Some basic facts
Main varietals is Caturra, Castillo and Variedad Colombia.
Mainly washed coffees are produced.
Grading is based on size. Nordic Approach generally buy coffees from screen 15 and up.
Altitudes from 1600 – 2000 masl is normal.
Harvest goes on all year as they have different regions and raining patterns.
Plants pr hectare is 4-6000 trees.
Average production is 1000 – 1500 kg of greens pr hectar.
Chemical/traditional fertilizer is commonly used.
Renewing/stumping the trees after 6-7 years is normal.
There are more than 500.000 coffee producers in Colombia, 80% or more are having less than 3 hectares. Coffee is grown all over the country and is spread out in 19 departments (regions), most of them along the three mountain ranges coming from the Andes in the south. The biggest and most well-known regions are Antioquia, Huila, Tolima, Cauca, Nariño, Caldas, Santander and Sierra Nevada. The latitudes are ranging from 2 degrees to about 12 degrees. Altitudes for coffee production can vary from 1200 – 2200 meters above sea level.
All producers are picking, pulping, fermenting and drying their coffee themselves in their “micro beneficios”. The coffee is then sold in parchment and delivered a local town to a bodega. The bodega is a purchasing point for parchment and can be represented by a growers association, a cooperative, an exporter, or just an independent local middleman. There's always someone buying random coffee, while some others have quality programs or strong relations with the producers.
We are currently buying coffees in Huila, Tolima, Nariño and are just starting with some medium to small farms in Antioquia.
Tolima and Nariño are having their main season from May to September, Antioquia October to January and Huila is harvesting all year around.
Finca – Small farms
Beneficio – wet mill for coffee processing after picking
Hacienda – big farms
Secadero – parabolic dryer or elevated drying facility
Patio – concrete surfaces for drying
Hectaria = 10 000 square meeters
Arboles = Trees
Arobas = 12,5 kg of cherry – They measure cherry volumes and picking in arobas.
Carga = 125 kg of parchment –a traditional standardised quantity for delivery of parchment.
Factor = Yield factor – determines how many kg’s of parchment it takes to produce one 70 kg bag of exportable green coffee. Standard is 92,5 kg of parchment to produce 70 kg of FAQ exportable coffee.
Roja – leaf rust, a common fungus or decease that hit the plants
Broca – a small beatle that attacks the cherries and create defected beans.
FNC – Federacion Nacional de Café – a privat organisation that have the mandate from the government to create the coffee policy, regulate quality and trade and invest in research. The money comes from the national coffee fund which is a tax from the coffee trade.
At the farm
A farm is typically owned by a family living there and working as producers. Everyone is normally involved and they all work at the farm to some extent. Depending on the size of the farm they will potentially have a few workers throughout the year as well. Then they staff up with casual workers for picking etc. during the harvesting seasons.
Spacing and planting
Planting depends on the cultivar and the philosophy of the producer. Pretty normal with 6000 trees pr hectare. Normal spacing would then be: 1,4m X 1,8m between the trees. Some are doing less trees per hectare as they believe it benefits quality with more space, especially in high altitudes.
Average production is 10-15 cargas of parchment per hectare. High efficient production can be 20-30 cargas per hectare.
There is also a lot of poorly managed farms with different averages and type of production.
Fertilizer and input
There is hardly any organic coffees grown in Colombia, but there is now a movement and development towards organic or sustainable practices. The reality is that so far both quality and yield seems to suffer if they give up on traditional fertilizers. And most farmers can’t afford to take the risk. There has also been an increase on the disease called Roja (leaf rust), and many people that have been trying to do organic farming is giving up as they are not able to make a living out of it. Even with good premiums it’s hard to make it sustainable as they loose to much of their production.
Pruning and renewing
A lot of farmers are concerned by the increased leaf rust attacks on the Caturra. When they re-plant many of them change to Castillo as it is safer due to resistance and high yield. Still, a lot of the farmers that are already recognised for quality and get higher prices for their Caturra stick to it. Or they do a mix.
Generally they are stumping (cutting the trees) leaving 20 – 30 centimeters of the stem to allow new branches to grow. This is the traditional way, and many farms are having up to 1/3 of their farm renewed at any given time. It takes 2-3 years before a plant carries a descent amounts of cherries again after they are stumped.
Cost of production
Except from the investment of buying land or investing in basic equipment and infrastructure this is a very brief overview of cost of production.
Measuring cherries in arobas. An aroba is a bucket they use for picking.
1 Aroba = 12,5 kg
Pickers are paid between 3500 – 5000 Colombian Pesos per aroba. At some farms meals are included and in others they are not. A picker can normally pick between 100 – 150 kg per day.
Picking is considered expensive and a big investment for the producers, and even if they want to pay more for better qualities and ripe cherries only it can be very hard to get the pickers and workers to be selective enough.
The other big investment is fertiliser and foliers etc. A farmer can use between 500 – 1000 USD per hectare per year, depending on the products they are using. Meaning if your having a 3 hectare farm you might only have production on 2 hectares.
