When we come across a remarkable coffee, the first thing we want do is find out everything we can about it: Who grew it where; what variety of tree does it come from; and how was it processed, dried and cared for. We ask for this information primarily because we naturally want to know about the producer and the coffee, but also in hopes that the quality can be repeated year after year. Recently, however, we came across a coffee that turned out to have a different kind of story, and it’s taking us on a new kind of adventure.
This past November, Cafe Imports green-coffee buyer Andrew Miller was cupping coffee in Colombia with Jairo Ruiz and Elkin Guzman from the Banexport team in Pitalito, Huila. This was just one of our many working visits per year, during which we visit with farmers, cup coffee, talk about how the crop is coming, and get a sense what we can expect from the harvest—what to look forward to or be afraid of.
We typically cup everything during these trips—from 83-point deliveries to 90-point microlots—and the samples are “blind,” or unlabeled, so no one at the table has any preconceived notions. “You have to stay on your game or you might find yourself out of sync and maybe embarrassed,” Andrew says. (We’ve all been there.)
He goes on to describe something kind of wonderful that happened in that room that day. “The second table had some really intense coffees, with one in particular being something I could not quite describe,” he says. “An intensity of ripe fruit, candy necklace, chocolate and caramel—classic Huila, but also something a little more. A little unique. I remember writing, ‘Holy *@!& ‘ on the top of my cupping form, and I did the math and ended up with 94 points! Incredible.”
Andrew turned to Jairo and said, “So, what is this?”
Jairo explained that the producer had been growing coffee for a while, but that he was new to working with Banexport as a partner—this was new to Jairo, as well. “We don’t know,” Jairo replied. “The farmer says F6, but the beans are really big, and the trees look like Typica or Bourbon.”
The cultivar commonly known as “F6” is also called Variedad Colombia: It’s a uniquely Colombian cultivar created by Cenicafe’s lab through five generations of breeding and crossing, developed between 1968 and 1982. It was originally created by crossing Caturra (a dwarf Bourbon mutation) and Timor Hybrid (a spontaneous cross-breeding of an Arabica and a Canephora or Robusta plant that occurred in Timor in the late 1930s or early 1940s). Colombia variety was designed to be coffee-leaf-rust resistant and incredibly productive like the Timor coffee, as well as small in stature like its Caturra mother. It can be planted densely for optimum output at around 5,000 trees per hectare.
Elkin chimed in and was just as curious: “It doesn’t taste like Variedad Colombia. It’s something else.”
“Can we go up there?” Andrew asked, determined to get to the bottom of this particular cup. “So we piled in the Jeep and went up the mountain,” he says. “We met the producer in the town square and followed him on his motorcycle to his farm.”
Colombia variety cherries
Variety: Unknown cherries
“We shook hands, talked a bit and walked in to the field of Colombia that was interspersed with tall and lanky trees that looked like Typica or Bourbon, as if the farmer had multiple varieties in the field,” Andrew says. “But he claimed they were not different—that they were all from the seeds of the same F6 trees. We were at about 2,000 meters altitude, standing in the middle of 6 hectares of coffee. It was cool up there, and the farmer said that it is a cold place, the farm has no rust and the trees are more productive in the cold weather.”
“This was an odd farm, but remember—94 points, and we were on a mission,” Andrew continues. This was starting to sound like a Perry Mason story.
Taking a closer look, Andrew realized that the tall, spindly trees had the appearance of Bourbon: The new leaves are a bronze color, with opposing branches on the trunk and cherries that are clumped together in groups or nodes—as opposed to the Colombia variety, which typically has one constant group of fruit clustered along the branch. Helver, the farmer, said that they take seeds from the mature F6 trees to plant new sections of the farm, and some of the new plants are tall and spindly like Bourbon, and some are short and squat like Caturra or Colombia.
“So, if Bourbon is the source of Caturra, and Caturra is the parent of F6, are the odd children of F6 on this farm regressing back to their roots? Do they look like their ancestors, or what else is going on here?” Andrew asked. “That still wouldn’t explain the large beans, or the cold-weather productivity, and certainly not the 94 points.”
What is this strange plant, and will it reproduce true to type? There are only a few ways to find out, and Andrew pulled his fedora out of storage, donned a trench coat, and immediately went to work on the clues at hand, committed to solving this mystery. He and Jairo collected leaf and cherry samples of both the normal-looking F6 and the unusual offspring and sent them off to a genetic lab in Italy that will conduct some testing and map the coffee’s DNA fingerprints—kind of like 23andMe, but, you know, with coffee. (So more like 22andMe or 44andMe, as Robusta coffee has 22 chromosomes and Arabica 44.)
What if the coffee comes back and it is just some weirdo version of F6? What if it’s a brand-new mutation that spontaneously popped up in this field in Huila? What if it doesn’t breed true? What if it does? What if Communism was just a red herring? (That last one is just a little Clue humor.)
We don’t have any answers yet, and we don’t even have very much of the coffee in question, but this is precisely the kind of intrigue that keeps us excited to work in coffee, and this is precisely the kind of suspenseful story we get swept up in the telling.
Stay tuned for the dramatic (or possibly anticlimactic, but most likely still delicious) conclusion of the gripping noir we like to call Variety: Unknown…