Storming the taste test How Colombia's micro-lots bluR the line between great coffee and pure dopamine

Pasto, capital of Nariño Department, southwesten Colombia.

On the third floor of a hotel near Pasto's central plaza, there was slurping.

Lots of slurping.

This was my first formal coffee cupping experience. Lined up were some of the region's best brews, ready for their moment of reckoning by some of the most influential buyers in the gourmet coffee market.

These folks - known as cuppers, or Master Tasters - move thousands of tonnes of speciality coffee each year from Latin America and beyond to high-value markets in the US, Europe and increasingly India and China. They decide which beans their customers will pay top dollar, euro, rupee or yuan for.

And so they slurp.

If you've never witnessed a cupping session before, it definitely smacks of cult. Firstly, hot water is poured into cups of roasted, freshly ground beans and left to steep for precisely four minutes. Then the Master Tasters get to work, hovering their expert noses perilously close to the steaming brews. After the thick flotsam of grounds has settled and any foam has been removed, they engage in the deft micro-wafting of aromas from cup to discerning nostril. Finally they take a spoonful of coffee. There's a short, sharp slurp and...

...that's when the magic happens. It could be notes of dark chocolate, cinnamon, lemongrass or honey; caramel, peach, or blueberry. Palates finely tuned like those of whiskey or wine tasters, these guys know what they're looking for: combinations of flavours, fragrances and "mouthfeel" that have enabled Colombian Arabica producers to carve out their own special place in the big league of gourmet coffees.

As the session unfolds there's a thrumming silence from onlookers, punctuated only by slurps and the clinking of spoons as tasters move from sample to sample, clutching their plastic spittoons.

They each arrive at a score out of 100 for each brew. As a rule of thumb, 85-and-over means the coffee is destined for the bright lights of Seattle or Seoul. Coffees from Nariño consistently punch at 85 and upwards. For the Master Tasters, that's where the line between coffee and pure dopamine gets hazy. For Nariño's farmers, it means they produce some of the finest and most coveted coffee in the world.

That's a boon for a region renowned for its large-scale production of another high-value, internationally traded stimulant, albeit a less salubrious one, cocaine. You might not realise it from the cosy comfort of a high street café, but war has raged through Colombia's coffee lands for decades. The growing of coca plants in Nariño and turf wars between armed groups has led to displacement of rural communities, widespread instability and grinding poverty.

Despite this, the region's coffee trade has weathered the storm quite well. Coffee from Nariño became the country's first to receive Denomination of Origin status in 2011 - international recognition of its exceptional quality, like Champagne from you-know-where.

But Catholic Relief Services, with funding from the Howard G. Buffet Foundation, felt more could be done to promote gourmet coffee production and support conflict-affected communities struggling to increase their incomes.

They set out to target around 3,000 growers in the restive frontier region of Colombia and Ecuador as part of the CRS-led Borderlands Coffee Project. Researchers from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) joined the team to help analyse the coffee trade, provide advice to farmers, and take stock of some of the challenges and opportunities.

The team was well aware that these long-troubled lands were blessed with some of the best coffee in the world. From one hillside to the next, there were farmers, often with just half-a-hectare of plants, producing top-class beans for a ready market.

But they were missing a trick: the market wasn't rewarding those who produced truly exquisite coffee - brews that scored over 85. Not just big-time coffee; the best-of-the-best.

That's because the established system of coffee buying went something like this: Farmers would bring their beans to buying stations scattered across the region, by whichever means available - car, truck, bus, bike or donkey. There, representatives of two of the world's biggest buyers - Starbucks and Nespresso - would ensure they were of good visible quality as a proxy for great taste. They knew Nariño's coffee beans were reliably 85s; as long as they passed the physical inspection, all the farmers would get a flat rate. Then the beans would be bulked together, sold as a single lot, and their journey to the coffee bars of the world would begin. About 98% of Nariño's coffee beans were handled this way, and it was a good deal for farmers who met the quality and sustainability standards.