Caturra in Colombia is generally known for having the best flavor attributes for the farmers that’s able to take out the maximum potential of their coffee. Meaning doing everything right at all stages in the production cycle. We do not disagree. That said we see a lot of amazing cups with Variedad Colombia and Castillo as well. We as others have discovered that if they are well treated by the producer and picked when they are extremely ripe they loose the typical herbal and astringent flavors and becomes super sweet and complex. Most farmers will have a mix of 1-3 of these cultivars. Some is separating their production by cultivar, but most farmers don’t.
The way we see it is that it would ideally be great with only Caturra or other high performing Cultivars. Specially at higher altitudes. But as a farmer it is hard to deal with deceases like leaf rust and low production. This can be handled by plant treatment and preventive measures, but the farmers often don’t have the know how. And even if they do have Caturra and are doing great they are not recognised as quality producers and the coffees are getting mixed with other bad deliveries at the local bodegas. When you don’t know how to access the premiums in our market it’s only volumes that matters.
What we have seen is that both some generations of Variedad Colombia and Castillo can be tasting great with a lot of fruit driven complexity to it. It seems like the color when they are mature is deep red or almost purple. When picked at this stage and processed the right way they can be extremely flavor full and elegant. I believe most farmers pick them when they look like a ripe Caturra, but this seems to be to early if you want them at the peak.
Most common cultivars are:
Variedad Colombia - a crossing between Caturra and Hibrido de Timor created by the research center Cenicafé (Centro Nacional de Investigaciones de Café) in the 70’s.
Castillo - a more recent developed crossing with high production and rust resistance adapted to the different climates.
Caturra – A dwarf bourbon cultivar originating from Brazil, but local lines developed further in Colombia.
Tabi – a bourbon mixed with Hibrido de Timor
Comun (Typica) -
Catimor (ex larger farms in Antioquia)
Loads of experiments going on with:
African varietals, originated from Ethiopia and Kenya etc.
Different rare and well performing other cultivars like Catuai, etc.
Harvest and processing
There are tons of challenges during harvest. It can be everything from lack of casual workers to challenging climates. Depending on where you’re at it can be droughts or heavy rains during the production and drying. In e.g. Huila it can potentially be non stop rain for weeks while they are harvesting, fermenting and drying. In Nariño it can be the opposite with high temperatures and droughts. This will again affect maturation, fermentation and drying.
Coffees are picked in 3-4 passes. Meaning the producers/workers pick the more or less ripe cherries in one block. Then they might wait a few weeks until it’s again a descent amount of ripe cherries to pick in that same place. As mentioned above it can be hard to incentivize your workers to only pick the ripe ones as their volumes will go down and the work is harder. Even when you’re paying them extra for the effort it can be hard to motivate them. If a producer want exceptional qualities he/she often have to follow up very closely, or hand sort the cherries after picking, before he/she brings them in to production.
Generally the first and last pass is of lower quality, and the second and third will be considered as the best, with more ripe cherries and uniform quality. When we can, we try to buy parchment harvested in these two passes.
Fermentation and washing
In our opinion many of the Colombian coffees are slightly over fermented. In some cases the farmers do it on purpose as there are buyers or exporters asking them to stretch it to get more complexity fruit and body, but often it’s just by accident or by mistake. We do think fermentation can add some complexity and structure, but often they can get rough, vinegary and normally we are looking for the brighter and cleaner coffees.
In general the Colombian coffees are pulped and fermented the traditional way. There is a few exceptions where farmers are using eco-pulpers with mechanical removal of mucilage, but it’s still not to common.
This is the most common and widely used method. The farmer will have a small beneficio, a small manual or electric pulper and a fermentation tank. They pulp the cherries in the afternoon. The coffees are going straight from the pulper in to the fermentation tank. It can sit there from one to two days, depending on the temperature. Higher temperature will speed up the fermentation process, and lower temperature will slow it down. Some producers do intermediate rinsing with water, that can also help them control the process.
We do see a good amount of producers now that are doing wet fermentation, meaning the add water to the tank after pulping. Some of the best coffees we had in Colombia have been fermented this way. They often change the water numerous times as well. This will both slow down the fermentation time and you get a bigger “window” from when it’s done until it gets over fermented and to pulpy in flavor. It’s a also good as they will normally be able to skim off the floaters during the rinse and get a better selection.
Washing and grading
The way of washing and grading varies a lot. Some producers have channels and some don’t. The channels are often short, and they don’t require huge amount of water. They normally stir the coffees in the channels before they remove the floaters. For the ones without channels it’s common to wash the coffees in the fermentation tank and skim off the floaters before it goes to the drying.
For the smallholders in regions like Huila, Tolima, Nariño the coffees are generally sun dried e.g on roof tops or dried in parabolic dryers that almost works as green houses. There is many different variations and constructions, but generally they are all systems that is able to protect the coffee from rain. In many of this places it can either be to hot, or to rainy and humid. And often both in one day. We have generally seen that the producers that have constructions with good ventilation and manage to dry the coffee down to below 11% in 10 – 18 days often have very good and consistent coffees.
