CRS Coffeelands Blog Wed, 17 Dec 2014 20:35:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 438. The CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings series adjourns (for now) Wed, 17 Dec 2014 10:00:21 +0000 Michael Sheridan Over the past six weeks, this blog has been devoted exclusively to the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings–a series of comparative cuppings of Castillo and Caturra samples from our Borderlands project involving leading roasters and importers in the United States, Europe and Australia.  Even when I took a week off from reporting on the results of the cupping events, I dedicated the blog to a discussion of their implications for agrobiodiversity, smallholder livelihoods, policy and industry buying practices.

For readers into this series, the blog’s focus over the past month and a half has been a source of excitement.  For readers who don’t share their enthusiasm for the issues at stake here, well, not so much.  There is welcome news today for readers who fall into both camps.

Tomorrow the events continue with a cupping in Sydney, but the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings series will adjourn today.  We will resume coverage in April, when the jury in the Colombia Sensory Trial renders its verdict and brings all-new-and-improved perspectives to the conversation that is just getting started here.


More than a dozen roasters and importers on three continents (and one coffee publication) participated in the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings.  I want to thank them here for giving so generously of their time and talents to this process:

  • Atlas Coffee (Drew Billups, Chris Davidson, Al Liu)
  • Coffee Supreme (April Fahey)
  • Conscious Coffees (Mark Glenn)
  • Counter Culture (Katie Carguilo, Tim Hill, Kim Elena Ionescu, Hannah Popish)
  • Crop-to-Cup (Ben Heins)
  • Five Senses Coffee (Jacob Ibarra)
  • George Howell Coffee (George Howell, Jenny Howell)
  • Intelligentsia (Alexandria Barnes, Alex Burbo, Jay Cunningham, Chris Kornmann, Amanda Seaver, Geoff Watts)
  • Ipsento (Tim Taylor)
  • Kickapoo Coffee (Caleb Nicholes)
  • Madcap (Ryan Knapp)
  • Proud Mary Coffee (Lucy Ward)
  • Seven Seeds (Aaron Wood)
  • Square Mile (James Hoffmann, Anette Moldvaer)
  • Stumptown (Adam McClellan)
  • Swiss Water Decaf (David Kastle)
  • The Coffee Review (Kenneth Davids, Jason Sarley)
  • Tim Wendelboe
  • Tony’s Coffee (Andrew Bowman, David Yake)
  • Virmax (Alejandro Cadena, Pedro Cotamo, Luis Gutiérrez, Fred Lullfitz)


The participants identified here cupped between five and 22 sample pairs.  Each pair consisted of one Castillo sample and one Caturra sample from the same farm, where they were grown, harvested and processed under similar conditions.  Our careful selection process on the farm reduced the degree to which differences in cup quality could be attributable to differences in agroecology, husbandry, harvesting and processing and increased the degree to which they could be attributable to genetics.  After we collected the samples, we cupped them twice and asked our friends at Virmax to cup them again before approving them for shipment.  This screen was used to eliminate samples with defects or attributes–principally pronounced frutiness–that was the result of post-harvest processing and not an expression of the coffee’s genetics.  Samples that were approved–22 sample pairs, or 44 samples in all–were shipped bearing only randomized codes.  We didn’t reveal the identities of the samples to participants until after they cupped them so that their results couldn’t be influenced by any biases they brought to the cupping table.  I surveyed participants electronically before and after their cuppings in an effort to identify preconceptions about the varieties and possible changes in attitudes or buying policies as a result of the cupping.  For each participant profiled on the blog to date, I have also conducted a phone interview.


The results–and implications–of the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings that stand out to me so far are these:

  • Split decision.
    Tim Hill called it a decisive victory for Caturra.  Geoff Watts gave the nod to Castillo, and not by a narrow margin.  But other judges in this bout turned in scorecards that suggest a split decision. George Howell and Tim Wendelboe called it a draw.  George said he couldn’t tell one variety from the other, and Tim W. called it right down the middle: “Sometimes Castillo will taste better than Caturra from the same farm and sometimes the opposite.”  The head-to-head contest, in other words, has not delivered the kind of simple clarities that a knockout or a unanimous decision might have.
  • Castillo shed some unwelcome baggage and earned another chance with skeptics.
    George Howell expected to taste “the tail of the devil” in his Castillo samples.  He didn’t.  What’s more, he awarded two 90-point scores to Castillo samples and applied to them the kinds of descriptors–sparkling acidity and elegant flavor–not often reserved for Castillo.  Geoff Watts is one of the most experienced buyers in specialty, and he really responded to Castillo’s bright acidity.  Stumptown’s Adam McClellan still prefers Caturra, but conceded that Castillo’s acidity was more multidimensional than he had thought it could be, with malic and tartaric acidity showing up where he expected only citric.  Even if skeptics of Castillo aren’t ready to start buying it, they are ready to give it a second look.  “It opens me to tasting more Castillo samples,” George Howell concluded.
  • The farm: The devil is in the details.
    This process was set up to generate a rather narrow finding: whether one variety presents a clear advantage over another on the cupping table.  If there is a devil in the process, it may not be in the aftertaste of Castillo but in the details that were not part of this process.  If a grower is going to understand which variety delivers the bigger return on investment, more data are needed from the farm, where the differences between the two varieties in terms of cost of production, yields and risk must be quantified.
  • The market: Incentives.
    But the need for greater quantification isn’t limited to the farm.  The difference in cup quality must also be quantified.  If one variety scores higher than another, how much is that difference worth in the marketplace?  How do points on the cupping table translate to dollars and cents on a contract?  It may be necessary for buyers who prefer Caturra to rethink the incentives they are offering to farmers to grow it.
  • Policymaking: What is the appropriate use of public resources?
    Finally, Colombia’s coffee institutions have aligned squarely behind Castillo as the country continues its recovery from a coffee leaf rust epidemic.    In order to access certified seed and subsidized credit, growers must renovate with Castillo.  Private exporters whose customers prefer Caturra have begun to provide seed and agronomic assistance in support of Caturra and other high-quality cultivars for which there is a quantifiable demand and a demonstrated willingness to pay market premiums.  The early results of those private initiatives are encouraging.  There is a clear logic behind limiting the use of public resources to the highest-yielding, most-resistant, lowest-risk varieties.  There may also be a case to be made for public support for other varieties on a smaller scale for growers who seek higher rewards and understand the risks.  If that conversation happens, I, for one, hope it wil be nested in the broader emerging discussion on the appropriate role of the state in the coffee sector.


The CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings are related to but distinct from the Colombia Sensory Trial.  Both rely on the same samples collected from 22 farms participating in our Borderlands Coffee Project in Nariño, Colombia, and both are based on blind cupping protocols.  But the Colombia Sensory Trial is more rigorous.  It is based on centralized panels where variability in factors that affect cup quality can be controlled, including roast levels, grind, water quality and temperature, scoring systems, storage, etc.  It will involve exhaustive analysis of results by economists, sensory researchers and practitioners.  And it will produce the kind of report that can stand up to academic and scientific scrutiny.

So, if we knew the Colombia Sensory Trial would produce rigorous results, why did we bother with a parallel (and less controlled) process at all?

  • We wanted to create opportunities for more people to participate. 
    We think that the companies and cuppers we were able to engage as panelists for the Colombia Sensory Trial are among the brightest lights in specialty.  But there was only room for eight on the panel.  This process allowed us to reach out to more buyers in more markets and get them involved directly.
  • Buyers will act based on what they taste, not what they read. 
    Regardless of what verdict the Colombia Sensory Trial jury may render in the case of Castillo v Caturra, we believe people who buy coffee are more likely to act on the basis of their own sensory experience than vicarious sensory experience.  Their attitudes about varieties and buying practices will not be changed by what they read, but by what they taste.
  • We were impatient.
    We simply couldn’t wait until 2015 to begin the conversation.  We wanted to hear from tastemakers right away and to engage others in the discussion of the results and their implications for growers, industry and policy.  We are delighted that the posts here have helped start the ball rolling.

The Colombia Sensory Trial results, which we will present during The SCAA Event in Seattle next April, will include important enhancements, including:

  • A sensory “verdict.” 
    By April, we will know what the panels told us about their preferences between Castillo and Caturra.  Whether there is even a statstically significant difference in the scores or a qualitative difference in the descriptors assigned to each cultivar, and if so, which is “better” and by how much?
  • Econometric modeling of livelihood scenarios.
    I have framed the livelihood discussion here by introducing the variables that I believe affect decision-making at the farm level: cost of production, productivity, cup quality, price premiums, total income.  The fifth is a function of the four that precede it, and the two varieties “on trial” differ in their average values across the first four variables.  But I just introduced the variables, I didn’t quantify them.  We will work with the economists at CIAT to assign average values from our field work on Borderlands to those variables so we can present some scenarios grounded in quantitative rigor during The SCAA Event.
  • Diverse perspectives.
    I continue to refer to the Colombia Sensory Trial in the sexiest way imaginable: as a decision-support process.  Our motivation in conceiving and catalyzing this process has always been to introduce more and better information into decisions currently made under conditions of considerablby significant uncertainty.  We see the results informing the varietal selection decision on the farm (which cultivar to plant?), in the policymaking process (which cultivar(s) to support with public resources and how?) and in the industry (which varieties to buy and under what conditions?).  Each of these three perspectives will be reflected in the presentation of the results: World Coffee Research Executive Director Tim Schilling and CIAT Senior Researcher Mark Lundy will present the evidence for farm-level decision-making, Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia will share an industry perspective on the process, and Luis Fernando Samper will present the view of the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros, whose policies and practices have made Castillo the dominant variety in Colombia’s coffeelands.
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437. The CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings: George Howell Tue, 09 Dec 2014 10:00:18 +0000 Michael Sheridan Today I publish an interview with specialty pioneer George Howell–my fifth post in the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings series.

This year marks 40 years since he started The Coffee Connection in Boston.  The SCAA gave him a lifetime achievement award in 1996 for his uncompromising commitment to coffee quality, but he was hardly done innovating in the name of cup quality and inclusive business models.  His work in the late 1990s with the UN and the International Coffee Organization was instrumental in the creation of the Cup of Excellence, which he led out of the gate.  He has continued to lean on the frontier of coffee quality over the past decade in roasting coffee under the Terroir Coffee and George Howell Coffee brands.

To put George’s experience in coffee in perspective, consider this: four of the five cuppers I interviewed as part of this series before my conversation with George–Tim Hill from Counter Culture, Tim Wendelboe, Intelli QC Director Chris Kornman and Adam McClellan of Stumptown–weren’t even born when George started The Coffee Connection.  The fifth–Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia–was still in diapers.  The guy who runs the ICO turned nine that year.  The guy who runs the SCAA was just starting high school.

In short, George Howell has been one of the industry’s preeminent figures for a long time.  He knows more about coffee and coffee quality than almost everyone else on the planet.

And yet, what he tasted in our Colombian varietal cupping surprised him.



Prior to the cupping, I asked George to share his perceptions of the two varieties.  Of Colombian Caturras he said: “the best [Caturras] can have extraordinary sweetness and tongue-coating body.  Very delicate floral-fruit flavors, suggesting watermelon and wintergreen among other flavors, unique to the Andes, are present; rare, but utterly unique.”

His assessment of Castillo: “slightly astringent, can be sweet but extra sweet–a key factor with great Colombians.”  He added that the “aftertaste is harsh, with bitterish green notes.”  Later he told me that he has long considered this bitter, astringent aftertast to be the signature of Castillo.  He calls it “the tail of the devil.”

He expected the tail of the devil to whip his palate during this cupping.  But it didn’t.



As the summary graphic above suggests, there were some exceptional Castillos.  And none of them, even the two samples that George scored 52, was penalized for this “signature” Castillo trait.  Castillo samples didn’t just manage to break the 90-point barrier, they also managed to evade the descriptors that have haunted Castillo in specialty circles and contributed to its persistent reputation for inferior cup quality.

Adding his own weighty voice to the growing chorus of quality experts who are wondering whether Castillo and Caturra are even distinguishable from one another, he said of the Castillo samples on the table: “I couldn’t possible have picked them out.”



George told me during a recent conversation that the bags for his Terroir Coffee brand used to be printed with this tagline: “Terroir.  Variety.  Craftsmanship.”  This detail struck me, because even though his messaging may have been in the main for marketing, it is wholly consistent with a more rigorous framework used agricultural sciences that can help us make sense of what makes some coffees extraordinary.

G x E x M is shorthand for genotype-environment-management, a research framework for analyzing the interactions of these three independent variables on a dependent variable of interest, in this case, coffee quality.  The elements of the G x E x M model mirror those of George’s tagline: genotype = variety, environment = terroir, and management = craftsmanship.

