Ever since getting the news that I was on this jury my excitement level had been rising. With seven previous competitions under their belt and with the legendary resources of the Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia, (FNC) behind it, this competition was due to be one of the great ones.  With me on the panel were old friends like Salvador Sans (Cafes Magnifico, Barcelona) Geoff Watts (Intelligentsia, Chicago), Aleco Chigounis (Stumptown, Portland) and a group of great cuppers from Australia, Netherlands, Brazil and Japan- please check the list of all on the CoE website

It’s the first time I had been on a Colombia jury and the statistics leading up to the final international round was impressive and not a little intimidating.  A record 875 separate samples had been submitted to the National panel and under the stewardship of Head Judge Erwin Mierish (Nicaragua), they had slogged through cupping all these lots over a three week period, six days a week to screen the submissions through two rounds down to a final 51 that achieved a minimum score of 84 points.  Our job was to spend a highly focussed week again cupping these 51 to find those that we truly believed were in a class above and beyond what is recognised as speciality coffees.

Our final round week was hosted by the Narino (state) Coffee Growers Federation in the busy regional capital of Pasto, and this hectic town of over 500,000 at the heart of the southernmost coffee growing region provided an excellent base from which we had opportunity to travel out and meet at first hand smallholder farmers typical of the region as well as host meetings with local growers to help share our group knowledge and perspective of coffee markets and farming in the various countries in which we each source and sell our coffees.

Our cupping week was divided as per CoE rules into two rounds in which we first cupped all 51 samples and those scoring the magical 84 and over pass to the second with the scoring becoming ever more detailed as the remaining coffees inevitably become closer together and consistently high in quality.

Interestingly and pretty much as I had expected, the standard here was extraordinarily high. A number of coffees knocked out in round one were pretty decent and well crafted coffees that would be regarded more than sound, with pleasant sweet acidity and positive flavour attributes.  Also in contrast to many competitions which Steven or I have been on, there were very few tables presented where at least one coffee failed to generate enthusiastic support from at least one or more jury member.  The hardest tables to judge were those where all 7 or 8 samples were good or great coffees and this really caused us to look very deeply into each cup not only looking for those that the marks of greatness but which could also present these factors consistently over all four samples on each table.  Just one variable cup thus led to lower scores and singled out the truly remarkable.  At the end of round one, we had discounted 25 out of the initial 51 with around 4 coffees hitting the magical 90 plus; two coffees were also passed through on a decision to re-roast the samples due to round one roasts not being within specification and which had received marginal scores – we always try to give each coffee a fair ‘hearing’ in the jury room.

Second round saw increasingly passionate debate with jury members pushing their favourites and hitting those coffees that were just a little off base.  Its here that the Cup of Excellence scoring system really comes into its own setting the competition clearly apart from the now established Q-grading or SCAA scoring system.  The scale really pushes jury members who use it correctly to focus on each aspect of the cup and its here that we really expand the reward and ‘penalties’ and its how we differentiate between the great and the extraordinary.  Satisfyingly we found probably four coffees that were really close to perfection and the winner at the end of the competition still shone out as a bright star even at this stage with an amazingly sweet and vibrant cup, juicy with depth, finish and a layered complexity that beautifully balanced the cup.  It’s a very rare experience to find this sort of coffee even in our sometimes rarefied world of premium speciality coffee.

Our final day was an even further detailed re-cupping of the top ten scoring coffees to give ranking order and a final chance to stretch the differences out and after all marks were tabulated, less than two points separated first and second places with the outright winner achieving the highest score in a Colombian competition to date, 94.92 points.

The winning coffees will be going to auction on 26th October and we’ll be watching closely for an opportunity to participate and reward the winning farms.