In other places like Antioquia and Quindio mechanical dryers are commonly used. We generally don’t buy coffees dried mechanically as we so far don’t have very good experience with the flavor and shelf life related to that process.
Coffee in Colombia is a cash crop. Meaning you can sell your coffees any day in big or small volumes and get direct payment in cash. Every small town in the coffee growing areas will have purchasing points for parchment. Also called bodegas. This can be local dealers and traders that are reselling to exporters, it can be the exporters them selves, it can be growers associations or Cooperatives. In many cases they are located in the same places and compete to get the coffees from the growers. Most parchment buyers just look at the physical attributes, and pay the producers based on the yield factor. They do not care about the individual flavor attributes for the coffee and throw it all in to what’s referred to as the pile. Meaning coffees from all the different producers get mixed and sold as a general “excelso” from that region. But there are exceptions, and they are the ones we work with.
In our case we mainly work with groups, exporters or Cooperatives that have their own bodegas where they purchase parchment from producers that are part of the “program” Our selected farmers often deliver very small volumes at the time, and the ones that make the target for correct moisture levels, yield factor and quality will be kept separate and cupped individually. If they are scoring at a higher level primary by the local cuppers, and secondary by us they will be approved for purchase.
Everything we do in Colombia is based on partnerships that we establish either through private producer groups, Cooperatives, or exporters that work with individual growers on consistent bases.
In most cases we refer to these partnerships as projects. Meaning it is generally more to it than just cupping and buying their coffees. For the most part it is programs where it is some additional activities related to quality and access to their coffees. Many of them have agronomists working on the ground with the producers to establish better practices and increase quality. You can read more about our currant projects in separate articles.
Cupping and selection
No matter what partnership or program we have everything we buy is based on cup performance. As mentioned above the starting point is that the coffees from the producers is kept separate. This is with a few exceptions where we are buying producer blends from a specific program or project. After the parchment is separated in the bodega it will normally be cupped by the local cuppers and partners we have as a prescreening. They know our quality standard so it is seldom they “save” the coffees that are far off. 3-4 times per year we are in Colombia to cup through tons of deliveries and samples to make our selection.
As an example we work with a cooperative called Coocentral in Huila. They have a quality program of about 70 growers. These growers are harvesting through big parts of the year. They will deliver small amounts of coffees when they have well prepared parchment to sell. When we are coming in e.g June Coocentral have separated and collected parchment from many of these 70 growers the last month. When we arrive there we might have everything from 30 – 100 samples to cup. We normally do a prescreening the first one or two days, and then a final cupping to take firm decisions after that. The cupping scores we are giving will in most cases determine the premiums they are getting. After cupping with Coocentral we will and visit producers we will normally move on to the next group we work with and do the same there, and then move on to the next. Meaning in a sourcing trip like that we can cup through several hundreds of coffees. When the parchment deliveries are equal to 5 bags of greens and above we normally keep them separate as micro lots. But for the deliveries that are tiny, and when the coffees are from the same groups and the profiles matches we can make small producer blends to get slightly bigger lots. It will still be we that decides what to blend after cupping and it is fully traceable.
Milling and shipping
When we have taken decisions from one or normally several programs we will consolidate the shipments with our exporter(s). They are buying the parchment on our behalf from the producers. They organize transport from where the parchment is stored to the mill, they follow up milling and bagging of the coffees based on our specifications, consolidate and coordinate shipping, issues documents and handle all the internal paperwork and logistics. They have the finance cost for the parchment, have to deal with the undergrades, cover the internal costs for logistics, milling and bagging etc. On top of that they will add on an exporter fee for the services.
Our purchase price to the farmer and the FOB prices for Colombian coffees is a slightly complex matter. Since the market price and local currency varies they seldom accept fixed pricing pr. lb. in USD. Their pricing will normally depend on the daily coffee price determined by the FNC, the yield factor and if they are part of a quality program and the current exchange rate of the Colombian Peso. On top of that they are selling their coffees in parchment to the exporter that again have to add on local transport, dry milling and export fees etc.
When a farmer delivers the coffee to the bodega they will have listed the daily price on the wall. If they are e.g. a rainforest certified farm, Fair Trade etc they will get a fixed premium. The coffees yield factor will be analyzed at the bodega to se if they are to get more or less than the general price. If it is more defects and under grades than normal they get a lower price, if it is very clean they get a higher one.
Unless the producer is part of a “program” similar to what we are doing, they get one payment there and then. If they are part of one of our programs they are entitled to a second payment after we have cupped and approved the coffee. We add on a fixed premium depending on the cupping score, and in some cases we have higher premiums for everything we buy from a producer as we have developed a relationship over time.
In the picture above you will see that the daily price is xxx based on a yield factor at 94. Meaning it will take 94 kg of parchment to produce 70kg of exportable greens. If they are certified they will get the extra premium listed in pesos. E.g. xxx for Rainforest Alliance