Why are more great coffees coming from Colombia?
Why are more great coffees coming from Colombia?
SUNDAY, 21 MARCH 2021
AUTHOR: MAXWELL COLONNA-DASHWOOD
READ TIME: 5:36 MINUTES
Each year we sample roughly a thousand coffees. Some of these are new harvest samples of coffee we have bought before but many are new samples from new lots being produced. We utilise a network to try and get hold of the most interesting and spectacular coffee each year.
Over time you pick up on trends. For example, suddenly there are “new” origins or “revived” origins popping up on the cupping table, new processes, cultivars, and so on.
A trend we have noticed in the past couple of years, at least for us, is that more and more of the coffee we select across our ranges are coming from Colombia. Around 10 years ago I would have summarised speciality Colombian coffee offerings as washed Caturra and Castillo lots. The landscape with its microclimates combined with high-quality processing always meant lots of high-quality. There was differentiation from region to region, but all within the washed process and a few cultivars.
Now we see a growing range of exotic cultivars and experimental processing methods, but it's not just the variety, what really stands out is the quality. We could easily select coffees from Colombia for all of our genres and special releases.
The question we had was why? What’s behind this?
We reached out to different partners to see what they thought. This ability to quickly communicate and access the people behind the coffees we are drinking appears to be one of the reasons for the change. The explosion of variety, high-scoring coffees, and experimentation is described by one farming collective as a Colombian Coffee Revolution.
I chatted to Catalina and her team, who run Cafelumbus, a young boutique Colombian exporting company started from a family with generations of coffee growers. A theme was clear; there is a speciality coffee movement focusing on diversification that is moving away from the past 20-30 years of coffee growing norms in Colombia.
The FNC (National Federation of Coffee Growers) founded in 1927 has been the main influencer on coffee production approaches across Colombia for a long time. Encouraging and focusing on the commercial opportunity of growing clean washed Caturra and Castillo for a mainstream international market. The Colombian market is in many ways uniquely liquid (the ability to easily trade), whereby coffee can be harvested and sold to a purchaser in town that same day.
There are strengths to the systems and marketplace, but it has also meant discouragement of variety and experimentation. The team explained how previously there was little appetite for experimentation. They cited the risk of the crop going wrong, as well as the lack of access to buyers and sales opportunities for anything but the typical Colombian coffee.
It is important to note that the existing infrastructure that can be cited as hindering certain things, is also part of what has put the producers in a good place to now experiment.
I met a farmer/exporter called Herbert just before Coronavirus hit in January 2020 at the Danish coffee festival where I was demonstrating Peak Water. Herbert runs a small export company from a collection of Colombian farms. He travels and connects with quality-driven importers and roasters around the world. In Denmark, he works with La Cabra, which is where the talk was held. We didn’t just drink coffee, we shared exceptional wine and a cup of his experimental liquor made from Guava in Colombia. It was delicious.
Herbert explains how Colombia is set up for boutique production with many farms having their own unique approach thanks to education and knowledge around processing. The focus around high-quality washed coffee by the FNC and exporters means that a strong base for quality production already exists.
A lot more has also changed, as recently as the past 5 years. The advent of high-quality internet across Colombia and increased international travel has had a big impact, along with increased international coffee visitors from different markets. Perhaps more importantly is the international travel out of the country by speciality focused coffee producers and exporters, allowing them to see the different coffee trends and appetites worldwide. Cat was explaining how in seeing the interest in different approaches and learning that the risk was not as great as they had perceived within the FNC narrative, there was a clear market with higher earning based on quality and flavour profiles.
Combine this information sharing with an entrepreneurial and competitive culture and an Inca structure that can support boutique approaches and it makes sense that Colombia is a special coffee producing country.
CATA is another boutique exporter whose founder (also called Cat) spent time working as a barista in Rosslyn cafe in London. She then went back to Colombia seeking to connect small producer micro-lots with speciality roasters back in the U.K. Cat served our coffee at Rosslyn and we were thrilled to then work with her on some exceptional pink bourbon micro-lots through her relationships in Colombia.
In all these cases the connection between the growing, roasting, and drinking of the coffee is more integrated than ever before. Colombian coffee growers and exporters are seeking out their partners and roasters just as much as roasters and importers are seeking them out. We can discuss speciality coffee together, undertaking collaborative experiments over WhatsApp and through Instagram, as well as in person.
The experimentation at a farm level requires resource, investment, and time, much like R&D does in any business and it is the curious and inventive producing approaches that shine through. With the age of information sharing and travel, curious and passionate producers can visit different countries, learn about different technologies and approaches, and then set about trialing these techniques in small plots on the farms. Processing experiments can be quite quick but trialing new cultivars takes time to plant, grow, yield and review. It feels like this is only the beginning of the vast potential for speciality coffee in Colombia.
There are of course unknown details and variables. Has Gesha in Colombia been more successful than the Costa Rican lots because of processing and agronomy techniques or because of less controllable factors like microbes and natural yeast in the growing area? Or is it because the Gesha Seeds making their way around Colombian farms are a better mutation of the variety?
Of course, other coffee-producing nations are experimental and produce exceptional results. But there is something special about the Colombian coffee landscape at the moment and the coffees we are tasting.
If you have noticed more of our coffees coming from Colombia at Colonna, now you know why!