Whilst I am writing this summary of the competition, I also feel the need to discuss the wider context of the Colombian coffee situation this year (I’ll post another item very shortly to expand on this) as the industry is facing some huge structural challenges over the past 2-3 years.  Production this year is expected to be significantly down by anything up to around 40% due to two years of poor rainfall and a massive problem of coffee trees being infected by an infection called Roja (Coffee rust disease) which has in other countries in recent history virtually wiped out coffee production for a period of up to 5 years.  This fungal infection I should say poses NO RISK to health so don’t start getting alarmed about drinking coffee, it does not infect the coffee beans, but causes massive leaf drop on the trees rendering them unproductive.  This infection can be controlled through good farming practice and a judicious use of appropriate spraying (and no it does not mean nasty chemicals in your coffee; think of it more like having to get a flu shot in an epidemic).  The effect however has been a vast reduction in output with prices for good and great coffee rising hugely here.  The more worrying aspect however is that the FNC has looked for new cultivars such as Colombia and Castillo which are hybrids derived from Cattimor- supposedly more resistant, but as we have routinely found when cupping, the flavour profiles are nowhere as good as the traditional Cattura, Typica and Bourbon varietals.  At Union Hand Roasted we are working with our long standing friends at Timana to preserve the older varietals and seeking to focus on better farming practices to deal with the situation.  We believe that the current FNC approach is nothing more than offering a sticking plaster as opposed to dealing with the ‘root cause’ (sorry for that intentional pun!).  We remain committed to the long term health and welfare of the coffee and its producers.

Burundi Road Trip June 2010

Since we first got involved in Rwanda coffee in 2003, we’ve often been asked about sourcing from its southern neighbour Burundi. After the 1994 regional crisis and civil wars, Burundi remained in a state of turmoil with agreements only signed between the last of the rebel groups and the transitional coalition government as late as 2009. Since 2005 however, with increasing political stability, and the support of the international community, fundamental changes have been made to the coffee sector to enable outside investment and remove state ownership and control of the processing and export facilities. It was against this backdrop of liberalisation (thus allowing Union to develop direct contact with growers), our increasing interest in the unique coffees of the Great Lakes region, and their retained heritage Bourbon varietal (same as Rwanda) that I went to find out the breadth and diversity that Burundi coffee has to offer.

On this trip I was travelling with 6 other curious roasters from the USA and Canada and had been invited to tour a number of the producer cooperatives and meet the principal figures in the Burundi coffee scene from the various sectors; government, private enterprise and cooperatives. Whilst Steven and I don’t often go along on group tours, such an organised week of visits and intensive cupping promised to make the most of my time as I was also due to travel on the following week to spend days cupping lots for our 2010 Rwanda Harvest shipments. When you are getting to know a country’s coffee it’s important to cup as many lots as possible from a variety of areas and producers. This way you build up a picture of who is producing good coffee, who might be able to produce VERY good coffee with a bit of partnership and support, and who is talking the talk but not walking!

Our tour began crossing over the border from Rwanda at Kanyaru Haut crossing, accompanied by plus Ben Lentz (director of the US AID funded BAP Burundi Agricultural Project), Anne Ottaway, representing Michigan State University’s programme and various heads of coffee sector taking a ride in a convoy of 4×4’s. My travelling companion during the following days was mostly Adrien Sibomana, CEO of InterCafé , Burundi’s representative organisation for growers and exporters. Adrien is a tall quiet and thoughtful man, keenly aware of the most pressing issues facing Burundi coffee growers and is moving to get a national dialogue going about how to resolve increasing production of quality, value added coffee with the highly compartmentalised approach to family land ownership which inevitably prevents farmers from benefitting from even minor economies of scale. Over this and many other topics that affect coffee production and community development, Adrien told me more about his background and how he came into public office. What he (or anyone else) didn’t tell me, and what I found out two days into the trip, was that I was riding around with a former prime minister, (1988 – 1993).

Over the four following days of cooperative (washing station) visits and cuppings, it was clear that Burundi’s coffee industry is very much in a state of transition, with a well organised government established infrastructure of washing stations and dry mills that were developed with the single rationale of producing quantity, but not necessarily the quality that might be capable of generating added value for the country’s growers or the breakthrough quality that Union look for. In 2009 however the first stages of liberalisation took place with 13 of the country’s 160 washing stations being taken into either public (cooperative) or private enterprises, and we now have the opportunity to work direct with producers and source coffee traceable coffees.