Why the reference to G x E x M?  Because George has been working with this framework for years under a different (and infinitely more seductive) name, and understands as well as anyone the importance of the interactions bewteen those three variables and coffee quality.  And because for all the careful design of this particular trial, George is not convinced that we have isolated the impact of the G on cup quality.  He suspects that in this case the E and the M may have had more definitive influence on cup quality than the G.  (It is hard to look at this scatterplot graph from the Stumptown cupping and not see the suggestion of a strong positive relationship between elevation and cup quality–an important aspect of the E–independent of variety, or G.)

For future iterations of this process, he recommends using a Cup-of-Excellence format to separate out “best-in-variety” samples of Castillo and Caturra and cupping those samples head-to-head.  This has been George’s interest since we started discussing the trial nearly a year ago: to map the quality frontiers of each variety, or as he put it, “to taste the best expressions of both varieties.”

And he doesn’t think we can get there through the methodology we applied to this round of research.  “Cupping the best of both is the only way you will have clarity as to which variety is better,” he says.



The last five Colombian lots George purchased were all single-variety Caturra lots.  Don’t expect his preference for purchasing Caturra, informed by many years of experience and countless cuppings, to change anytime soon as the result of this exercise.  But he was surprised by some of the Castillos he cupped.

So what impact did the experience have on George Howell?

“It opens me more to tasting Castillo samples.”

- – - – -

This conversation with George Howell is the fifth in an ongoing series of interviews with specialty coffee tastemakers in connection with the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings

<< Last post: Stumptown.




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436. The CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings: Stumptown Tue, 02 Dec 2014 10:00:41 +0000 Michael Sheridan Today I interview Adam McClellan, green coffee buyer for the iconic Portland-based roaster Stumptown, as we resume our series of conversations with specialty coffee tastemakers regarding their participation in our Colombian Varietal Cuppings.

In September, together with Stumptown’s head roaster and quality control manager, Adam cupped sample pairs from 10 farms in Nariño participating in our Borderlands coffee project.

Going into the the head-to-head Castillo-v-Caturra cuppings, Adam and the Stumptown team preferred Caturra.  Coming out of the experience, they still prefer Caturra.  But the performance of the best Castillo samples raised an eyebrow or two in the Stumptown cupping lab.

Below, a summary of the Stumptown cupping results and a conversation with Adam about what those results mean to the company.




Before Adam cupped these coffees with his colleagues in Portland, I asked him to describe the company’s perceptions of the two varieties.  He described Stumptown’s perception of Castillo this way: “when hot, this variety can present sweet, juicy characteristics, citric acidity, cherry fruit flavor notes with chocolate and caramel, but as it cools, tends to show more of its true character as astringent, dry, vegetal, with muted acidity. Some woody notes can also be present, but predominantly astringency and decreasing sweetness reduce final cup scores.”


After he cupped the coffees, I asked whether his perceptions were changed at all by the experience, particularly the high scores given to some Castillos and the references in the flavor notes to the cup complexity of some of the Castillo samples.  He replied, “Yes, definitely.  The ways I described my perception of Castillo before the cupping was how I thought of all Castillos.  Now I realize there isn’t a singular Castillo profile, particularly in regard to what happens to the acidity as it cools.”

“I found that Castillos–especially those at 1900 meters or higher, where growers are able to process well–are complex coffees with a blend of acidities, not just the intense citric acidity that I associate with Castillo.  I found lots of citric acidity but also malic and tartaric acidities in the best Castillos. It has definitely opened my mind a bit,” Adam concludes.


But Adam still harbors some concern about Castillo.  “I still think Castillo has an aftertaste I can’t quite pinpoint: vegetal, metallic, astringent, drying.”

He may not have felt confident in his sensory vocabulary on the day of our interview, but a look at the flavor notes from the cupping shows that he and his colleagues did consistently find these traits in the Castillo samples.  Note the prominent reference in the histogram below of “astringent” and “drying,” and the specific if less pronounced references from left to right around the middle of the graphic to “dry finish,” astringent finish,” “sour finish,” “vegetable aftertaste,” “metallic,” and “astringent as it cooled.”


Flavor notes for the Castillo samples in Stumptown’s Colombian varietal cupping in September.

The histogram for Stumptown’s Caturra flavor notes, by comparison, shows comparatively fewer negative attributes and none related specifically to the coffee’s finish.

Flavor notes for the Caturra samples in Stumptown’s Colombian varietal cupping in September.


In addition to cupping these 10 sample pairs with his Stumptown colleagues in Portland, Adam cupped 21 sample pairs two times each with an illustrious panel of cuppers in Chicago as part of the Colombia Sensory Trial.

There, Adam again gave Caturra the edge in overall average score, but by a narrower margin (down from 1.4 points to 0.4 points).  He preferred Caturra less frequently (down from 90 percent to 52 percent).  When he did prefer Caturra, though, he preferred it by a bigger margin than the team in Portland (up from 1.7 points to 2.4 points).


Overall, Adam doesn’t feel like the exercise will change his buying perspectives or Stumptown’s buying practices in any radical way.

“Our preference, as it pertains to cup quality and purchasing, was and will remain to look for coffee from Colombia with as low a percentage of Castillo as possible,” he said. “When establish quality parameters with growers and exporters, we look for areas and producers with potential to deliver single-variety lots of Caturra, Bourbon, and Typica, or blends with a higher percentage of these varieties.  We feel this gives us a better success rate at approving samples, getting higher cup scores and returning price premiums to growers.”


He feels that the results of this exercise validate Stumptown’s position at the same time that they show Castillo capable of things the company didn’t think it was capable of.  “I was happy to see a few Castillo samples de-bunk my previous belief that an 85 was the maximum score Castillo could achieve on its own, and score 86+,” Adam said.  When I asked him why that result made him happy, he said this: “Because there is so much Castillo being planted that we will need to buy it whether we like it or not, and we are always looking for coffees scoring 86 points and up.”

Adam is quick to point out that 85 points is a “really good score for specialty coffee in general,” just not up to Stumptown’s standards for single-origin Colombian offerings–the kinds that earn growers premiums.

Stumptown believes growers in Colombia will continue to plant more Castillo.  While Adam understands the reasons why, he also hopes that even as grower convert more of their farms to Castillo, they continue to reserve plots for the traditional varieties Stumptown seeks.

