At this point, we’re all sick of updates and harvest reports that start with, “What a wild year this has been,” so we won’t make a whole production out of it: Simply put, coffee is never easy work, and these days that’s truer than almost ever before. This year has been a real test of the strength of our relationships, and while there have been a few setbacks, sadnesses, and disappointments, overall we have been shown the true power of commitments, partnerships, and of sticking together—as Cafe Imports founder and green-coffee buyer for Colombia Andrew Miller always says—through sickness and in health, in good times and bad.
Which is to say, yes, there is some bad news—but it’s not all bad, we promise. (Read on.)
“This past harvest in Cauca and Nariño (June–August/September) has been somewhat a ‘perfect storm’ in terms of…the strains that COVID-19 has put on producers and small, specialty exporters,” says Sam Miller, who, along with Andrew is a principal green-coffee buyer for Colombia. “Nearly all coffee pickers typically move from one region to another, following the harvest. This summer, a lockdown was in place and these restrictions meant that producers had to pick their own coffee, or find family and friends to help.”
Andrew agrees, and adds a layer of complexity to the problem: “The other thing that happened was that in the earlier part of this year, the internal pricing in Colombia was really high: The dollar was really strong, and the peso was really weak—so when it used to be a dollar for COP $2,800 or $3,000, now it was COP $4,000 per dollar. Consequently, the internal price was high: Pickers were picking coffee as fast as they could and taking it down to sell it.”
While this price jump in-country may have put some much-needed cash into producers’ hands faster than selling their crops on the specialty market would have, it’s also led to something of a tricky situation for quality-seeking buyers.
“It’s complicated,” Andrew says, “but I guess to cut to the chase, what we’re seeing is that the quality kind of sags a little bit in those territories for this harvest. I asked Jairo [Ruiz, cofounder and commercial director of our export partner Banexport], “and he said that typically out of 120 grams they’ll get something like 5 quakers. Now they’re seeing 10–15 quakers.”
(Quakers are defective beans that are the result of picking underripe, not-yet-matured coffee cherries: They express themselves in roasted coffee as being a lighter, more tan color than the rich chocolate brown that ripe-picked coffee roasts to. Quakers also have a distinctive nutty, cereal, or popcorn-y flavor in the cup.)
Don’t let this “doom and gloom” scare you, though: We’re still receiving samples and approving contracts, and we’re still finding coffees that meet our high standards and profile expectations for both Gran Galopes and Regional Select lots, the cornerstones of our Colombia offerings. You can rest assured that your need for solid blend components, reliable single-origin coffees, and anchor products can and will be met by the coffees we’re bringing in this year.
“It’s also not over yet,” Andrew said at the end of last month. “The really top qualities come from the higher altitudes, which are picked last and are coming in now—so fingers crossed that we’ll see some microlots.”
“The harvest in Huila has started,” Sam adds on a positive note. “We expect to see the peak around the first week in December. This means we will likely see the highest-quality offers come through the end of December. The crop in Huila this year seems to be drawn out over a longer period of time due to abnormal and intermittent rains throughout the past few months. With the cherries ripening over the course of a longer period of time, this allows producers to better manage [their] available processing space. We’re hoping to see higher quality because of this.”
So no, it’s not a completely lost-hope situation: In addition to the potential for late-season microlots, Andrew is also excited about the coffees he tasted for this year’s Colombia – Land of Diversity competition, a cupping and auction program held annually by the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC). Andrew, along with Cafe Imports sensory analysis director Ian Fretheim, received and cupped 30 top samples from a variety of coffee-growing departments including our usual sourcing areas of Cauca and Nariño, along with Antioquia, where we haven’t historically done much work—yet.
“They were awesome,” Andrew says. “I had 6 coffees out of 10 over 90 points, they were smoking. Incredible depth of flavor: Butterscotch, chocolate, vanilla, passionfruit, those kinds of things. Really remarkable coffees—we bought two of them in the auction!”
The silver lining of this time—come on, we’re Midwestern, we have to look for the silver lining—is that we have strong relationships in Colombia with producers and exporters who have become not just partners, but lifelong friends. We have pledged to never default on a contract with our partners and we are holding true to that promise no matter what it takes.
“Colombia is a wild, passionate, beautiful, complex, and competitive origin,” Sam says. “It is one of our most complex origins when it comes to volume, quality, and programs. It is a proving ground for innovation and progress, and home to some of our most important relationships and oldest friends. It is our hope that we can continue to navigate this time of global pandemic by leaning on our relationships, continuing to find quality and support our programs from afar, and continue right where we left off.”
For more information about this year’s incoming Colombia lots, and to plan your purchases ahead of time, feel free to reach out to your sales representative or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, we are here and happy to help you.