On the first day, we spent the day touring Kayanza Province, a district to the east of the High mountainous forest area and arrived first at Ruhororo washing station. After being welcomed by enthusiastic Burundi ritual drummers we had opportunity to look at the process for receiving cherries and the washing station operation. One immediately apparent difference between Rwanda and Burundi station practices is that when smallholders bring cherry in, before they put the coffee on the sorting tables to screen out any under ripe (partly green) cherries, they have to put their pick into a basket or net which is then dropped into a water tank and the cherries that float (indicating malformed beans inside, insect damaged beans or over-ripe cherries) are skimmed off. The individual farmers then sort for only remaining perfect red (under-ripes sink as well as ripes) on the dry tables before weighing in and taking a chit or getting paid for the amount of coffee delivered. Ruhororo was one of the first of the stations handed back from the state after a group of 20 farmers decided to group together to take on the station and work as a cooperative taking cherries from local growers. BAP has partnered with this group contributing joint venture funding to add waste water processing capabilities to the station and prevent downstream negative impact while also contributing agricultural and organisational capacity building initiatives. This type of collaborative support is vitally important to us at Union Hand Roasted as we recognise that we are not a development agency but depend very closely on these aspects also being supported as well as our commercial support. Local partners can be highly effective and critical in maintaining what often seem like baby-step advances over the years of involvement.

Our second station visit seemed to be more like a visit to Mumbai train station with hundreds of people if not a thousand or so milling around the cooperative offices and warehouse. Even by African standards of hospitality and greeting this seemed to be an inordinate number of people so it was with relief that we found out that the farmers had turned up for the annual fertiliser handout. At Butegana, also in Kayanza, the station had been taken over in the first wave of liberalisation by a commercial operation known as Webcor Group, a private company active in commodity production in a number of countries around the world. With big resources, the company has made a significant commitment to Burundi coffee taking 13 stations in the first government privatisations and putting in human and financial resources to develop quality initiatives at both station and smallholder level. The principal difference here is that the processing facility is privately owned and as such profits remain within the corporation as opposed to being shared out amongst the community. In reality, coffee producing countries need both public and private producers as the latter can often employ capital to develop resources in an organised manner and if the goal remains that of creating added value coffee that the farmers can really see an improvement in earnings per kilo grown or labour hour employed then it should be seen as a benefit and not just the corporate arm of big business. As this is the first year of this relationship we’ll continue to watch and see how things progress. From the visit it was immediately apparent however that the station’s capacity was huge (500-1500MT) and that even with a central elevation of 1650MASL much work will need to be undertaken to really understand the areas from which their coffee comes, the daily lot sizes that comprise the stations operational capacity and how these can remain segregated to protect and retain the no doubt small parcel sizes where real quality coffee can be found and retained.

After a short lunch we made the final visit of the day to a station at Buziraguhindwa (CPC), a much smaller station (capacity 300-500MT) also private but this time owned and operated by a local private organisation. With an exciting altitude location of 1996MASL this station is well located in the higher reaches of Kyanza’s Muruta district and should be capable of producing some good coffee lots although sadly we didn’t see any samples from here on the cupping tables.

Looking at Burundi coffee there are unsurprisingly many similarities in the methods of operation when compared to Rwanda – after all both countries share so many aspects of terrain, population dispersal and density and of course the presence of old Bourbon coffee varietals. Just because of this however, one should not assume that the coffee itself will be the same as Rwanda’s. Now that the quality of Rwanda coffee has been allowed to shine through better agronomy and processing, real regional differences are becoming apparent characterising coffees that may be full bodied with deep brown sugar sweetness to those fleeting cups with floral, citrus and soft honeyed tones. I fully expect that with such a diversity of microclimates and a soil character that is similar but with enough differences to mark it out from other regions, Burundi coffee could provide us with yet more nuances of the region.

