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434. The variety play (and the future of Caturra)

We interrupt our series on of interviews on the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings to bring you an important reflection on the future of Caturra.

Are its days numbered?

THE VARIETY PLAY

In this recent article in The Coffee Review, Ken Davids explores the idea of “the variety play,” which he defines as “marketing coffee by the botanical variety of the tree that produced the coffee.”  In his review of a range of single-variety offerings from specialty roasters, he introduces another idea: varietal tiers.

VARIETAL TIERS

In Ken’s estimation, coffee varieties can be divided into three tiers on the basis of cup quality.

“If the Geshas and Pacamaras and Bourbons and SL28’s constitute the top tier of varietal complexity and distinction and the more traditional varieties like Typica, Caturra, Pacas, etc. make up the middle tier, perhaps the Robusta crosses might form a third and lowest tier,” he writes.

He provides additional analysis of the second and third tiers that have unique relevance to our ongoing exploration of leading Colombian varieties in general, and to the future of Caturra in particular.

Tier 2: Traditional Latin American varieties

Ken writes: “Traditional Latin American varieties (Typica, Caturra, Pacas, Villa Sarchi, Catuai) tend to produce a solid but conventional-tasting cup that may impress but does not stand out. It is doubtless for this reason that most farmers and millers do not make a special effort to segregate these varieties and market them separately.”

Tier 3: Hybrids

Of his own suggestion that hybrid varieties with Robusta genetics might constitute a third tier of varietal quality, he acknowledges: “that is pure assumption at this point. In my limited experience it is very difficult to consistently distinguish Caturra from the suspect Castillo in a rigorous blind cupping.”  Ken wrote that line before he participated in the CRS Colombian Varietal Cupping—an experience that only served to reinforce his idea that Caturra and Castillo are as often as not indistinguishable on the cupping table.

THE FUTURE OF CATURRA

Taken together with the preliminary results of our sensory analysis of Colombian coffee varieties, Ken’s assessments may have real—and troubling—implications for the future of Caturra.

Over the past month, I have published conversations with three renowned cuppers with three very different perspectives on the sensory attributes of Castillo and Caturra.  To the extent those perspectives represent broader currents in the marketplace, they have different implications for Caturra—none of them particularly encouraging.

The Geoff Watts Scenario

Last week, I asked Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia Coffee here about his pronounced preference for Castillo in blind, side-by-side cuppings with Caturra.  Geoff was careful to note that while the results opened his eyes to the quality potential of Castillo, he will not rewrite his buying protocols on the basis of a single cupping panel.  But if large numbers of specialty roasters were to share the preferences Geoff expressed during that panel, it would be hard to see an encouraging future for Caturra, which has lower yields and less disease resistance than Castillo while frequently being judged inferior in terms of cup quality.  Under this scenario, few growers would likely be compelled to plant Caturra instead of Castillo, since it would mean exposure to production risk combined with a deficit in the area of cup quality.

The Tim Wendelboe Scenario.

Two weeks ago, I published this conversation with Tim Wendelboe, who summed up his agnosticism on the Castillo v. Caturra question this way: “Sometimes Castillo will taste better than Caturra from the same farm and sometimes the opposite.  I think both cultivars can be really delicious.”  He further noted of Caturra, that “when it is better, it is not that much better.”

This observation is distinct from Ken Davids’ suggestion that Castillo and Caturra may be indistinguishable in the cup.  But it is similar, as it suggests that the two varieties are equally likely to produce a higher-quality cup profile and neither is intrinsically better than the other.  Under this scenario as well, it seems that there is little incentive for growers to plant Caturra, since it would expose them to production risk with no decisive promise of reward in the marketplace on the basis of quality than Castillo.

The Tim Hill Scenario.

Three weeks ago, Tim Hill of Counter Culture reported in this interview on his decisive preference for Caturra on the cupping table.  He suggested that Caturra is worth 50-60 cents per pound more than Castillo based on its consistently superior quality.  This is the only scenario in which the continued production of Caturra seems to be even a remote possibility.  But Tim isn’t sure that even a 60-cent-per-pound premium will be enough of an incentive for Colombia’s growers to resist the steady march toward Castillo.  The math is not encouraging for Caturra.

