Coffees of Colombia 2012
Both the dark side and the bright side of the trend toward offering select, precisely identified lots of green coffee (aka “microlots”) showed up in this month’s sampling of thirty-four coffees from Colombia. On the bright side, we cupped several precisely identified, small-lot coffees that expressed pure and subtle variations on the classic Colombia high-grown profile. On the dark side, we had other samples displaying fine-sounding, microlot-ish names on their packaging but ranging in the cup from ordinary to flat-out tainted. We expected more of the kind of coffees that Colombia’s reputation was built on: Your basic, dependable high-grown Latin American coffee, a little simple aromatically perhaps, but strong-structured, acidy, big-bodied, balanced, clean. Unfortunately, if I were to describe a typical Colombia profile based only on the coffees we cupped this month, I would be tempted to use terms like slightly musty, bordering on sour; still big-bodied, but certainly not clean.
I can think of two basic reasons for this overall disappointment. First, Colombia as a coffee origin has been suffering. Very bad weather, particularly unseasonal, ill-timed rains, have depressed both volume and quality of Colombia’s production over the past couple of years. Secondly, it appears that many Colombia coffee farmers are not doing a particularly careful job with fruit removal and drying. Newer depulping machines that squeeze the fruit pulp from the coffee beans/seeds while using only miniscule amounts of water are water-saving and ecology-positive miracles, but these machines need to be used carefully to prevent some of the fruit pulp remaining on the beans, a sweet residue that can ferment or mildew if the coffee is not dried carefully.
Two Sides of Green Coffee Branding
Secondly, the fashionable practice of offering small lots of coffees from precisely identified producers in itself could be contributing to the quality problem. There appeared to be some rather careless green coffee selection at play this month. Perhaps some roasters or boutique importers are buying more on the basis of name (essentially, green coffee brand) or personal loyalty than on the basis of the actual cup. Better to make this forgivable assumption than to assume that whoever imported and roasted the worst of this month’s Colombias (six of them rated 80 or under) actually felt they were offering top-end coffees. I certainly have cupped samples from container loads of Colombia Excelso delivered by large suppliers over the past two years that are considerably superior to at least half of what we cupped this month. Of course, the practice of buying coffee in small lots from specific producers has auxiliary benefits: It presumably gets more money and more recognition into the hands the producers, many of whom are small holders. But it would be even better if the practice also netted dependably superior coffees.
On the other hand, the good samples this month were very good, and I suspect that most were good because they represented select small lots of exceptional coffee from clearly identified producers. These were all varying expressions of the classic Colombia coffee style: pure, balanced, silky to syrupy in mouthfeel, subtly complex. They ranged from the deep and intense Victrola Colombia Huila Monserrate (94) to the sweet-toned and refreshing Lone Pine Colombia Martha Cecelia Rojas (93) to the crisply tart Doma Colombia Organic (92), the delicately brisk Mtn. Air Roasting Colombia Meseta de Popayan (92) and the richly bright Equator Colombia San Agustin (91).
We also reviewed several coffees that did not fit the classically pure Colombia style, but were attractive nevertheless. The Conscious Coffee Colombia Fondo Paez Organic (89) and the Olympia Colombia Pablo Zuniga (88) nuanced various citrus and cocoa notes with savory, dry complications that many coffee drinkers value. The Linking (Taiwan) Las Mercedes (89), a 2011 Cup of Excellence second-place prize winner, was an unusual coffee, extraordinarily explosive and juicy in the aroma but haunted by a lean, dry mouthfeel that in the cup dampened the impressive aromatics. Our raw score for this prize-winning though past-crop coffee was 89, but we added one “cupper’s point” to raise the score to 90 to honor this coffee’s unusual and distinctive character.
It also occurred to us that green coffee buyers for elite roasters may be taking Colombia for granted and not spending the same time and attention they may lavish on their coffee sourcing from more distinctive, glamorous origins like Ethiopia or Sumatra. If so, they may be missing an opportunity. The best of the samples we report on this month are very impressive, and should remind us that Colombia currently may be a bit down, but certainly not out.