I won’t lie – buying coffee can be fairly complicated. Sometimes I am simply astounded that the whole supply chain works and that we receive the level of quality we enjoy in Australia. Last November, I left Colombia ecstatic about the potential of our new relationship with the Primaveral Association. Up until recently everything had gone peachy. We received two shipments of the Acevedo group’s coffee and the feedback was extremely positive. Then came time for the Mitaca, the fly crop, and reports of extremely wet weather left us wondering when coffee would arrive and whether it would be of high quality.
Crazily, it has rained non-stop for nearly two months in this part of Colombia. Over the last month, one farmer told me that the Acevedo area had had only three dry days. You can imagine what this type of weather does to coffee production. For one thing, the trees do not follow their normal producing patterns when the climate is wet like this. Trees that do have cherries on them are all but green. Without the sun, the fruit cannot ripen. So while in some sense it is encouraging to see trees producing the beginnings of fruit, it is also worrying because the longer they stay on the tree, the more they are exposed to danger, particularly in the form of broca and frost.
Secondly, the farms which have been able to harvest a small amount of coffee are struggling to dry it properly. Colombian fincas are not like those found in Costa Rica or Brazil. There are no large scale electric dryers. Every farmer dries their parchment on patios or beds and hopes that the weather will be conducive to proper drying. Thus far, it simply has not been the case.
Understanding all this, you can bet I was a bit worried about heading to the cupping lab.
I was not sure what to expect and was preparing myself emotionally to navigate it as well as I could. However, to my surprise, the Primaveral coffee was easily one of the highest scoring coffees of the day.
It was just as I remembered it: clean, sweet and full bodied with a solid acidity. After giving due credit to the farmers who persevered through some really difficult circumstances, all credit must also go to our friends and partners on the ground, Fairfield Trading.
The Primaveral Association is a group of 50 farms. However, not all their coffee is sold under the Primaveral name. That name is strictly assigned to the best of the coffee; coffee that goes through a stringent testing process. In fact, if I am honest, I learned a lot about the Colombian notions of preparing coffee for export. As such, I’d like to share how rigorously the coffee is tested before it can lay claim the coveted Primaveral name – and the financial incentives that come with it.
First, it must check out as having a 10.5% – 11% moisture content. However, because of the weather conditions, this is actually proving to be rather difficult. In fact, in response, Fairfield has actually lowered the range by .5% from last year to ensure that after transportation, it remains at the proper level. The second test (and this was my biggest learning curve) is what they call the ‘yield factor’. I will spend a bit of time here as I thought this was pretty interesting.
Broadly, yield factors refer to the amount of parchment it takes to achieve 70 kilos of exportable green coffee; essentially, the lower the number, the better the coffee in parchment. The FNC (Colombian National Federation of Coffee) assigns a price and quality status to parchment that achieves a 92.8 rating. So Fairfield uses this particular number as the starting point for the parchment, but they also offer a financial incentive for any parchment that tests better.
Fairfield arrives at this incentivized number like this: As the coffee is received, a member of the team takes a portion of parchment from every parchment-filled bag until they have a 250g sample. They then mill the coffee and remove all the beans which are under a screen size of 14. Then they pick out all the beans with defects (i.e. broca, black beans, chipped beans etc.) and tally the total weight left. They divide this number by 250 and get a percentage or “rating”. If the coffee does not achieve a 92.8 rating the coffee is rejected and the farmer must sell at a local mill and at the listed FNC price for the day. When a coffee does achieve a 92.8 rating, the sample passes the yield factor test and the farmer is theoretically in the running to receive the 170,000 peso premium. If, the farmer’s coffee achieves a yield factor of below 92.8, then another calculation is inputted. They take the FNC price, add the 170,000 premium and multiply it by 92.8. They divide that number by whatever yield factor was achieved and, presto, the final price is theoretically achieved.
Now, I say ‘theoretically’ because there is still one test to pass and it is the most important – how does it taste in the cup? Fairfield has three cuppers in the lab and to accept a delivery of coffee the cup score must average an 86 or above.
This may sound harsh, but this is the real work of preparing specialty coffee. At the consumer level, we too face intense competition. It wouldn’t matter how sweet our smiles and how great our service, if our coffee did not live up to its specialty label. This is the hard truth that we all play by in this industry and, just as the farmers must go through rigorous tests to achieve exportation at a specialty level, we too are tried and tested by our customers.
Our Mitaca shipment will most definitely be delayed and realistically, will probably just slot into the start of the main harvest. However, that disappointment is somewhat lessened by the encouraging fact that the foundation is in place to prepare quality coffee, even in the toughest of uncontrollable circumstances.