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that between its high yields and its robust resistance to disease, Castillo offers a grower an average 25 percent more production than Caturra.  To compensate for that production deficit, growers of Caturra would need to be assured of a 33 percent premium.  In a $2 market, that means a 60-cent premium.  In other words, the quality premium that Tim proposes is not a quality premium at all—it is a risk premium.  And it only covers Caturra growers for production deficits up to 25 percent—it offers no protection for the kinds of catastrophic losses that have affected coffee growers from Colombia to Central America every year since 2008.

If even the most optimistic scenario for Caturra—the one in which the variety offers a decisive quality advantage over Castillo and a 60-cent-per-pound premium—is heavy with risk and light on reward, it is hard to generate a lot of enthusiasm for Caturra’s future in a time of climate change and coffee leaf rust.  For farmers who are growing Caturra today, it is not clear that there is a strong case for them to be growing Caturra tomorrow.  Castillo seems to offer the promise of more protection against production risk without a significant reduction in market reward.  Growers who seek to increase their incomes on the basis of cup quality may be wise to consider moving toward the “top tier” varieties identified by Ken Davids, which may entail as much risk as Caturra but are more likely to generate significant premiums.


8 Comments

  • Adam McClellan says:

    Hmm interesting. I understand where this is coming from but feel it’s a little shortsighted. I think this ignores several factors, the first being that Caturra can actually be very productive and resistant in a wide range of landscapes if used in conjunction with good agronomic practices. Which brings up another important factor that in the production of Castillo (and other robusta hybrids), that are designed to grow under full sun in order to get the optimum yields, which in time only requires heavier and more costly inputs of fertilizer and soil erosion/degradation. I much more easily see Typica in this second tier category as (sadly) falling by the wayside, since it is and never really has been very productive and offers much less resistance to leaf rust. But Caturra can produce incredible cup quality AND be very productive. We are currently roasting an 89 point pure Caturra coffee from Huila and we paid over 1.00/LB premium to the grower, and he has been slowly renovating his farm with new Caturra over the past two years, and growing an appropriately balanced shade canopy, rather than plant more Castillo (he still has Castillo which gets sold to the standard commercial market and balances income)..We have repeatedly only approved and purchased his Caturra in spite of several trials cupping Castillo. I would argue that the risks of planting Gesha, SL-28, Pacamara, and Bourbon are significantly greater than Caturra, in that all are much less productive and (excluding Bourbon) have flavor and bean size characteristics with even more specific tastes, markets, and uses. I would be far more skeptical of recommending these rather than more adaptable and proven Caturra to a farmer. Diversity is a beautiful thing. It would be really really sad for specialty coffee and farmers to give up on Caturra, but that is just my humble opinion.

    • Michael Sheridan says:

      Adam:

      You packed a lot of insight into that paragraph!

      I hope you don’t see me ADVOCATING here for an end to Caturra! As you know better than anyone, we are actively working in Nariño to do precisely what Ken Davids suggests isn’t often done: separating Caturra as a single-variety offering on the basis of demand from buyers like you who continue to exercise a preference for it in your buying, and continue to pay premiums for it when it meets your quality standards. The continued success of our single-variety Caturra strategy, which has delivered encouraging results over the past two harvests in Nariño, obviously depends on access to Caturra!

      The idea here was not to advocate for abandoning Caturra, but to get real about the incentives cash-starved farmers have to plant it. Tim from Counter Culture has an incredibly strong preference for Caturra over Castillo. You have a less strong but still very clear preference for Caturra, which we will explore on this blog in the coming days. You have both come, through years of buying and cupping, to conclude that the likelihood of your approval of microlots is positively related to the percentage of Caturra in those lots. Your results from our recent cupping exercises have only confirmed those positions. For buyers like you, and for growers who are comfortable managing the risks, Caturra is a good bet. But there are two questions here that are worth considering from my perspective.

      First, how much is enough? The 60-cent-per-pound premium Tim suggests sounds good. The $1/lb. premium you reference also sounds good. And if growers are able to effectively contain rust and achieve the kinds of yields you mention, then it may very well be the kind of incentive that growers like your partner in Huila partner need to expand their commitment to the variety. But growers who are not as effective in their management may not be able to make even a 60-cent/lb. premium work.

