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