The Best Cup events are a rare opportunity for coffee producers to present their work to a panel of 30 buyers from around the world, who evaluate their coffees according to the highest international standards.
Cupping gives buyers a good idea of the effort made by each farmer; what is not, however, evident in the cup is the way in which external factors, beyond the farmers’ control, can challenge and even threaten their harvest, as well as their ingenuity in dealing with such situations.
Low rainfall in the Huila department severely affected the main coffee harvest in 2016. While it allowed varieties such as Caturra, Typica and Bourbon to retain a much greater proportion of cherries, the trees spent more energy (due to a higher photosynthetic activity), resulting in a lower concentration of sugars. This became apparent when cupping the affected coffees, which tended towards giving a drier than usual, at times astringent, cup.
Lack of manpower was a critical challenge for most farmers, especially in the picking process, which has a determining role both in terms of the volume and quality of the harvest.
This harvest began as late as October and was over by the start of December, meaning that many of the smaller scale farms in Huila had difficulty with the beneficio process, as their infrastructure could not always match the rate and volume of coffee being produced. In some cases, producers were not able to process the cherries collected at the optimum time because their wet-mills were already being used to their full capacity; these coffees developed phenol and mould. In the drying process farmers had similar issues. They were forced to dry their coffees in thick layers, as a result of which the process was not homogeneous.
Another measure that producers took was to sell their cherries unprocessed in the local market.
Although it is difficult to predict the different aspects that can affect productivity every season, producers that have a long-term relationship with Banexport receive guidance through the whole year, part of which is to take precautions and prepare for adversity to the best of their capacity.
Fertilization, for example, is crucial for the successful development of the plant. Banexport’s agronomists generally recommend increasing the frequency of fertilization from two to three times per year. This subtle change makes a big difference, strengthening the trees and allowing them to keep their foliage for longer. Rainfall can wash away fertilization products, while dry climate can have a similar effect, making the plant consume the products more rapidly. Fertilising more frequently ensures that the plants are better covered in terms of nutrition all year round.
The agronomists also evaluate the nutrient requirements for each lot (based on a soil analysis made by the producer) to determine the correct nutrient dosage in each case. One such nutrient is calcium, which, by augmenting the concentration of soluble solids in the mucilage (and therefore the overall sugar content of the cherry), improves cup quality.
The overall benefit of this fertilization method for producers has been to place a safeguard on both the quantity and quality produced from one year to the next, as well as helping the trees maintain good form after the harvesting season.
Specialty coffee producers are always committed to quality, nonetheless, a coffee farm is usually its owner’s independent enterprise and, at times, circumstances can determine whether the pursuit of quality is the best strategy, in terms of guaranteeing their family and farm’s wellbeing, or not. Some farmers who were aware that their picking process had not been up to the highest standard, or had other issues at the beginning of their processes, decided to sell their coffees in the traditional market; commercial coffee prices in 2016 were high, in relative terms, so given the challenges faced by these producers, this seemed like a sensible option.
Coffee farmers who felt a greater need to sell their coffee as specialty grade were broadly divided in two groups: those who focused their resources on producing a smaller volume of carefully processed coffee (selling most of their produce as commercial) and those who strived to maintain high standards throughout the process, actively seeking advice and calling on their creativity to overcome these challenges.
The shortage of pickers, for instance, was addressed by offering different incentives, such as paying a better daily wage, paying pickers per kilogram harvested or providing better accommodation to improve their wellbeing and performance.
As for the lack of rainwater, which also led to a lower or interrupted flow in the aqueducts supplying the farms with running water, coping strategies ranged from collecting rainwater when possible to collaborating with neighbours by using pipes to supply their farms and travelling to and from a nearby water source with buckets. In cases where it was not possible to acquire the quantity of water required using other means, producers also decided to wash their beans a maximum of two to three times.
Elkin Guzmán – Banexport’s lead agronomist in Huila, considering the unusual climatic conditions, often advised producers to let the cherries ferment until the mucilage disintegrated completely, thus allowing more time for sugars in the mucilage to transfer through to the almond. Having anticipated the lower-than-usual sugar levels caused by the plants’ higher energy expenditure (due to photosynthesis), he envisaged that such a fermentation process would help compensate for this loss. Elkin also helped producers collaborating with Banexport determine appropriate fermentation times, based on cupping results and their farm’s particular conditions, to optimise bean quality.
Meanwhile, to deal with the high temperatures (22° to 25° C), producers used additional protection in their dryers, such as curtains or polisombras (fabric that regulates ultraviolet rays).
In terms of the 2017 Huila Best Cup competition, despite a notable decrease in the volume of the coffee received, the overall quality surpassed that of the competition’s 2016 edition. Banexport’s cuppers gave the lots higher cupping scores having identified complex notes and profiles, which were clearly the result of high processing standards at the farm. Producers that had a more entrepreneurial vision of their farm and dedicated themselves to fighting adversity back by developing innovative techniques and processes at their farms, were those who fared best in the competition, made it through to its final auction and, selling their coffee for an exceptional price, saw their resilience rewarded.
With special thanks to Julián Ruiz, Jairo Ruiz, Aldemar Sarasti, Paola Trujillo, James Fernandez and Elkin Guzmán for their advice, support and contributions to this article.
Written by Adriana Ruiz
Edited by Manos Charalabopoulos