      Second, and perhaps more importantly, is there enough demand for Caturra to go around? You and Tim and others who trade directly can effectively pursue this approach in your trading relationships in ways that make sense for everyone involved. You communicate the preference directly, tie financial incentives to the preference, and growers can have a very clear sense of the returns they can expect on their investments. That works, plainly. But what about the majority of Colombia’s 560,000 coffee farming families, who don’t have direct trading relationships with buyers who prefer Caturra and pay for it, or any clear channel to develop those kinds of relationships? Does it make sense for them to plant/maintain Caturra?

      These are the considerations that inspired the reflection in the post. Not advocacy for an end to Caturra, but a recognition of the fact that your posture and Tim’s are minority positions, and that for most growers it is hard to identify compelling incentives to stick with Caturra. In the end, Castillo may be the best variety for the largest number of growers. That is different from saying that there isn’t a role for Caturra. You point out that there are plenty of growers out there achieving yields with Caturra comparable to the yields they might get from Castillo. Especially for growers who can combine these yields with quality-premiums, Caturra is a real winner.

      You point out two other powerful arguments for Caturra that I did not address. The first of these is diversification as a risk management measure. As a principle, planting exclusively with any single variety is not a good idea. We know from experience that Catimors have been shown to lose their resistance over time–when that happens, no one wants to see farmers with nothing but Castillo in their fields.

      The other is your point about the environmental implications of continued conversion of Caturra to Castillo. The coffee forests in Colombia are already thinner in general than in the ones I know well in Central America–less shade, less diversity. Moving more production to a hybrid optimized for sun only means they will be thinned out even more, with adverse consequences for water, soil and people.

      There may be another argument for Caturra that neither of us mention–production efficiency. Coffees grown in full-sun conditions require more agrochemicals to do lots of the work done by diversified shade systems in organic farms. More inputs, more costs, lower efficiency. We will be exploring this issue more thoroughly in 2015 on the basis of our project data.

      Thanks for the good comments, Adam.

      Michael

    • We have small farm in Guatemala and have always had good cuppings reports with our Caturras and have been trying to replant with Caturra. We do not have the Castillo variety in Guatemala and the Bourbon has a low yield and is even more susceptible to rust than Caturra. Our Pacas seem very resistant to the rust, as well as, to other diseases and the cup is well liked by some of our European clients but I don’t see too much enthusiasm from your comments on Pacas.

  • Julie says:

    I love this entire discussion about Castillo, Caturra, and varietals. I know I could not have imagined years ago — as an industry outsider but a consumer concerned with all aspects of coffee “sustainability” — being so engrossed in this sort of evolving issue. Once again, my hat is off to you, Michael.

  • Adam McClellan says:

    Totally, and for sure I wouldn’t think you would advocate against Caturra! I obviously know your position well, I was more responding to the referenced article placing Caturra in the same camp with less productive (Typica) and worse tasting (Catuai) varieties. And I totally get that we are a minority and a drop in the bucket compared to the overall export/import equation out of Colombia to be able to truly influence on a wide scale, but feel like I have to voice opinions to give a wide perspective to your readers. Love the series on these posts, keep up all the great work!

  • Norman says:

    Indeed loving this whole trial and following it closely! Very interesting, also other perspectives.
    Me and my team (coffee merchants in The Netherlands) also did a small Castillo Caturra cupping yesterday. Please see the results here:
    https://www.dropbox.com/s/lx1ln9mms5zz2pg/download-1417184282704.pdf?dl=0
    Spoiling it a little already.. Caturra has a 0.5 point preference above Castillo..

  • Norman says:

    p.s. Left part is the overview with scores form the Colombian coffees two months ago done in Huila. Right part is this week’s outcome in The Netherlands.

  • A Colombian coffee farmer recently told me he prefers Caturra over Castillo because it’s easier to pick, plus he can grow the trees more closely together. Don’t know how widespread this view is, but potentially another factor ensuring Caturra’s continued use.

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