“I understand very, very clearly why a producer would want to plant Castillo, and I will always give it a fair shake on the cupping table.   But I do belive having more than one variety is advantageous for growers selling to buyers who value cup quality,” he says.  “Like many buyers out there, we are cupping all the coffees we buy and basing price premiums on scores.  If traditional varieties are consistently delivering higher scores, growers who want to work with companies like ours would do well to continue planting them on at least a part of their farm.”

Adam fears that growers may be giving up too soon on Caturra and other varieties susceptible to coffee leaf rust.  “Caturra can be very well managed,” he says.  “I have seen a lot of farms in southern Colombia managing rust effectively.  We pay our exporter to deliver customized agronomic assistance based on the results of soil analysis, and the results have been impressive.  I don’t think Colombia needs to give up on Caturra, I think it needs to deliver the right kind of technical assistance to growers who want to continue to work with it.”

Besides the market rationale for growers to diversify the varietal mix on their farms, Adam believes there is a strong agronomic argument to be made for not giving farms over entirely to Castillo.  “I am not an agronomist,” he says, “but I think the record is pretty clear: rarely in the history of agriculture has planting one variety of one species been healthy anywhere.”


- – - – -


This conversation with Adam McClellan of Stumptown Coffee is the third in a series of weekly interviews on the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings

<< Last post: Intelligentsia

 Next post: George Howell Coffee >>






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435. In defense of Caturra: A conversation with Alejandro Cadena Thu, 27 Nov 2014 10:00:29 +0000 Michael Sheridan When I read this article by Kenneth Davids in The Coffee Review assigning Caturra to the second tier of varietal quality, I thought immediately of Alejandro Cadena, whose pioneering Colombian exporter Virmax can stake a solid claim to intellectual and material authorship of the microlot model.

Why did I think of Alejandro?  Because when he visits coffee farms Colombia, he wears a tee shirt with this message emblazoned across the chest.



Today I talk with Alejandro about the coffee variety he loves.  It should come as no surprise that he rejects both The Coffee Review assertion that Caturra has second-class genetics, and my suggestion here that current incentives for Caturra may not be sufficient to save it from extinction.

The questions and answers below are the ones I consider to be the highlights of the conversation.  You can download the full transcript of the discussion here.


What is the message you are trying to communicate to growers around the question of varietal selection, both with your tee shirt and your direct conversations with them?

We have never told any producer not to plant Castillo or even worse, to eradicate their Castillo trees. For us that is a personal decision. When they ask us what to plant, we give them all the facts we have, both pros and cons of each variety. We make it clear that it is their decision and that whatever they decide will have an impact on their earning potential and their access to the specialty market over the next 5 to 10 years.

The t-shirt was done in response to a massive campaign in Colombia, starting in 2009, that asked farmers to uproot their Caturra trees and replace them with Castillo. We wanted to let farmers know that getting rid of Caturra was not the only choice and as a buyer we wanted to continue to purchase and pay top prices for their Caturra. Our message was clear: We found a significant cup quality difference in Caturra and we wanted to make sure that growers were aware of it.


Earlier this week I published this post citing The Coffee Review position that Caturra is a second-rate variety and suggesting its days may be numbered.  I suspect you don’t agree.

First, I completely disagree that Caturra and Typica are second-class varieties. I think both these varieties should be in Tier 1.  One of the best coffees we source from Colombia that consistently shines is “Las Acacias” from Nelson Melo, an organic producer from Popayán. Nelson almost lost all his trees in 2009 to Roya, yet he has not planted any Castillo. The vast majority of producers who we work with in Cauca who had Caturra pre-2009 did change to Castillo. This year Nelson Melo was the only microlot producer in Cauca, with most of his coffee scoring 89+.

Second, I don’t agree that it is difficult to distinguish Castillo from Caturra in a blind cupping. We have cupped so many Castillo that we can now distinguish a Castillo (or even a blend of Caturra with Castillo) relatively easily. While Castillo starts out with bright acidity and sweetness, it usually displays a vegetal characteristic that is more pronounced as the cup cools, losing its balance and sweetness. That bright acidity that some cuppers enjoy turns to a metallic flavor which I describe as pencil lead, but that some cuppers in our company describe as asphalt.  As coffee buyers become more familiar with those flavors, I believe that they will punish Castillo even more.

Finally, I don’t think that Caturra’s days are numbered. We are seeing a lot of producers who are taking down their Castillo and planting Caturra again. Others have decided to keep their Castillo but to plant Caturras in new areas. And they are doing this because they have seen that their Castillos usually cup below 84 points (our minimum acceptance score) and that the much higher yields promised are not really true, especially at farms at higher elevation.


So you do believe that there is a sensory basis for a variety play for Caturra?

Absolutely. I have no doubt that Caturra is a variety that can produce an exceptional cup quality, on par or even better than Bourbon, SL28, Pacamara and Typica, at least in Colombia.


Do you believe buyers are creating sufficient financial incentives for Caturra?

I think it’s still too early to tell. Only now are buyers beginning to fully grasp the distinction between Castillo and Caturra. Once specialty buyers fully understand the differences (in cup quality, risks, production costs and yields), if they want to get high quality Colombian coffee they will have to be willing to provide significant financial incentives for Caturra. And these incentives will have to be even more substantial for organic Caturras (or any other variety that is not rust-resistant).


Read the full conversation with Alejandro Cadena here.


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434. The variety play (and the future of Caturra) Mon, 24 Nov 2014 10:00:19 +0000 Michael Sheridan 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?


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.


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.


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.

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433. The CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings: Intelligentsia Thu, 20 Nov 2014 10:00:16 +0000 Michael Sheridan Today, a conversation with Intelligentsia QC manager Chris Kornman and coffee buyer Geoff Watts regarding Colombian coffee varieties—the third weekly installment in my series on the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings.

Earlier this month, Chris and QC Lab Assistant Amanda Seaver staged the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings at the Intelligentsia Roasting Works in Chicago.  Six different Intelligentsia cuppers participated.  They did not have a decisive preference for either variety.

Intelligentsia’s most experienced and best-known cupper, the great Geoff Watts, did not participate in the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings but did cup all 22 sample pairs during the first Colombia Sensory Trial panel, also hosted by Intelligentsia in Chicago.  He preferred Castillo, and not by a small margin.


