Colombia 2015 - The Coffee Collective
Day # 1
It’s the 4th year we’re in Colombia. In the past 3 years we have been working directly with El Desarollo – an association that consist of approximately 160 farmers. The majority of coffee we have bought from El Desarollo in the past has been a mixture of coffee blended from a couple of different farmers within that association. Over the years we have build up a good relation with the people of El Desarollo, and in particular gotten to know some individual farmers of the association that are very dedicated to producing high quality. Building on these experiences and relations we this year wanted to make contracts directly with a few farmers.
Casper Engel, Peter Dupont and myself(Peter Ebdrup) are in Colombia. We’ve spent the first day in Bogotá cupping at the Caravella office. We cupped three big tables; one from the El Desarollo association and two mixed tables, showcasing the other coffee-growing regions in Colombia. The next couple of days will be spent in Huila near Gigante, visiting the different farmers of El Desarollo.
Day # 2
After arriving at Neiva last night, we woke up early this morning and made the drive to Gigante to appear on the local radio. It’s a short program, every Tuesday at 08.00 am, arranged by Caravella and aims to educate and inform the local farmers. We were there to give the buyer’s perspective.
At around 09.00 am we headed up the eastern mountain range to meet the two farmers we had arranged to visit today.
The first farm was Las Delicias owned and run by Mr. Duber Rojas and his family. They have around 4,5 hectare land on which 3,5 hectare is covered by coffee. With an annual production of only 3500 kg of parchment, it’s not the biggest farm, but you can tell that a lot of care and effort is being put into every one of the 4,5 Ha. Besides drying his washed coffees on raised and shaded beds, he also floats the cherries, before pulping them, to remove unripes and defects – a practice not commonly seen in Colombia.
The next stop was the farm of Mr. Edilfonso Yara. Like Mr. Rojas he grows the varieties caturra, typica and colombia and is able to pick all year round, due to the climate. This year though, he has had some trouble hiring pickers because the construction of a new dam has pulled a lot of workers out of the fields. This has unfortunately put a strain on his production, which has had an effect on his cupping score. He expects things to go back to normal now that the dam is finished, and judging from his practices and the quality of the previous years, we have no doubt his scores will go back up. It’s a good example though, that it doesn’t take much to change the outcome of a harvest. Producers have to put a lot of effort into every part of production in order to secure the quality, that we experience in our business everyday – and it’s definitely something to be admired and appreciated.
On both our visits today we negotiated and signed quality defined fixed-price contracts with the farmers. The quality defined fixed-price contract basically secures both us and the farmer a set price for his highest quality of coffee the next six months, which creates stability and hopefully can be a good platform for long lasting relationships. It also has a defined price and quality relation that shows how better quality will lead to better prices for the producer.
Day # 3
Our first visit of the day was to the farm El Jardin and it’s owners Jhon Freddy Anacona and his wife Milena.
Arriving at the farm we were amazed by the look and feel of the place, with its amazing view and beautiful gardens – quite stunning to behold. When mentioning the way the farm looks it’s not to paint some romantic picture about three Scandinavian guys visiting an exotic country to discover the perfect bean. I mention it because it’s a good indicator of what types of people the owners are. I like to think that when you walk into a restaurant or a coffee shop for that matter, the way the place is set up, how clean or organized it is, you really get a glimpse of how the people running it go about their business. The level of care they put into their place is more often than not, representative of the amount of attentiveness they show their product. In my opinion, you have to be good at all aspects of your job to deliver great products and as mentioned in the above, that is definitely the case with El Jardín. Everything was neatly organized and clean to a level that is definitely worthy of mentioning.
On top of all this their produce was among our favorites on the cupping table.
El Jardin is completely family run and owned. All of their picking and processing is done internally without any paid outside help. Through keeping such practices, they bypass the problems that are occurring with the lack of picking labor and this insures that they can keep production running steadily.
The way they process also requires a collective family effort. They have pretty much the same post harvest process as the other farms we visited on this trip. They pulp, ferment, wash and then pre-dry on shaded, raised beds before moving the parchment to casa heldas (a covered patio). Like Mr. Rojas, they also float their cherries to get rid of defects. One notable difference was that they use a wet fermentation process instead of a traditional dry fermentation. This requires the pulped beans to be turned every hour or so, which is a lot of extra attention and care. Whether the wet fermentation is better than the dry is still uncertain. Yesterday, however, when we visited Edilfonso Yara he told us he had done both and it didn’t have an effect on the overall cupping score. How much can be generalized from this is difficult to tell. After a very interesting morning, at the Anacona family’s home, we headed down to a lower altitude to visit Jaime Casallas and his family at the farm El Prado.
We have had Mr. Casallas’ coffee as micro lots a couple of times over the last two years and have been very pleased with the level of quality and flavor. For me these opportunities to meet with the producers are really exciting as you get to see what goes on behind the curtain.
