed questions, it became clear that his definition of “the same” was a bit too broad. Questions like, how ripe was the picking? Did you measure sugar content using a Brix meter? How warm was it during the fermentation process? Cold weather, for example, will slow down the rate of fermentation.
This discussion led to the brothers sharing with me that they have done some informal fermentation testing (varying the number of hours) with very encouraging results. For instance, I scored one of Audenar’s experimental lots 88 points during my visit. When I started to think about this, I became convinced that if the fermentation process was optimized in a controlled way, it could add some spark and liveliness to the cup quality, and increase its score.
With this in mind, Audenar and I spent the next morning creating a detailed and extensive experiment. Its aim was to find his optimal fermentation point, from a cup quality perspective, with the end goal of increasing the scores and therefore rewarding him with a higher price. Our plan was to conduct a series of experiments where Audenar will record the concentration of sugars for a specific pick, then record ambient and fermentation tank temperatures every two hours. He will then begin to take small samples every two hours after 24 hours and until 48 hours, wash each sample and dry it separately. The experiment will be repeated 10-12 times. Audenar and I will then cup all the samples to see if we can find a correlation between cup quality and fermentation time for a given condition (sugar concentration and ambient temperature). In doing this, we want to help Audenar find a repeatable fermentation process so that at the time of fermentation, he can measure the concentration of sugars and the ambient temperature, then look up in a table (created as a result of the experiments) how many hours to ferment for.
I truly think the future of the exemplary coffee farmer lies in using a bit of technology, along with some tradition and know-how, to better understand his/her process and maximize the coffee’s potential. Even better yet, maybe manipulate the coffee’s profile to suit the specific tastes and preferences of the buyer.
We will be conducting the experiments in the coming months with the hopes of building data in time for the May-June 2015 harvest. Depending on the outcome of the experiments, we could also run a similar set at Abelardo and Alirio’s farms, since there’s no “one-size-fits-all” formula for fermentation.
In the end, I felt very good about the visit, the time we spent together and the upcoming experiments. We’re all after the same thing, just from different angles: improve the quality of the coffee. If the Guzmans can achieve this, then they’ll delight in a higher price, and we’ll be delighted to drink deliciousness.