We really like coffee in case you didn’t know. Brewing, roasting, and sourcing tasty coffees that not only make us happy but also makes you happy. We’ve been traveling to coffee producing countries for quite a few years now but this was our first trip to Colombia. We arrived in Bogotá late and met up with our importing partner, Café Imports, a specialty coffee importer based out Minneapolis, MN and other specialty coffee roasters from the U.S.A., Canada, South Korea, Singapore and Russia. The following morning, we all flew out to Popayán, the capital of the Cauca department. We met up with the rest of the Café Imports team and Banexport, an amazing exporter who, in conjunction with Café Imports, put together the annual auction, Cauca Best Cup. Over the next eight days that followed we would cup the best coffees that Cauca had to offer in the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia’s (FNC) facility in Popayán, visit some farms, meet with producers and participate in an auction for the coffees that we cupped and scored.
Cauca Best Cup is an auction that pulls together producers from all around the Cauca department. In its first year the auction had 200 producers, the second had 500 producers, and this year there were 700 producers who entered their coffee, all of which were small micro-lots. This auction is kind of like a regional Cup of Excellence that helps buyers connect with the best up-and-coming coffee producers in the region and it continues to grow each year. The auction is, in the words of Andrew Miller, Café Import’s founder and President, “Basically finding top quality coffee and paying great prices to the farmers that produced them.” That’s not to say that we cupped 700 coffees, although that would be pretty amazing. Instead we cupped the top 30 coffees of the auction; Banexport did some pretty intensive work and cupped all 700 entries up to 10 times to pre-screen the coffees from the region.
Outside of the auction coffees we also cupped and scored regional select coffees, large blended lots of micro-regions throughout Cauca, and some experimentally processed coffees and unique coffee varieties primarily from the Huila department. To sum up what went down on the cupping table, we cupped and scored 60 coffees over the course of four days. The top 30 micro-lots went to the live auction at the end of the trip, the regional select coffees became immediately available to buyers after scoring, and a silent online auction for those experimental and unique coffee varieties. It was pretty amazing to taste through all of these coffees, they were all truly fantastic.
When we weren’t cupping we’d be visiting coffee producers and get the chance to learn about their operation, listen to them share their expertise on farming, and find out how they go about producing the best cup. The size of these farms typically range between 1 to 10 hectares; a hectare is a common metric unit of square measurement used throughout various agricultural industries (1 hectare equals approximately 2.471 acres). Although there are some farms that are larger then 10 hectares, most are around 1 to 2 hectares. The most common varieties on these farms are Castillo, Caturra, and Colombia although Bourbon and Typica can still be found in the region. Castillo in particular is very popular right now over older varieties like Bourbon and Typica as it’s a rust resistant variety. There have been debates that Castillo, although it’s rust resistant, isn’t as tasty of a variety as something like Bourbon or Caturra because it’s a hybrid of Arabica and Robusta. This competition really championed Castillo as not only a rust resistant variety but also as an amazingly delicious variety on pare with others. Jairo Ruiz from Banexport, our host for the trip, mentioned on multiple occasions that the reason behind their success and the producer’s success with Castillo was due to leaving the cherry one the branch for a longer period of time so instead of picking the cherry when it was red they would advise producers to pick the cherry when it was purple. These purple cherries would have a higher brix measurement (Brix is a unit of measurement for sugar content) which isn’t surprising but typically picking a cherry when it’s purple isn’t desirable as it is typically overripe but Castillo is an exception to this practice. In short, Castillo is really really delicious.
Cauca Best Cup wrapped up with a live auction of the top 15 micro-lots. The auction had the majority of the producers along with their families and friends and many residents of the community attend to see what the top lot would sell for. This was a strangely surreal and overall humbling experience. We arrived in style in our Chiva, an artisan rustic bus, to an ecstatic crowd eagerly awaiting our arrival so that the auction could begin. It’s hard to say many people were there but maybe 500 attendees would be a fair guess. Once the auction began we all timidly began raising our paddles for our preferred lots but once we began to get closer and closer to the top lot the crowd began to become quite active and urged us to bid higher and higher. We abided. The bidding began at $3.50 per pound and by the end of the auction the top lot went for $22 per pound which is pretty expensive. The coffees that make it to this auction can be life changing for these producers as they’re likely to fetch a higher price then they have in the past through traditional channels of commerce.
The crowd’s enthusiasm was a little overwhelming and the support for the auction was humbling. As an industry we rightfully talk highly of our producing partners for their hard work and in a way place them on a pedestal in our minds. It was strange to experience to be a buyer where the tables are turned and the producers seem to perceive you in a similar manner. Everyone that attended was excited not only for the producers but also for the buyers that purchased the fruit of their labor. There was a general sense of coffee not only being a linear seed-to-cup experience but a cyclical industry where one component can positively affect the supply chain and create a positive feedback loop that raises not only coffee quality but also the quality of life for those involved.
We picked up one coffee from the auction and two that placed in the top thirty. We always want to find delicious coffees to bring back home but we also want to work with producers that we can grow with and this auction has given us and the producers access to each other for that kind of growth if we both decided to pursue it in the coming years. All of the coffees we picked up are phenomenal but more importantly they offer a glimpse into a possible relationship that can produce not only better coffee through stable and consistent purchasing but also a healthy business relationship that can benefit all parties involved. We’re pretty fond of the auction and the positive impact that it can bring to everyone involved but we’re also very excited to take that next step in what the future might hold for possible relationship coffees. We’ll be sure to announce when those coffees land here at our roastery so be sure to keep an eye out for some delicious coffees from Cauca some time in November.