When Bad Things Happen to Good Coffee, or Murphy’s Law and Colombia Lately

Posted on November 7th, 2017

A note from Cafe Imports founder and partner Andrew Miller—who still gets a bit giddy about visiting Colombia to visit old producer friends and meet new and innovative growers—about the perfect storm that disrupted the harvests over the past year, why we haven’t seen the same names on our offerings list so far in 2017, and, thankfully, the promise the future holds to right this ship.

You might think that after 10 years of working in Colombia—finding the absolute best coffees, meeting top producers, encouraging them to keep after it by paying strong prices, visiting again and again to understand and help them face various challenges—that we might have gotten pretty good at this importing-coffee thing.

Not so fast.

As a matter of fact, in the last harvest from Huila (December–February) we got almost nothing. Zero coffee from Elkin Guzman, a rising star. Half the usual amount from Los Naranjos. Zero coffee from Asociación de Productores Primaveral, and problem after problem in the shipping of the coffees from the 2017 Best Cup Huila competition.

What was the issue? In short, climate change—crazy weather around the world. Two years ago, Colombia had a drought in the fall of 2015 that pushed all the way into February of 2016. As you probably know, the rain that comes after a dry season is what makes the coffee tree flower—then 8 months later you get a bouncing baby harvest. Except it didn’t rain in October, and then in May—when it was supposed to be the beginning of harvest and the dry season—then it started to rain. That caused a poor main harvest in Cauca, and no mitaca, or fly crop, in Huila.

Then, the unseasonable rain pushed the mitaca back, right on top of the main harvest in Huila. Producers didn’t have enough patio space to dry properly—and then it started to rain again, leaving them with wet coffee piled up on a too-small patio. In the case of Elkin Guzman, for instance, that meant a large crop tainted with phenol. Oh, and did we mention the strike at the Port of Buenaventura in Cauca? And the shortage of fique material they use to make coffee bags? Disaster.

So, what do we do in the face of disaster?  We pull on our boots and go back out into it.

Cauca

One of my favorite Colombian coffee territories is Cauca. Like in Huila and Nariño, Cauca is mostly small farmers with 1 or 2 hectares of coffee, but beautiful and tropical territory. These coffees have vanilla, chocolate, panela, caramel, red fruits, and a juicy, spicy acidity that reminds me of a good Chilean Malbec.

Cauca’s most recent season is late, but a good crop: The typical May to July harvest got pushed back to July through September, but coffee is actually shipping, and has begun arriving now. We have top-cupping coffees coming soon from AMACA, a group of women groupers whose Women Coffee Producers program coffees have been fantastic and hugely successful. The Fair Trade– and organic-certified coffees from Comepcafe were 86 points, and we have about 50 bags of microlots that scored 88 to 90 points that are on the water as of early October, arriving very soon.

Nariño

Our export partners at Banexport have doubled their efforts in Nariño with the addition of two new high-quality warehouses and top-notch cupping labs, in order to receive and manage the fantastic coffees from Nariño.

We have found a few 88–90-point microlots from this new-to-us source, and have also blended together some 86-plus receipts to make larger chops of Regional Select coffees that showcase what we love most about the profile Nariño has to offer.

To me, coffees from Nariño have great floral notes of vanilla. They can have black cherry and cola, dark chocolate and caramel, but most pronounced is the intense lime-like acidity that I believe comes from the high altitudes, nearly 2,000 meters above sea level. The farms are so far south that it would be too cold to grow coffee here without the warm air that accumulates in the canyons during the day and rises over the coffee during the night.

(For more information about Nariño and our new offerings from there, visit this blog post highlighting the department.)

Huila, Oh Huila

In Huila, as I mentioned earlier, we didn’t see any mitaca in June through July because of the weather. In typical years we would see at least one container from Los Naranjos, or some small deliveries from our old friend Arnulfo Leguizamo, but this fly crop brought nothing. Main crop is starting now—which is a little premature, but should be good and big, and hopefully run through January.

Huila has traditionally been the stronghold of southern Colombian coffees, which we believe are the best coffees in the country. These are mostly small producers with an average of 1.5 hectares of lush tropical countryside that produces exotic tropical fruits, flowers, and incredible coffees with the fragrance of vanilla and coffee blossom, flavors of cocoa, caramel, panela, and mango. Orange or lemon acidity, and big, velvety body. (Can you tell we’re fond of them?)

These are some of the best coffees on the planet, and Huila is home to the new Pink Bourbon variety that everyone and his hermanos have been planting here over the last few years. It has an incredibly sweet and cherry-cola kind of cup, so keep your eyes open for those Variety Select microlots later this year as well.

Looking Forward

While the past year it sure seemed like everything that could go wrong did, those wrongs can’t stop the coffee from being right, right now: Colombia is resilient, the reports from the field have been better overall, and what we’ve tasted so far more than makes up for a few lean months. Absence does make the heart grow fonder, after all…

Elkin Guzman (left) with Cafe Imports founder Andrew Miller in 2017


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