On day 2 of the trip, our cupping was due to take place at a regional cupping lab in Ngozi and here for the first time the roaster anoraks came out! When preparing cupping lots, we routinely use very small batch roasting machines known unsurprisingly as sample roasters. These bits of kit are, like any specialist equipment inordinately expensive and are manufactured in different sizes (number of barrels that can simultaneously roast). At Union we have a two barrel machine that covers the majority of our needs, but out here in Ngozi, the full evidence of government commitment (spending) became apparent. It seemed as though whichever door or hallway we looked in, there was yet another SIX Barrel roaster – in brand new pristine condition. In one lab we noted 5, six barrel machines – and by the end of the week our count had climbed up to a total of fifty something barrels!!!! I hope that these machines find their way out into the regions and are well used, its just that when one sees things like this – I hope that the machines do get implemented and don’t just disappear into the system!

Over the following two days we visited another four stations, both private and cooperatively owned and witnessed similar operations trying to tease out the differences between people and their approach to the coffee, subtle things that give you a feel for the people’s relationship to what they produce and how the community is established – their aspirations and willingness to partner with external organisations to improve quality and of course their return. No matter how much people get under your skin, its important as a buyer to remain focussed on the coffee. I’ve thought back over the years about how many people we’ve met each with great stories and how we’ve come away with a desire or a hope that their coffee meets our own requirements but the acid test is of course the cupping room and blind tasting. This trip promised to be a crash course in Burundi coffee and after day 4 we had hit over 240 sample lots and to keep the schedule on track had to resort to some pretty nifty speed cupping – yeah it’s the same as dating just that your partner doesn’t slap you in the face when you say something inappropriate!

On the final day of the trip, we had a long morning cupping session at Arfic – the Burundi National Coffee Regulation Authority with the US Ambassador in attendance and who also participated in the cupping under tutelage of Wendy DeJong, current chair of the US Roasters Guild. The Ambassador had only recently taken up the posting but it was encouraging to see how much time she gave us and the Burundian teams in seeking to understand the opportunity for both sides in this partnering for quality. I know our own government does do some good work in supporting developing countries –mainly in areas of governance and society, but as a coffee guy its frustrating not to be able to hook up with our own nationals in developing these sources of great coffee…..come on DFID?

Overall I have to say that this has been a great trip and I do feel much more aware of the range of possibilities in Burundi coffee. From my cupping notes I have already got my eye on some lots we’d like to try out and get to know Burundi a little better this year. Over the coming months we are going to look at some of the communities where we can, as with Rwanda, form a close relationship and work together to develop sustainable direct trading that yields more exciting coffee from the Great Lakes of Africa.

We had a bad time in Guatemala because of the Tropical Storm Agatha and the erupting activity of the Pacaya volcano last week. Many people died and some others lost their houses and their plantations. The most damage occurred was in the places very close to the coast area (pacific) near the volcano and Guatemala city. Many coffee plantations were lost.
Some people in Huehuetenango also faced some problems like those, specially the people who live in vulnerable places. Fortunately, where we are we didn´t have many problems with the coffee plantations, probably because of the many trees (roots) that protect the soil and prevent this problems. Now, everything is better. The coffee is growing and I think we will have a good harvest. I hope so.

Back in 2000 when Jeremy & I first starting giving thoughts to creating Union, it was partly as a reaction to the stories we were hearing following the drop in world coffee prices and how this was causing hardships to producers. In 2002, our first year of roasting, Jeremy participated in the first Cup of Excellence judging in Guatemala. During that trip he visited farms and saw the effect low coffee prices were having on producers. He took photos of the coffee plantations that had been abandoned because farmers couldn’t afford to keep them productive. We heard stories about how these abandoned farms would affect the local communities and cause disruption of rural economies. It compelled us to seek another way to trade, developing the relationship model & buying coffee according to its intrinsic value and quality, & not the vagaries of commodity traders working the markets.