At the outset of the process, I asked Chris and Geoff about their perceptions were of the two varieties and their expectations for how each would perform.

Chris: “At Intelligentsia, Caturras from Colombia are perceived as being sweet, juicy, red-fruit forward in flavor profile, soft and clean. Castillos are seen as tart, full-bodied, vegetal and bitter.  My expectation is that there will be a small preference for Caturras.”

Geoff:  “I think about Castillo as a cultivar that will produce a decidedly inferior quality cup as compared with Caturra.  I have had some very poor experiences with Castillo during cuppings over the last several years, and have come to associate the variety with a degree of roughness and a less enjoyable, less articulate cup.  If pressed, I would lay some small odds on Caturra outperforming Castillo by a reasonable margin on average, with a few exceptions.”


CRS Colombian Varietal Cupping.

Chris, Amanda and their crew preferred Castillo in 11 of the sample pairs and Caturra in 11.  They awarded Caturra a slightly higher average score (84) than Castillo (83.7), but a slightly higher median score for Castillo (83.6) than Caturra (83.5).  Exceptional Caturra samples (88 points and above) narrowly outnumbered exceptional Castillo samples (five to four), while most of the sub-specialty samples (under 80 points) were Castillo (five out of six).

The Intelligentsia cuppers were remarkably calibrated.  The rate of agreement on preference was over 90 percent.  In seven of the 11 sample pairs in which they awarded a higher average score to Castillo than Caturra, the preference for Castillo was unanimous.  The same was true for nine of the 11 sample pairs in which they awarded higher average scores to Caturra than Castillo.

Chris was not surprised about the degree of calibration.  He was surprised there wasn’t a clearer preference for one variety over another among cuppers who participated in the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings.

Colombia Sensory Trial.

Geoff, on the other hand, had a very clear preference for Castillo.

  • He preferred Castillo to Caturra in 15 of the 21 sample pairs he tasted.
  • The mean score for Castillo samples (84.6) was 1.2 points higher than the maean score for Caturra samples (83.4).
  • The margin of preference was even greater for the median scores: Castillo 85, Caturra 82.8.
  • Castillo samples earned more scores of 88 and above than Caturra (8 to 7).
  • Castillo samples had fewer of the scores under 80 (5) than Caturra samples (9).

Geoff was “surprised and delighted” by the results.”I wasn’t surprised that Castillo was capable of producing a very good cup.  We’ve seen that happen before.  But I was pleasantly surprised with the frequency with which it did so, and the number of times it outperformed the Caturra from the same farm.”



These cupping exercises have helped Intelligentsia reconsider its position on Castillo, but are not likely to have an immediate impact on the company’s buying practices.

Perceptions of Castillo’s cup quality.

Chris: “In light of this research, any bias we might have previously had against Castillo will likely be regarded as more-or-less unsubstantiated.”

Geoff: “I can say that I’m definitely much less resistant to Castillo than I had been before the trial, and I feel a sense of relief about that.  I’ve buying a decent amount anyway, since many of the farmers we work with have been planting it for years now, but it has still given me some anxiety. Now I’m a little more at ease about its ability to produce quality.”

Buying practices.

Geoff: “We’ve got to be careful about extrapolating too much from a single trial.  There are just so many factors that influence coffee quality, so we’ve got to be careful about making assumptions or making logical leaps based on the outcome from a trial that is still missing some degree of control over important variables.  I see this trial as the beginning of a longer investigation that should eventually give us enough insight and confidence to make better decisions about recommendations to farmers regarding varietal choices.  There is still so much more to learn.”

- – - – -

This conversation with Intelligentsia is the third in a series of weekly interviews on the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings

<< Last week: Tim Wendelboe.

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(If you haven’t already seen it, don’t miss this brilliant segment on Conan’s recent visit to Intelligentsia’s Silver Lake Coffee Bar in Los Angeles.)








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432. The CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings: Tim Wendelboe Tue, 11 Nov 2014 10:00:05 +0000 Michael Sheridan Tim Wendelboe is a former world barista champion and one of the world’s premiere coffee celebrities.  When he is not busy roasting coffee, he may be serving it at the coffee bar that bears his name.  Or sourcing it as a partner in Nordic Approach, the Oslo-based importer promoting transparency in trade.  Or writing books about it.  (His first book, titled Coffee with Tim Wendelboe, was well-received by leading food writers.)  Or developing sleek new products like this to brew it.  Or traveling to origin to visit with the growers from whom he buys it.

He has been visiting Colombia since 2007, and late last year released a book about his relationship with Finca Tamana in Huila, currently his sole source of Colombian Coffee.  As I write this, he is visiting the farm and working on a top-secret new project there that he will unveil in 2015.

Despite everything he has going on, Tim made time to participate in the CRS Colombian varietal cuppings.  Last month he cupped sample pairs of Castillo and Caturra variety coffees taken from 21 farms we work with in Nariño as part of our Borderlands coffee project.  Today we discuss the results, which are summarized in the graphic below, as well as his view of hybrids more broadly.




Tim Wendelboe is one of the most visible representatives of a growing group of coffee roasters known for their tireless innovation and relentless focus on cup quality.  In their search for great coffees, roasters in this segment of the market have worked to conserve traditional and heirloom coffee varieties at a time when growers seeking to minimize production risk are turning more and more to higher-yielding, more-resistant varieties that include Robusta genetics.  In the Colombian context, that has meant concern about the inroads Castillo has made over the past decade at the expense of traditional varieties like Typica and Caturra that made Colombian coffee famous.

In this interview, Counter Culture QC Director Tim Hill suggests that no country’s flavor profile has ever shifted so far so fast.  He points out that as the percentage of Castillo in the coffee he buys goes up, cupping scores go down.  His Colombian exporter, Alejandro Cadena of the pioneering specialty company Virmax, often wears a tee-shirt that reads “I ♥ CATURRA” when he visits coffee farms.

But Tim Wendelboe does not share their concern.  His peers may preach the gospel of traditional varieties, but he is a varietal agnostic.  If this is a topic that arouses the evangelical zeal of so many of his fellow roasters, why is Tim Wendelboe such a skeptic of the argument in favor of traditional varieties?

He attributes it in part to his general tendency to question conventional widsom: “I don’t like to do things the way everyone else does.”

