There are some origins that always get our attention here at the roastery.
It’s great to be back in Huila with this delivery: one of our favourite growing regions in Colombia. The incredibly varied geography and microclimates of the region lead to diverse and complex flavours even between farms in the same region.
Colombia is also unusual in the coffee world for having two alternating harvest seasons each year: the main harvest and a smaller mitaca harvest. Within this pattern the geography can mean farms 100km apart may be in completely different harvest patterns.
UK cafe and roaster Workshop have written about visiting Huila in 2014.
Making a stable living without abandoning the countryside
The producer of this coffee, Alirio Muñoz, is 53 years old. He’s been farming coffee for as long as he can remember, having learned from his grandfather.
While he stumps his trees every seven years, allowing them to grow back to their full height and maximum production for a few years before stumping them again, it is not until they’ve lived for roughly one quarter of a century (or half of Alirio’s life) that he actually digs them out and replaces them with new trees.
Over the past 10 years or so, he’s begun to pass the same practices of husbandry and renewal on to his kids, as he sees an ageing population of producers as the greatest risk coffee farming faces in the years to come.
By accessing a specialty market based on fixed prices rather than premiums paid above the daily price of commodity coffee, he is aiming to demonstrate to them that they can make a stable living without having to abandon the countryside.
He hopes that one day his kids may be able to say, “Thanks to my father and my grandfather, I am a coffee farmer because I learned how from them.”
Castillo is a more disease-resistant plant with much higher yields, created by Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia’s research arm CENICAFE as a hybrid of Caturra and Timor varietals, but which remains similar enough to Caturra to have a the same flavour profile.
Initial suspicions of Colombian farmers following its release in 2005, together with some poor-quality first crops earned Castillo a bad reputation.
Thanks to some very high-quality crops, this reputation is now being challenged, and we’re hopeful that the industry’s desire for flavour-rich, high-quality crops can be met with by a varietal that also gives farmers security against the coffee rust fungus.
The US Speciality Coffee Association has led blind sensory and cupping tests which showed Castillo and Caturra producing similar scores, though with slightly different flavours.
They found that the geographic location and farming techniques had a greater impact on score than the varietal:
For farmers choosing between Castillo and Caturra, what they choose to plant may have less impact on cup quality than where and how they grow it. The data from both the cupping panels at Intelligentsia and the sensory analysis at KSU show that cup scores are more strongly correlated with environment and management than with variety.
In other words, growers may do more to increase cup quality through more active soil and shade management, careful harvesting, and improved post-harvest practices than through the intentional selection of one of these varieties over another.
The farms in the trial that produced exceptional Castillo samples also produced exceptional Caturra samples, meaning that high quality was more a function of where farmers are planting coffee and how they are managing it than which variety they are planting.
Some environments are simply better suited than others to produce high cup quality. The problem is that few growers know whether they are in one of those agroecological niches or not. We commonly use elevation as a proxy for quality potential, but are many other environmental variables that affect the suitability of a particular growing environment for high-quality coffee.