Our approach to direct trade was a simple message but we’ve had to work hard to convince producers that it’s in their interest to plan for the future and agree prices that are sustainable for them. It may take the thrill of the roulette table out of their lives, but it removes the risk.

Now over the years we’ve developed the long term relationships with many producers so it’s been a while since I last talked about the coffee crises of the early 2000’s. This visit to Guatemala brought it right back to me as I was visiting farms that were now in the early days of re-establishing their coffee production again after having been discarded for so long.

Famers like Jose Lopez, who is the legal representative of a co-operative of smallholder farmers in La Libertad, Huehuetenango. His smallholding is 1.5 ha. The first trees we looked at were 2 years old, (farm section called La Fortuna). This farm was abandoned from 2002-5, because of low prices, but 3 years ago he started to reinstate it. It’s taken a long time to get back into condition and won’t be fully productive till 2011. At 1800mASL (5800 ft) it’s very high altitude and within this first section all the shade trees in the farm are indigenous which is unusual as most farmers tend not to use indigenous trees now.

The next section of his farm, also abandoned, is still being worked on to get it back into shape. The trees, a mix of caturra, bourbon, pache, tipica, and Jose explains they are 9 years old, which means they were new when they were abandoned.

The high altitude is a double edge sword; positive impact is no insects and no requirement to use any insecticide spray whatsoever. The negative is the effect of frost burn at this height that causes death to part or complete trees.

I found it disturbing to be continuously reminded about the coffee crises that in my mind was so many years ago. Yet, in the remoter regions of La Liberdad near the Mexico Chiapas border, farmers were talking about an even more complex legacy from that period. Here, abandonment had a more profound impact. Many of the farmers in this region are women, fending for themselves because the men left for the USA. The mounting debts their farms incurred after the crash, forced the men to seek work abroad, and try to send cash home to their families who had nothing. But some of the women hadn’t heard from their husbands in years; the women were abandoned with young families with no option but to learn agronomy and take over the responsibility of coffee farming. I asked the women what help they received, “very little, we employ a hand full of pickers, indigenous mayan, in the season, but we also pick and process our own coffee. Pruning shade trees to ensure the correct amount of sun reaches the coffee is the only task we struggle with and need to get assistance”. Again and again I heard this story, unveiling the legacy of the coffee crises from 2001-2203.

In Todos Santos, Huehuetenango, I was privileged to spend a few days with a small co-operative of 50 Mayan farmers. They only wear traditional hand made clothing and most only spoke their local language, “Mam” so working through 2 translators was tricky but we made good progress explaining the Union code of conduct, and how we seek to improve the working conditions and labour standards of all participants in coffee farming. It seemed to be well appreciated as these farmers are very progressive and work according to the Slow Food philosophy of producing high quality coffee, care for the environment and social development for the farmers. This region of Northern Guatemala was closed to visitors until the end of the1996 civil war, and even after this period travellers did not venture here. The culture of these Maya was not respected by western visitors and this caused tension and problems in the region. The Guatemala government commenced a programme to sensitize the people of this region towards visitors and the outcome is that the Mam are now happy to receive outsiders and enthusiastic to explain their way of life. These farmers told me they were not seeking a buyer, they want a partner, a long term committed relationship. This meeting was like an arranged marriage. The last few years they’d been receiving intensive agronomy training and in 2009 they received funding to construct a new pulping station. Now they produce beautiful coffee so am hopeful this will be a union made in heaven.

Its striking to hear their stories – the oldest member of the co-operative remembers when they first started to grow coffee – nearly 70 years ago. And he stands in front of the coffee tree that he remembers his father planting when he was a 7 year old boy. Back in those days the ground was so fertile, they could just stick seeds into the soil and the trees would grow without any inputs. Nowadays they have to apply organic fertilizer to achieve good production.
We’re looking forward to their coffee arriving at our roastery- during June.

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