His perspective has also been informed by his contact with the Cenicafé breeding program that produced Castillo and continues to develop new hybrid cultivars.  In 2011, Tim traveled throughout Colombia’s coffeelands as the first guest of the Colombian Coffee Hub, a virtual community created by the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation.  As part of that tour, he visited with Cenicafé breeders.  While he says that experience did not influence his varietal preferences, it is clear that it did help him to better understand the potential of Castillo vis-a-vis other varieties.  “Everywhere we went we cupped Caturra and Castillo samples blindly,” he said.

On a more recent visit to Colombia, Tim again visited with researchers from Cenicafé, who gave him samples of eight different hybrid varieties it was developing through its breeding program.  “Some didn’t taste good at all,” he says, but, “Three were fantastic.  One was super floral, like a Gesha.  Another was super fruity like a Kenya.”

In other words, he does not believe as an article of faith that genetics doom hybrids to inferiority on the cupping table. He notes that on a recent origin trip to Brazil he found a Catimor that was consistently outperforming Catuaí and Caturra coffees from the same region.  He was skeptical and brought some of the green samples back to Oslo to cup in his own lab, where they continued to blow him away.

Of Castillo and Caturra he says, with characteristic impartiality: “I think both cultivars can be really delicious.”


It should come as no surprise, then, that Wendelboe’s results showed very little separation bewteen the Castillo and Caturra samples.

Overall, the slight edge went to Castillo:

  • he preferred Castillo more frequently than he preferred Caturra
  • he gave Castillo an average score that was higher than Caturra
  • he awarded Castillo his top two scores and three of his top five

But these preferences were narrow:

  • he preferred Castillo three times for every two he preferred Caturra
  • Castillo’s average score was just 0.4 points higher than Caturra
  • while he gave Castillos his top two scores and three of his top five, the top 10 were split right down the middle–five Castillos and five Caturras

He was not surprised by the results of the exercise.

“I have cupped a lot of Caturra and Castillo and have found no evidence in the past as to which variety is consistently better,” he said.  “It all depends on the farm, type of variety (what Castillo type) and also season and process.”

The one area where Wendelboe’s results showed Caturra outperforming Castillo was in the magnitude of his preference: he tended to prefer it by a slightly higher average margin (2.5 points) than when he preferred Castillo (average margin of preference of 2.3 points).  Again, this narrow advantage was consistent with Wendelboe’s experience and expectations.  Of Caturra he says:  “When it’s better, it’s not that much better.”

His big conclusion?  “Sometimes Castillo will taste better than Caturra from the same farm and sometimes the opposite.”

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This conversation with Tim Wendelboe is the second in a series of weekly interviews on the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings

<< Last week: Counter Culture.

 Next week: Intelligentsia. >>

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431. The CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings: Counter Culture Tue, 04 Nov 2014 10:00:25 +0000 Michael Sheridan Counter Culture Coffee is a roaster that needs no introduction.  Its innovations in coffee sourcing, quality and sustainability have outsized influence in the coffee industry.  Counter Culture is, in short, a tastemaker.  And Counter Culture likes Caturra.

A lot.

As part of the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings, Counter Culture’s QC Director Timothy Hill cupped 22 sample pairs (each pair consists of 1 Castillo sample and 1 Caturra sample taken from the same farm) twice in his lab in Durham.  He also cupped those samples as part of the first Colombia Sensory Trial panel in Chicago.

Across the three cupping events, he preferred Caturra by a ratio of more than three-to-one.

When he preferred Caturra, he preferred it by wider margin than when he preferred Castillo.

He felt that the best coffees were consistently Caturras and that the worst coffees were overwhelmingly Castillo.

Perhaps most importantly, the average score he awarded to Caturra was over 85 points while the average Castillo was under 83; the company buys coffees that score 85+ but doesn’t buy coffees <83.

Today I talk with Tim about the results of the cuppings, summarized in the graphic below.



What were your expectations going into these trials?

My hypothesis was that Castillo would perform better than expected, and even take some of the best scores.  I thought that it would have at least four places in the top 10 scores, maybe even more. But I also believed it would really dominate the low scores.  I thought as many as seven out of the bottom 10 would be Castillo.  In general I was expecting the Caturra to do slightly better overall, with more of the highest scores.

I will say that honestly I was rooting for the Castillo.  I always root for the underdog, and if indeed the Castillo could outperform the Caturra, it would be a victory for quality and for producers since it would combine the quality I look for with the yields and disease resistance growers need.


Did you bring any baggage with you to this process?

The only bias I had going into the tastings was my experience with the coffee we have historically bought from Colombia, which comes from a group in Cauca.  Over the past seven years, as the percentage of Castillo has gone up the scores have steadily gone down in our lab.  When we first started buying this coffee, it was averaging 87 points.  At that time the percentage of Castillo was zero.  Now we estimate that coffee is 80 percent Castillo, and it doesn’t crack 86 points.  The last lot we bought scored 84.5.  While there is likely more at play than just the percentage of Castillo to consider it is certainly a factor we recognize as part of the quality problem.


You have had the opportunity now to cup these coffees three times—twice at your lab in Durham with colleagues and once as part of the first Colombia Sensory Trial in Chicago last month.  I want to talk about all three tastings but I want to start in Durham.  How did you set up the first cupping there?

We cupped the 44 samples over a period of three days.  All coffees were given internal reference numbers, and no prior knowledge of the samples was known by the tasters. All samples were cupped randomized with no consideration for what farm they were from or what variety they were.  And the set-up did not take into consideration the sets or sample pairs—the coffees were just assigned blindly in flights of 10-14 coffees. All coffees were cupped blind 18-24 hours after roasting. Green samples were placed in front of the coffees when tasting.

Only 3 cups were used, as consistency was not a consideration of score.  We used our internal scoring sheet, which puts the primary focus on Flavor, Acidity, Fragrance/Aroma, with a small allowance for Body.

The only two people who cupped consistently throughout the three days were me and one trainee.  Two other cuppers were part of the process but did not score each round or every coffee, so I have submitted only my results.


And what were those results?

Of the 22 sets, I preferred Caturra 17 times and Castillo three times.  On two sets quality was equal.

Average Caturra score was an 85.27 and average score for Castillo was an 82.3

Most notably, Castillo was given a below-specialty score seven times while Caturra was not given a single below-specialty score.


Wow.  That is a decisive preference for Caturra.  I know you prepped the coffees and cupped them a second time at your lab.  How did you set up the second cupping?

