With the arrival of our container of Colombian coffees at the end of 2014 and before we head off for our next sourcing trip to Central America, I thought this might be a good time to put up this post before we miss out on the experiences that we have gained during the trip.
Colombia is a vast country blessed with the unique micro climates and suitable terroir for growing excellent coffees. There are several coffee growing regions and needless to say, it takes a long time to really get to know more about coffees from each region. Last year, we made our first trip to Colombia, visiting mainly the Huila region, as well as parts of Cali. It was a great experience, especially with a knowledgable researcher, Mr Thomas Oberthur, seasoned with local coffee farming practices, to connect us with the exporters and producers. It was from this first trip which eventually led to our acquaintance and partnership with Banexport.
Banexport was founded by two brothers, Julian and Jairo Ruiz. They have been a driving force to spurring the specialty coffee culture in Colombia. We are very honoured to have been invited to participate in an event, Best of Cauca, organised by Banexport and Cafe Imports. It is a coffee competition for coffees grown within the Cauca region, with the aim of rewarding producers for producing outstanding coffees, and also to encourage more small producers to see the value in increasing quality. More importantly, this event connects the coffee buyers/roasters with the producers. This event was also supported by the Comité departmental del Cauca, which is located in Popayan. It was a 3 day event, but the team at Banexport spent months preparing for it. For this competition, Banexport and Cafe Imports invited green coffee buyers and roasters from U.S, Australia, Germany, London, and both of us from Singapore, to cup the top 30 lots which had been screened through by national cuppers and Banexport out of more than 200 lots submitted for the competition.
The following day after we touched down, we had a “warm-up” session of cupping of coffees from Cauca, as well as other regions such as Huila and Nariño. We have always been keen to look out for coffees from different regions. Each region is so distinct and even coffees within the same region cup quite differently. We then visited a farm, belonging to Don Carlos Trujillo, located in a municipal called Pescador in Cauca. Don Carlos’s farm is called Patio Bonito, a small farm of 4 hectares, at an altitude of 1700m. He grows the Castillo varietal and does a fully washed processing method. Don Carlos is a cheery man with an affable smile. Banexport explained that they have been working with Don Carlos to improve on the quality of their coffee over the past few years and through their collaboration, they have managed to improve the cup score significantly that led to better prices for his coffee. His daughter is now helping to manage the farm, she hopes to continue the family business and produce better quality year after year. It is comforting to see the younger generation willing to take over the running of the farm as it is tough. Many of the younger generation would rather find a job in the bigger cities/towns as they get higher salary and the work is less physically demanding.
The day arrived for the competition to begin. After a sumptuous breakfast, we departed to the Comité. It was already buzzing with action early morning. The staff and volunteers are busy setting up the cupping tables. We had a quick tour of the facility and were introduced to the different departments. It is very well-organized and everyone is friendly towards our group of overseas visitors. We kickstarted the competition with a calibration round amongst the 18 international cuppers. The purpose of calibration is to assure that nobody is scoring significantly higher or lower than the majority of the group. We discussed everyone’s scores of the cups in the calibration round and with many coffees to go through on Day 1, we proceeded the cup the first 10 coffees in Round 1. Each coffee had 4 samples, 2 were placed on each side of the table. 2 cuppers on each side of the table. The room was quickly filled with fresh ground coffee aroma and slurping sounds. As these coffees were already screened through by the national cuppers, the 30 coffees that ended up on the tables today are already at least an 85 scorer.
This is all new experience to us, having the opportunity to cup with an international group in a coffee competition. While it was super exciting for us, it was also a daunting task to ensure we do a good job. We went through each sample back and forth a few times, just to see how the flavours change as it cools. We scribbled on the scoresheets and return back to discuss amongst the panel. There are some cups which stood out amongst the rest and it is interesting to see that certain flavour characteristics are unanimous crowd pleasers which received high scores in general. As every panelist contributed their scores, Andrew and Gabriel from Cafe Imports would tabulate the average scores for each round. On Day 1, we only had time to finish 20 coffees, so the final 10 had to be cupped on the following day. It was the first time that we actually felt “exhausted” with cupping so many cups in one day. After a long day, we looked forward to wind down with some Colombian dinner.