As I mentioned, the farm is sitting at a significantly lower altitude. The other farms are located around 1700-1750 masl., but El Prado is closer to 1500 masl., which can be felt in temperature, but also seen in the yield. Where the other farms produce around a 1000kgs of parchment per hectare, Casallas’ farm produce twice that. The farm has around 4,5 hectares of coffee production, that yields close to 9000kgs of parchment a year. This of course makes a profound effect on the means they have at their disposal. They have recently invested in a new processing facility, where the washing and fermentation is kept indoors, behind brick walls. It makes good sense to keep those processes inside due to the much higher temperature at that altitude and you could definitely feel that it was much cooler in there – whether or not that makes a big difference in the end, is unfortunately uncertain, but the fact that they have taken that in to consideration, just further highlights the level of dedication these farmers have to insuring a high quality product. Like yesterday, we negotiated and signed quality defined fixed-price contracts with both the farmers we visited – so, in the words of Mr. Ice Cube, today was a good day.
Now we’re back and I think a little bit of reflection is called for. Looking at the days we’ve spent in Colombia, there are three things that really struck me and I would like to put a little more emphasize on those.
#1 – The lack in labor.
Throughout our visit we kept hearing about the same problem. They have a very hard time finding people they can hire to help them harvest their crop and furthermore finding people who have experience with the craft of picking high quality coffee. In our everyday `free-thinking, free-flowing, free-market, liberal minds´, we would think that this is a positive development. A higher demand for labor will create a higher price for labor/ wage, which leads to an increased labor force, due to the promise of higher profits, and the wheel turns. The market is stabilized and as the economy grows this will occur again and again in a natural frequency. Except it doesn’t really work, when the market on which this development is based, has experienced a negative growth since the 60’s, as the international coffee market has, and, taking inflation into consideration, is now traded at a fourth of the value it had then. Which leads me to the next interesting topic…
#2 – The uncertainty of payment.
As I previously mentioned we encountered `the lack in labor´ several places throughout our visits, but none more so than at Edilfonso Yara. His problem with labor had led him in to a problem with quality. The simplified answer to this problem would be to pay a higher wage to the pickers. We asked Edilfonso about this and what he said really made a lot of sense. He said that he would like to pay his pickers more and even pay them per day instead of per kilogram, but because he never knows what he will be able to earn on a harvest, it’s almost impossible for him to do a proper calculation of what he would be able to pay. If we take a little trip to French wine-country, a farmer begins his harvest. He already knows his grape-yield, the quantity of wine he will be able to turn that yield in to and the approximate price he will get per bottle – the last one, mainly because he sets the price himself. Or at least because he has a market of potential buyers that he can work with, if some buyers doesn’t want to match his price. When all this is known, it’s fairly easy to figure out what you will be able to invest in both labor and development. That’s not the case if you are a coffee farmer. The price he gets for his coffee is, in most cases, completely dependent on a fluctuating market price, which is set on stock markets far away from where the coffee is picked and sold. Most coffee farmers doesn’t have any other possibilities than selling to a price set from the fluctuating market – which, as I mentioned earlier, is at a fourth of the value it was in the 60’s. Yes, I said the 60’s… Therefore, the farmers that strive for high quality and invest in the extra work is doing so in the hopes, that buyers will find them and offer them quality-based pricing. Sometimes that just doesn’t happen or the harvest fails or the pickers are nowhere to be found and the quality drops.
#3 – The fixed price contracts.
I’ve mentioned these a couple of times. This is a new thing for us, but as the abovementioned situation is developing, they seem to make sense. The basics are pretty easy to comprehend. We sign a contract directly with a producer, who agrees to sell us a fixed amount of their highest quality of produce. The contract is for a certain amount of time, in this case 6 months, and is then renegotiated. The pricing is set up around grading quality through cupping – cupping scores. A cupping score sheet is based on the qualities of the cup: acidity, bitterness, sweetness, aroma, etc. You score each attribute and add everything together to give a total score. The maximum/impossible score is a hundred, but everything above 84 is considered specialty coffee. On the fixed price contracts we have made, the cupping scores are divided into three grades: AA, AAA and micro lots. AA is a score between 84 and 85.9; AAA is a score between 86 and 87.9; and micro lots are everything from 88 and up. The quality defined fixed-price contracts we have done in Colombia are three party contracts, with the producer (as sellers), Caravela (as exporters and cuppers) and TCC (as buyers). We, as a company, doesn’t necessarily agree with the method of summing up the quality of a certain coffee in one single number for all purposes. When we look for coffee, we take the individual attributes much more in to consideration; does the coffee have an interesting acidity or wild aromas? What makes this coffee special? Are more the kind of questions we’re looking at and they aren’t always answered in the total cupping score. However, in the context we work within in Colombia a total cupping score makes sense in relation to different prices. So, one price for AA another for AAA and a third for micro lots. This way the farmers have a much better basis for figuring out their income, at least for the next six months – which, in my humble opinion, is a step in the right direction.
What if the quality of the coffee we get is worth more than the price in the contract? I asked my bosses. Then our normal practice is to add an extra premium on top rewarding that particular quality, was the answer.