Colombia is the paradox of specialty coffee. Its 100% Colombia campaign, initiated decades ago and still rolling, is a model of successful coffee organization, institutional persistence, and savvy marketing. Colombia remains the world's only premium single origin able to compete successfully in the world of commercial roast-and-ground canned coffee. And the Colombia Federation of Coffee Growers is among the world's most thorough-going and successful efforts at organizing and supporting small-holder coffee farmers.
For specialty coffee professionals, however, Juan Valdez is Rodney Dangerfield's Latin cousin. Colombias carry nowhere near the insider panache of Kenyas, Guatemalas, even Papua New Guineas and Zimbabwes. Colombia sells well in specialty stores, but often simply because it is the only name on the board that coffee neophytes recognize.
There are two ways to look at this paradox. One way is to accuse the coffee insiders of snobbery. Specialty professionals, this argument runs, like to champion the underdog. They enjoy discovering the undiscovered, and prosper by bringing the exotic and unique to their individualist customers. A coffee origin like Colombia that successfully employs slick ad campaigns aimed at a mass market, brings a live burro and state-of-the-art multimedia to its vast booths at the annual Specialty Coffee show, and implies (until recently) that all its coffees, regardless of region or farm, taste the same, does not flatter an industry built on the illusion that every coffee is an exceptional choice of an exceptional coffee company chosen exclusively for an exceptional customer.
The alternative approach is to blame the Colombia coffee industry for not serving the specialty market. From this point of view, Colombia's remarkable success at producing large enough and consistent enough quantities of decent coffee to position it at the top of the commercial market has doomed it as an elite origin. The Colombia Coffee Federation has evolved a system wherein hundreds of thousands of small producers wet-process their coffee on or close to their farms, and deliver it to collection points and eventually to mills operated by the Federation, where the coffee is sorted and graded according to rigorous national standards. There is an inherent leveling effect in such an arrangement. One farmer's wet processing and microclimate may be exceptional and another's may be mediocre, but both end up mixed in the same vast sea of coffee bags in which the only discriminations are the broad ones imposed by grading criteria.
In fact, until last year the only viable specialty coffees to come out of Colombia were developed by private mills and exporters operating largely outside the institutional structure of the Coffee Federation. These "privates" often supply coffees from single farms and cooperatives or from relatively narrowly defined growing regions. They may offer coffees produced exclusively from traditional, heirloom varieties of Coffea arabica like typica and bourbon, rather than from a mixture of varieties including newer hybrid cultivars.
In 1996, with characteristic institutional determination, the Federation decided to develop some of its own specialty coffees to add to those produced by the private mills. According to Alejandro Renjifo, the energetic, engaging man recently hired to head its new specialty program, the Federation was motivated partly by pride. He and his colleagues are out to prove that Colombia and the Federation can compete successfully in the specialty arena as well as in the mass market, and that Colombia can produce specialty coffees the equal of the world's most distinctive and exclusive origins.
With the very gracious support and assistance of the Federation, the Coffee Review board was able to cup five of the Federation's new specialty coffees together with eight private mill coffees, including one certified organic. For those unfamiliar with the Coffee Review cupping procedure: Green coffee samples are brought to an identical degree of roast and sent, identified only by number, to fourteen professional cuppers. Although panelists are aware of the overall origin of the samples (Colombia, Kenya, etc.) the more precise origin and other details about the coffee are revealed to them (and to me) only after we have cupped the coffees and recorded our reactions. The panelists' reports provide the basis of Coffee Review's evaluations.
The questions posed by this particular cupping are twofold. First, based on this small sampling of 1999 crop Colombias, how do the new Federation specialty coffees stack up against a selection of coffees from private mills? And how do all of these Colombias, Federation and private, compare to other elite specialty origins worldwide? Can the Colombian system, designed to produce large volumes of consistent, decent-quality coffee, change gears sufficiently to selectively produce a range of distinctive specialty coffees?
The results appear to dramatize the difficulty of the task facing the Federation. Almost all of the private mill coffees received higher ratings and more praise than the Federation coffees. One reason may have been timing: in order to meet our cupping deadline the Federation rushed their coffees to us, without the usual several weeks of conditioning or reposo that tends to round out flavor. All should at least modestly improve by the time they are shipped to importers. The five Federation specialty coffees all are produced from the traditional typica variety, but, curiously, three were grown at somewhat lower altitudes than is usual for the best Colombias. Perhaps the lack of reposo or the moderate altitude contributed to the main weakness of some of the Federation coffees: thinnish body and a lack of dimension or power. The best did demonstrate an attractive balance of sweet and dry tones and interesting nuance.
As for the issue of Colombias versus other specialty coffees, comparing various origins against one another is always tricky and redolent with caveat. Panelists' expectations differ, range of samples differ, crop years differ. In terms of numbers, however, these Colombias achieved better average ratings overall than any origin the Coffee Review panel has cupped except last year's Kenyas. There were interesting coffees here, and good ones. Certainly both the highest-rated Café Capricho and Expocafé Oporapa were distinctive and distinguished.
And, despite a couple of exclamatory objections on the cupping forms, none of these Colombias displayed the howlingly bad defects that occasionally erupted in some of the other Coffee Review cuppings. On the other hand, within a certain narrow band of response, several samples were subtly but disturbingly inconsistent. Out of five cups of a given coffee, for example, one or two might display impressive sweetness, complexity and a pleasantly fruit-toned acidity. But two others from the same sample might come up sweet but rather inert, and one or two more slightly off-tasting. All of which suggests the difficulty inherent in attempting to develop specialty coffees from a broad range of small producers, all of whom do their own wet-processing with varying degrees of dedication and skill.
Finally, I find myself impressed by the systematic, dedicated approach taken by the Federation in its effort to redirect a portion of its production toward specialty. Over the long run, system and dedication tend to prevail in the world of coffee. Each of the new Federation specialty coffees has a worthy human story behind it, and all deserve eventual success.