But what about those whose coffees were a pulse-raising 87, or even a knee-trembling 90-plus? Their beans were getting mixed in with the 85s, receiving the same flat rate.

"We knew that a small number of intrepid buyers had managed to find some very high quality coffees in Nariño, like diamonds in the rough," says Borderlands Coffee Project director Michael Sheridan. "They bought these at a higher price, showing farmers there were clear financial rewards for differentiating their coffee."

The team got to work, searching for more of these 'micro-lots'.

But no so fast. You can't distinguish an 87-rated coffee from an 85 just by looking at the beans. And that's where the Master Tasters come in.

Donning branded Borderlands bibs, they worked the tables at the cupping session in Pasto, sampling and re-sampling the micro-lots, noting the minutest quirks and nuances on their clipboards. They represented US gourmet roasters Intelligentsia and Counter Culture, Colombian exporters Virmax and Inconexus, and US importers Sustainable Harvest. If you know your coffee, you'll know that these guys are living, slurping proof that Nariño's farmers can get a good shake.

But this was no ordinary cupping session: the famers who produced those coffees were in the room too, a few feet from the action, watching the spectacle.

"Cupping used to be a kind of alchemy that took place behind closed doors," explains Michael. "The cuppers would emerge like high priests or judges with a verdict on how good the coffee was. For micro-lot coffee, that just doesn't work. You need trust, transparency and dialogue between producers and buyers. From our earlier work in Central America, we saw that bringing farmers to the cupping table was a key factor in the coffee revolution there. It turned out to be one of the most important acts of farmer empowerment possible."

In another break from convention, a group of local, trainee tasters keen to master the art of cupping was also present. Coaching this new generation is part of what Michael describes as a long-term calibration exercise. It means that when a cupper in Nariño describes a particular coffee as being earthy, silky or well-balanced, buyers in the United States will know exactly what to expect when the sacks arrive. It also enables the cuppers to blend different beans and achieve the balance of flavours their clients are looking for.

Farmers and trainee tasters learn the art of coffee cupping at a workshop in the village of La Florida, Nariño.

As the session concluded, the Master Tasters delivered their verdicts on the different coffees - 18 in all, with one of them scoring a mind-bending 88.

Normally at this point, they would buy their preferred lots on the spot and arrange to ship them straight away. And that's the final reason this was no standard cupping session: these particular coffees - all produced by farmers in the Borderlands Coffee Project - had already been sold. The event was for the benefit of trainees and farmers, to give them an insight into how the hitherto esoteric world of coffee tasting works, with all the amusing rules, rituals and sound effects it involves.

In its first year the Borderlands team enabled around 100 farmers to break into the gourmet coffee market. This year they're up to around 550 and that number is likely to rise.

Sacks of micro-lot coffee, ready for export, in the village of La Florida, Nariño.

CIAT's Mark Lundy concedes that producing micro-lot coffee is not for everyone though. For consistently top quality beans, you have to take care of all kinds of things, from the way the coffee is grown and picked, to the specifics of washing and drying. That's why the project focuses on "connecting capable sellers with willing buyers," he says, those able to go the extra mile. People like Carlos and Angela in the village of La Florida.

For those who can do it, there's the prospect of much better returns, and for those who love coffee, some excellent new brews are emerging. I ask Michael how he personally feels when he sips a top quality coffee from a Nariño micro-lot. While he makes his excuses for not being a cupping expert himself, his response is nonetheless revealing.

"Every lot that's put on the table is produced by people who want a better future and who hope coffee is a means to that; in their coffee is their aspiration to excellence. So regardless of whether you taste blackberry or citrus or peach in the cup, that desire always adds a little bit of sweetness to the experience."

Words and pics by Neil Palmer. Twitter: @neilCIAT

Borderlands Coffee Project partners: Pastoral social de Ipiales; Pastoral social de Pasto.

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