Nicole and Tom travelled to Colombia last year, for the first official Climpson’s origin trip. A two week trip of epic proportions resulted in them visiting three very different regions and witnessing differences in growing philosophy, approach and attitude. They were lucky enough to see the industry through many avenues; from traditional farming practices and varietals, to innovative and experimental varietal cultivation; from small microlots to large cooperatives; from traditional processing to state-of-the-art fermentation. There’s a lot going on, and it will take a couple of blogs to talk about it all!
Their first stop was to the Cauca Best Cup Competition and Auction in Popayan, Colombia. Here is Nicole’s version of events.
In a previous life as a backpacker I spent 6 weeks in Colombia back in 2010/11 so I was pretty excited to get back there and see the country from a different angle and to visit areas that are not necessarily on the tourist trail. Located in the South of Colombia, on your way to Ecuador, the department of Cauca is surrounded by high mountains - of which got a little close for comfort on the turbulent journey into Popayan.
Cauca is not necessarily the first place you think of when it comes to Colombian coffee. Whilst it may be an understated area for quality, the region exports approximately one million bags per year, with over 90,000 families producing coffee (17% of Colombia). The purpose of the Cauca Best Cup competition was to create an opportunity for producers to not only find a market for their coffee, but be encouraged that their pursuit of quality will be rewarded. For us it was an amazing opportunity to understand the subtleties of the Cauca region, meet the producers as well as lay claim to our favourite coffees to bring back to the roastery!
The Cauca Best Cup competition, now in its second year, is a joint venture between Banexport and Café Imports. Off the back of the 2014 Cauca Best Cup with 200 farmers entering micro-lots, the 2015 competition saw over double that with 545 entrants. The immediate effects of last year were noticeable as it encouraged other producers to consider taking up the challenge. Banexport spent countless hours cupping the 545 submissions blind, to reach the top 30 at which time 30 roasters from around the world joined in, including us. Our job was to whittle the top 30 coffees down to the top 10, which then went to auction.
To be honest, we didn’t really know what to expect and the calibration cupping on the first day had me nervous. I can cup coffee, but when it comes to coffees that come from the same region with the same varietals, processing methods and similar altitudes and climates, I was certainly challenged to differentiate them at the start. Cauca’s proximity with the equator, the regions stable seasons and terroir, means traditionally the cup profile makes for a high acidity, medium body and caramel-like profile. After the first two days the subtleties and particular nuances in the flavour profiles were apparent with everything from delicate florals, to syrupy sweetness, to vegetal or herby notes and tropical fruits.
We had three days of highly concentrated blind cupping to get down to the top 10, which ended up being the top 12 because the scores were so close. Interestingly, the roasters from the United States had very different palates to the roasters from the UK/Europe (of which we were outnumbered significantly!). We liked coffees that were slightly more acidic and fruity, whereas the US roasters preferred vegetal, creamy or chocolatey qualities. Tom and I knew what coffees we liked and we thought would work well for us, and we just hoped people didn’t like the same ones. The cupping scores were only a few points in it from the number one coffee to the twelfth coffee.
It’s pretty hard to put into words the Auction. Being welcomed by a whole community of people in such a way was quite amazing. We were given front row seats as the community leaders gave speeches, provided entertainment and encouraged us to bid high with the help of aguardiente.
We could really tell how much it meant for the producers us being there. A standard microlot in Colombia is approximately $3 USD per pound for the producer and the bidding for this auction started just over that. Most of the roasters had a budget to work with, and we were no exception. The buyers had nervous energy and the auction often resulted in a ‘friendly’ bidding war. Our game plan to partner up with a fellow roaster ensured we got one of our preferred lots. We were pretty lucky to get a bid in on the number 8 winning microlot! We were pushed up a bit more than we would have liked but we came away with an exceptional coffee from Benito Rosero from Finca El Pino in El Tambo. Pretty good result for us, especially upon cupping it back at base - it still tastes delicious!!
Whilst this competition is on a smaller scale compared to the Cup of Excellence, a competition such as this can create demand for a high end competition winning coffee, and is a very marketable trait in some areas of the world at the moment. Pil Hoon Seu, from South Korea's Coffee Libre took it next level with an unwavering bid of $31.50 USD per pound for the top coffee. We had no chance!! To be quite honest, this price was completely inflated and above what it should have cost – the coffees scores there was not much in it. But whilst this may be the case, according to Café Imports, the auction garnered an additional $77,000 paid to the top 12 producers for their coffees. This equates to real, tangible change for these people, allowing them to reinvest in their farms, families, and communities. It also sends a message to other producers around the country, showing them what is possible when the right steps are followed for quality.
For us, this was an amazing experience to be a part of a program committed to changing quality and perceptions in coffee, with very noticeable results. The producer is rewarded monetarily for the ‘fruits’ of their labour and we got to take home a delicious coffee that we bought directly at its place of origin and for our exclusive use.
Coffees to watch out for in February / March
Benito Rosero #8 - Finca El Pino
- El Tambo, Cauca - Caturra/Castillo, washed, 9-10 hours of fermentation with 20 hours of drying on parabolic beds; 0.5 hectares, 1,800 masl
- Coconut, Jasmine, Mango, Brown Sugar, Caramel, Red Grapes, Lime, Honey, Watermelon, Passionfruit, Sweet Panella - delicate and juicy - Butter Citric Lemon. Very Complex
Alexander Bermudez - El Paraiso - Microlot Runner Up
- Tunia, Cauca - Caturra/Castillo, 8 hours fermentation, sun dried on raised beds; 2.5 hectares, 1,700 masl
- Floral, Citric, Peach, Perfume, Creamy, Rose, Fresh, Caramel