To focus in on the decision a farm would make regarding what variety to plant, we decided to set up the coffees in pairs from the same farm–Castillo and Caturra side-by-side.  This time around we covered every sample so there was no visual clue or information on roast level or moisture, and the order was completely randomized.  We used all of the same samples from round one that were roasted over a three-day period (and put in a one way valve) and re-cupped the same samples.


And what happened that time?

Eighteen preferences for Caturra.  Four preferences for Castillo.

Average score for Caturra was 85.05.  Average Score for Castillo was 81.


The preference was even more decisive the second time, then.  But that’s not to say that Castillo is not capable of producing a nice cup of coffee.  You awarded some high scores to Castillo samples: a 90, an 89, a couple of 88s, an 87.5, a pair of 87s.  Were you surprised by that?

90 points from a Castillo is surprising.

But when our Castillo scores are averaged (even the scores from the round that produced the 89- and the 90-point Castillos) the average was 82.3 points—a coffee we would not consider for purchase. The Caturra for that round averaged 85.3—a coffee we would purchase. This is a 3-point difference and the difference between what we purchase and what we do not. This is what coffee buyers worry about. While it is true that Castillo can be great, it seems that on average Castillos compared to the Caturras from the same farm are considerably less good and less valuable.


I have to ask: what happened between Chicago and Durham?  In Chicago, you preferred Caturra 52 percent of the time by an average margin of 2.81 points and gave it an average score of 83.59.  By the second Durham cupping, you preferred Caturra 86 percent of the time, by an average margin of 6 points and gave it an average score of 85.05 points.  Those are some serious shifts.  To what do you attribute them?

Various things.

  • Sensory preference.  From the Chicago tasting I did discover one important thing, that likely influenced the following tastings greatly, and that is once you focus in on the flavors of Castillo and Caturra, they become very easy to recognize.  The flavor that I came to recognize in the Castillo samples, (slightly vegetal tendency, very good-to-slightly-too-aggressive acidity, and sometimes even earthy or woody notes) was indeed the flavor that I was tasting in Counter Culture’s Colombian offerings and the flavor to which I attributed the lower scores over the years of purchasing that coffee.   Once those flavors are recognized, when a coffee shows them, it becomes very hard for me to reward the good character and almost impossible not to punish what is perceived as a flaw.  This is what I found as I tasted these samples all over again in our Durham lab.
  • Roasting. This turned out to be by far the most challenging aspect to the process of evaluation.  With the moisture known, and the weight loss known for each sample, one can determine if the roast was spot on or slightly off.  If a roast was slightly off (all coffees were within on specified roasting specifications of weight loss, so there was only slight variation) it was still accounted for and tasters tried to assess the quality of the coffee independently of roast.  This is extremely challenging, as the score then only becomes the best guess and not a reflection of exactly what is on the table.  It is also extremely important to note that the coffees that were on the dark side of the appropriate roast level were by far the most debated coffees in the trials, and overall these samples were almost always Caturra. Which brings me to the next point.
  • Visual bias.  This is something that is tough to change.  Being a roaster and sample roaster, one becomes calibrated for what denser higher quality coffee looks like.  In this regard, Castillo is at a huge disadvantage.  In my experience, 90 percent of Castillo samples develop in an entirely different way, and look and act like coffee that is much less dense than Caturra samples.  Their outer color generally (but not always) appears lighter in roast level, and the surface is much more monotone, making it appear much less dense than Caturra.  Visually I would say it is easy to pick which samples are the Castillo and which are Caturra.  This was noted and cuppers were directed to not play into any bias, but it has to be noted that this of course could have played into the results.
  • Roasted sample.  Our decision to put a roasted sample on the cupping table likely swayed results to a small degree since the information that is given or can be gathered from the sample—moisture, weight loss during the roasting process, bean shape, and of course roasted consistency—influence a cupper’s perceptions of quality.  The positive to having the reference sample, is that we of course take into consideration the visual of a coffee when we purchase it — and this is how we cup for purchasing.  If 5 or 10 cups taste great, but we can see a lot of “quakers” or inconsistency in the sample, we would be skeptical of the coffee and not purchase it.
  • Moisture.  Because moisture percentage could be seen by the taster, on at least one Caturra sample and at least one Castillo–coffees with high moisture were also scored based on intrinsic quality not flavors associated to high moisture (savory, fruity notes).

That said, at the end of the day, it is fascinating that both sets regardless of score variation did in fact yield the same basic results.  That my preference leans very heavily towards Caturra.  And that it is of a magnitude of 3-4 points per coffee.


So this was a case of you dialing in your preferences through multiple repetitions, is that it?

I think panels are all about calibration.  Bringing people together in terms of how they are scoring coffees.  But when you get into your own lab and your own domain you start to apply more of your individual ideology.  That was true here.

I left Chicago with some clarity about my preference and struggling with the Castillo profile.  When I started cupping the coffees here I really started polarizing them based on what was a clear and consistent difference in their profiles.


If the most notable result from these three cupping sessions is your overwhelming preference for Caturra, then a close second has to be the enormous variation in the scores you assigned to the same coffee over four reps in Chicago and Durham.  I don’t know many people out there who have been more frustrated than you with the accepted formats for measuring coffee quality, or done more tinkering to improve them.  But even your approach has not succeeded in assigning coffees the same scores over multiple reps.  What gives?

Cuppers are terrible.

I found myself mystified and somewhat ashamed at the variation in cup score.  I recognize that I am a taster that likes to reward and punish coffees to great degrees with a larger range than many of my peers, but the numbers were still surprising.

Almost every set has one coffee that has a wide variation (greater than 3 points) from one round to the next, which makes it hard to consider these reliable data.  These data really point to the fine, very fickle/temperamental points of quality, and how nearly impossible it is to set up a proper protocol for quality evaluation.  We found that the subtle difference in roast date, in roast level, moisture content, and the inconsistency of the samples make for a impossible “true” laboratory setting.

We believe that much more work needs to go into the proper protocols for evaluating these and other sample sets.  It seems more repetition, calibration samples, more unique table setups, and other metrics need to be put in place for any true statistician to take the cupping numbers seriously.


So, what?  In the end, what are the big takeaways for you as a result of this exercise?

The main conclusion that can be drawn is this: there is a flavor difference between Castillo and Caturra, and it is a recognizable and relatively clear difference.  If the reports I have heard are true, then Colombia’s coffee is upwards of 60 percent Castillo. I believe this is single largest flavor profile shift a country has ever made in such a short time.


