Leveling up in Colombia
It’s not so hard to get quality, traceable coffee from Colombia. What is more difficult is building trust, earning priority, and purchasing intentionally with impact in mind. This is slow work; the only way to level up is to partner up with those who are also putting in the time.
And so we align our purchasing to support partner programs, buy across the quality spectrum, encourage annual innovation, and act as early adopters in bringing new coffee communities to market. In the past, our focus has been with CENCOIC in Cauca, but this year our capacity has increased by a near-order of magnitude as we partner up with farmers’ collective CEDRO ALTO.
Cedro Alto is an established network for smallholders with particular strength in Huila, Tolima, and Nariño. We’re expecting a dozen or so micro-lots from these groups (including a Colombian natural – which we don’t see every day). Anything over 85.5 – 86 that doesn’t make the micro-lot grade will be used to build micro-regional blends specific to each of Cedro Alto’s groups.
Read on for more on CEDRO ALTO, CENCOIC, and what they have in store for you.
While 2019 coffee production crested 13m bags and outpaced many estimates, Colombia is not yet back to pre-roya levels and the national focus remains on increasing production. You can see national policies play in the types of varietals distributed (Colombia, Castillo, Tabi), how they are spaced (tightly; 6k-8k/hectare), how they are washed (.8 – 1 L of water / KG), dried (quickly, and only to 12%), and how they are sold (only Excelso quality washed can be sold as ‘Cafes de Colombia’).
At the cooperative level, we find cuppers who know their coffees and talk in terms of score. Calibrating with quality teams allows us to identify communities of interest and dial-in on flavor profiles.
At CENCOIC, this team is headed by Lucia, Rodrigo, and Henry – all in their young to mid-twenties and all trained by a joint-program offered by USAID and the Coffee Quality Institute.
At CEDRO ALTO this is Karl Wienhold, a researcher, cupper, and farmer advocate based out of Pereira, Colombia.
Working with these teams brings us a more curated selection of offers this year than in season’s past when we took more of a shotgun approach, targeting top profiles with a buckshot of sample requests. Once you know what you are looking for it’s easier to get what you want. Early samples indicate that this focus is paying off in the form of more intentional lots, unique flavors, and distinct profiles.
In the South-West (Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Nariño)
|May – June||July – Sept||Aug – Oct|
In the South-Center (Huila, Tolima)
Weather conditions were good, but harvest volumes came on early, flattened out by peak, and are expected to feed a long-tail of collections through September. This is due to farmers rushing first-pickings to take advantage of a high price bubble which filled commercial contracts, but robbed red-ripes from peak harvest. Overall, this will lead to fewer micro-lots this year.
|June – Nov*||July – Aug||Aug – Sept|
In Huila, the harvest started out dry with rains coming on mid-harvest. This makes it more difficult to dry, but is a normal irritation to farmers at this point in the season. It’s also becoming more normal for the fly crop to butt directly into the main crop, leading to steady harvesting from June through November. Each farm will lull for a few weeks within this six-month harvest, but coffee continues to flow. This is a challenge for the practice of selective harvesting and makes a marathon out of the vigilance involved in lot separation/quality control.
In Tolima, there is a more defined separation between main and fly crop. Sometimes they even swap spots. For example, this year’s main crop has been light, leading to a bumper fly crop this year. As such the fly crop (Oct-Nov) will produce ~ 50% of the region’s volume, with the main crop (April – June) coming in at only 50%.
*micro-climates within Western Huila can create a +/- 6 week difference in timing.
Quality: micro-lots first, micro-regionals second
Targeting micro-lots (87+, unique profiles) with 86+ put into micro-regional blends.
The devaluation of the Colombian Peso led to a price spike in March/April, which in turn led to early picking right before quarantine hit most of Colombia. In April – May there were no specialty buyers–due to full warehouses, seasonality, quarantine, and uncertainty in the future of specialty.
This is good for those of us in specialty.
Specialty producers have put their focus to the June – July harvest, presenting us with a bevy of tasty options. Each package we receive is full of pent-up potential. We expect that both micro-regional and micro-lot categories will benefit from having less competition.
Internal prices are up, 25c or more over this time last year. This, even while NYBOT is down to unsustainably low levels. The result is increased competition for cheaper lots, but those who already pay higher prices are seeing these premiums act as a buffer. In fact, the stronger domestic market gives partners legitimate outlets for everything but their best lots, giving us the ability to be even more selective.
As such, we are focusing on top-tier micro-lots, with those that come close going into micro-regional blends. This approach would not be possible if we did not have capable cuppers with outstanding organizational skills there to help in the planning, separation, and evaluation.
Towards this end, we have the most capable of partners in CENCOIC, and in CEDRO ALTO. CENCOIC has cultivated a team of young cuppers with whom we’ve calibrated. CEDRO ALTO is a tight team that identifies high-potential producers within strong associations who may not otherwise be able to focus on the maximum potential in specialty.
- Improve CENCOIC lot separation for flagship CATAME lot; narrow traceability and improve cup score.
- Work with Cedro Alto to separate out marketable micro-lots and blend the rest into traceable, organic 86+ pt micro-regional lots.
- Improve speed on sample approvals to help partners secure lots at fist-payment higher prices; improve communication and traceability surrounding second payments.
- Support experimentation and rewards efforts with premiums.
Micro-lots will continue to be separated out as they come in. Profiles for micro-regional coffees will be updated as they are built up towards the total potential bag count. With so many great coffees already in and more coming daily, it’s a great time to talk to your rep. Let us know what you are looking for, and we will keep you in mind as offers take shape.
While we face our challenges at home our hearts go out to those in Colombia who are persevering through their own series of challenges – all of which have only been magnified by Covid and quarantine. Still, we are looking forward to our strongest import from Colombia yet; our first container could leave by the end of July or early August, with others to follow through to the end of September.
We have found a seemingly perfect partner in Cedro Alto. Their standards for sustainability and traceability challenge us to do better in Colombia.
Their approach to capacity building, development with dignity, and earned income through incredible qualities is consistent with the way we aspire to do business.
We look forward to representing the Cedro Alto network of communities and to sharing with you the fruits of their labor. We hope you enjoyed this sneak peek!