Day 2 started off with a quick breakfast and immediately we headed back to the Comité to finish cupping the final 10 coffees. The rest of the day was full of activities that we had no time to spare. After cupping, we departed towards Santander de Qulichao, where a coffee fair was held to bring together producers all over Cauca. As we arrived at the coffee fair, it was buzzing with lots going on. We were brought to a hall where local producers gathered to meet and ask questions to a group of international roasters/buyers. Banexport explained the purpose of the “Cauca Best Cup” competition and emphasized the importance of quality for specialty coffee. The message was clear - if the producers want to fetch better prices for their coffees, they have to make an effort to improve quality and not just focusing on higher yield. Most of these producers own small plots of coffee farms and have little access to the outside world. Through exporters such as Banexport and specialty coffee importers like Cafe Imports as well as the assistance from the Comité, they are now able access a window of opportunity to make a better living by producing specialty coffee.
As we lingered around the coffee fair, we were constantly asked to take photos with the locals as they rarely see Asians in this small town. We felt like some celebrities as the photo-taking went on incessantly till we got really, really tired of smiling in front of cameras. We were relieved when the time has come for the auction to begin for the Top 10 coffees. The fun began when we were all seated down, waiting to raise our bidding number for some of those delicious coffees. The auction price started a minimum bid of US$3.50/lb. Excitement grew as the producers witness the bidding war going on for the fruits of their hard work. Loud cheers and joyful applause filled the air as each of the top 10 coffee was announced. The audience participated spontaneously and kept cheering us to bid higher and compete against each other for some of these top lots. As each bid went through, the producer was called upon the stage to receive a certificate presented by the winning bidder with a congratulatory handshake/hug. Some of them were so touched that tears swelled up in their eyes. It was heart-warming to see these producers smiling with pride. The auction prices were easily at least three or four times what they would have normally fetched.
Photo credit: Cafe Imports
The #1 coffee from the Best Cup Cauca came from a small producer, Alba Nelly Hurtado. This 23-bag lot from Finca El Recuerdo scored 90 points and fetched US$6.40/lb. The highest price attained in this auction was US$9.50/lb, which was for a 3-bag lot that created quite a bidding frenzy amongst 2 roasters. We managed to buy a small quantity of #2 and #1 coffee by sharing with other roasters. We are thrilled to secure some of these exceptional coffees, and we can’t wait to roast them when it arrives at Nylon.
A photo posted by Nylon Coffee Roasters (@nyloncoffee) on May 10, 2015 at 7:25pm PDT
After the eventful evening at the coffee fair, Banexport arranged for us to visit a few of the winning farms the following day. First stop was a visit to Mr Richard Olmedo Claros’s farm (Finca Villa Rica - This is the farm that Dennis referred to a lot in his routine for the recent barista competition) located in the municipal of Pescador Caldono. His farm is small, with only 3.79 hectares used for the cultivation of coffee. Richard manages the farm together with his wife, Martha. The wet mill was built in their small backyard and has been constantly upgraded with profits from previous harvests that he can reinvest into better equipment. Their form of roasting their coffee came from a simple cooking pot over open fire. It was indeed a humbling experience to meet Richard and his wife, intent on producing a better cup knowing that their lives will end up for the better.
We also visited Finca El Recuerdo. The Hurtado family welcomed with home made fruit salad (fruits are all home-grown). Nelly has 3 children who help her to manage the farm. The lot which came in 1st in the competition was the first harvest from this farm. Previously, Nelly and his family used the land for growing sugarcane. The coffee farming only started less than 3 years ago. It is quite amazing for them to do so well in their first harvest. We can only expect more good stuff to come from Finca El Recuerdo should they continue with their good work.