In any normal year I would be visiting Colombia between July and August, and then again at the end of November leading into the beginning of December. These would be our primary trips for coffees from across Nariño, Huila and Tolima when we would be able to meet with producers, see the harvest and gain insights into how the internal production and market is functioning for the season. Depending on the area I would either be buying coffees at this time, or the trips would inform my buying for the coming season. I would then return in November and December for further buying. This, as we all know is no normal year, and in Colombia’s production this is for a number of reasons.
Impact of the global pandemic
The global crises that we are all struggling against has had implications in the production of coffee in Colombia. Colombia was under very strict and rigorous lockdown for five months that did not permit travel between municipalities anywhere except Antioquia. This exception was to facilitate the coffee harvest, as farms in Antioquia are much larger than many other areas and depend on a larger workforce. While farms across Nariño, Huila and Tolima are smaller, there has still been a shortage of pickers available to harvest the crop effectively. There has been limited movement of field staff that would normally offer support to producers in particular on drying but also on general quality protocols.
Pricing this harvest
The internal market in Colombia has continued to sustain high prices. For several years we have maintained a minimum price we pay to producers for reaching our minimum standards on quality. This price was calculated based on production costs, plus a premium that would allow producers to reinvest in their farm, and earn a good wage compared to the local cost of living. Lately the minimum daily prices set by the FNC have been around or above our minimum. This means our minimum price, which was previously considered a premium for producers, is now at or lower than what they could earn selling their coffee to the FNC. In more detail, the FNC daily prices have fluctuated around 1 million COP/carga (125kg of parchment) and up to 1.2 million COP/carga. Meanwhile the USD to COP has steadily dropped since mid March when it was at around COP 4160 / 1 USD, and has fluctuated between COP 3500 to COP 3800/1 USD.
What all of this means is that coffee in Colombia has become more expensive. Competition internally means that for even very standard coffees, one needs to pay as much as used to be paid for better qualities. Plus the exchange rate movement means COP now costs us more in USD.
Qualities in 2020
I need to state a disclaimer before I explain the affects the current situation can have on quality. There are many good producers, there are many producers who take pride in the work they do, who set out to achieve a certain standard regardless of external circumstances. I believe we work with many producers like this.
However producing coffee is a tough business, where you also need to maximise your earnings when you get the opportunity. This is particularly important to keep in mind for producers that don’t have existing relationships with a buyer who consistently provides a market and premiums for that producer’s coffee. Given the current internal market the daily prices are already at a premium for most producers, and don’t require any additional investment on quality. You never know how long a market like this will exist, so a producer can invest time and money in producing their best coffee and by the time they have prepared that coffee and bring it to market they can end up being paid less than those who rushed and did not pay attention to quality but got their coffee to the market as it is now. The common effect in the current market is then that it is harder to find really great coffees.
I do believe we have found many, but it has taken a lot more effort. We have carefully assessed a lot of sample material and closely measured how well coffees have been dried. We also work consistently with the same producers or groups of producers. We have already confirmed a number of micro-lots from Nariño and Huila, with some interesting additions.
We asked some producers to process natural coffees for us, and to do an extended fermentation in cherry before pulping the cherry. We have kind of gotten hooked on those fruit flavours and Colombian producers are creating some delicious profiles in this category!
Don’t worry, there are still plenty of beautiful washed coffees, we will always make sure of that. We have both washed micro-lots and some washed blends from Huila and Nariño. One of my favourite coffees so far has been this lot Bella Vista #1 by Ananias Silvestre, from an old friend Ananias. Plus you will also see the favourite organic lots from Tolima, both single farmers like Didier and a Tolima Organic blend.