What are the implications of this shift for the marketplace?

I firmly believe that many buyers will actually gravitate towards the brighter acidity of Castillo.  For me it seems that this was a goal for this variety, and it was executed well.  I personally did not gravitate towards this profile, and opted for the slightly rounder, sweeter, and what I found to be more delicate, complex coffees that had a softer less aggressive finish—traits I found mostly in the Caturra samples.


What about growers? 

The ultimate question for me is this: is the 50- to 60-cent-per-pound premium that I believe the Caturra variety is worth based on this trial enough for the producer?  If that answer is “no,” then at the end of the end of the day, I cannot and will not recommend Caturra. But if that answer is “yes,” then it is up to the buyers that prefer this profile to pay up for it.


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This conversation with Tim Hill of Counter Culture Coffee is the first in a series of weekly interviews on the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings

Next week: Tim Wendelboe >>


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430. The CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings Mon, 03 Nov 2014 10:00:04 +0000 Michael Sheridan Readers of this blog will know that we have partered with World Coffee Research (WCR) and some of the brightest lights in specialty coffee, research and philanthropy on the Colombia Sensory Trial–a side-by-side sensory comparison of Castillo- and Caturra-variety coffee samples taken from farms in Colombia growing, harvesting and processing both under virtually identical conditions.  The sample pairs that are part of the Colombia Sensory Trial are being cupped at two centralized events to control as many of the variables as possible that may affect cupping results.  The results of that process will be analyzed by researchers and practitioners and presented during the 2015 SCAA Expo in Seattle.

Parallel to that process, CRS has also made available smaller flights of sample pairs from the same farms to select roasters in the United States and Europe for cupping in their own labs.  The results of these decentralized cupping events will NOT be included in the Colombia Sensory Trial analysis, but will be reported each week here over the next few months, beginning tomorrow.

Today I explain the format for the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings.


  • In the field.
    CRS staff and partners working on the Borderlands Coffee Project worked with researchers from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and WCR to identify through field logs and the project database farms that reported growing both Castillo and Caturra samples.  More than 70 were identified.  Project partner staff visited each of those farms to confirm that plants of both varieties were present, productive, growing under highly similar agroecological conditions, and physically separated to ensure strict traceability of samples of each variety throughout the harvest and post-harvest processes.  A number of farms were eliminated on the basis of this filter. CRS collected samples from the remaining farms and these were filtered twice by CRS cuppers and a third time by specialty exporter Virmax in Bogota, which handled all the logistics and shipping of samples for both the Colombia Sensory Trial and the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings.  More coffees were eliminated as a result of this sensory filter.  The remaining 22 sample pairs were submitted for both processes.
  • In the lab–Before.
    Prior to cupping the samples, participating roasters responded to a brief survey regarding their attitudes on Colombian coffee varieties, their purchasing practices and their expectations for this varietal cupping.
  • In the lab–During.
    We coded the samples so that roasters did not know which were Castillo and which were Caturra.  In all cases, the samples were were cupped blindly.
  • In the lab–After.
    Following the cuppings, roasters submitted their results to CRS.  In return, roasters received detailed information on each of the samples, including information on which samples were Castillo and which were Caturra.  They were also asked to complete a brief post-cupping survey that explored their reactions to the results of the cuppings.  Finally, we interviewed each roaster to get additional perspectives on the experience.

The key results of the cupping, both surveys and the interview will be published here.


It is important to keep in mind that the results of these cuppings are not necessarily representative of the results of the Colombia Sensory Trial.

The cuppings were not subject to the same kinds of rigorous experimental design and statistical analysis that have been applied to the Colombia Sensory Trial results.

The results are not comparable across participating roasters, as storage conditions, roast levels, grind, water quality, water temperature and other variables that impact cup quality were not controlled for, and in many cases cuppers used different forms to score the coffees.

And the results represent the views and tastes of specfic companies that may not be representative of broader sensory trends in the marketplace.


That said, we believe the results and perspectives that will be published here as part of a series on the CRS Colombian varietal cuppings are vitally important.  Why?

Because they reflect the perspectives of some of the most important brands in specialty coffee–companies whose purchasing practices influence the way the industry does business.

Because regardless of the aggregate data and scientific research we will publish together with WCR and other research institutions as part of the Colombia Sensory Trial, specific companies will continue to make purchasing decisions based on the results of cuppings in their own labs–cuppings like the ones whose results we will report on here.

And because in Colombia and throughout the coffeelands everywhere, coffee growers are making decisions that will affect them and their families for 20 years or more–the decision about what coffee variety to plant on their farms.  The market-based perspectives that have informed that decision to date have not been based on sensory analyses as carefully designed as the ones that will be reported on here.

We hope the perspectives we publish here will be constructive contributions to an ongoing conversation among growers, roasters, researchers, coffee institutes, policymakers, nonprofits and others who have a stake in the future of specialty coffee.  A conversation about how to blend concerns about productivity, disease resistance and cup quality so that the future of coffee breeding, extension, farming and trading will meet the needs of everyone along the coffee chain–from smallholder growers to the world’s largest roasters.


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The CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings series:



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429. Colombian coffee commission’s 10 key messages Mon, 27 Oct 2014 13:10:47 +0000 Michael Sheridan Late last week I published this post on the preliminary report of the blue-chip presidential commission assigned to analyze Colombia’s coffee institutions and recommend reforms.  The following day, Juan José Echavarría, the former Colombian Finance Minister and  trusted economic advisor to President Juan Manuel Santos who leads the Misión del Café, gave this interview to Radio Caracol in which he broke down the 10 key points of the commission’s work.  I summarize them below.

  • [1.]  “Coffee is an important livelihood option in Colombia.
    Mr. Echavarría reminded listeners that coffee was responsible for much of the growth of Colombia’s national economy during the 20th century and expressed confidence that, “Colombia’s coffee sector has an enormously rich future.”
  • [2.]  “Eradicating poverty in coffee-growing regions will only be possible with a profitable coffee sector.”
    The logic here borders on circular, but it is an important point considering that for many of the country’s 560,000 coffee-farming families, coffee has not been profitable, or at least has not been proitable enough to pull the families who grow it out of poverty.
  • [3.]  “There is no single solution for coffee in Colombia.”
    The former finance minister argues that there are three paths forward for coffee growers, and that these are not necessarily mutually exclusive: seeking opportunities in specialty coffee markets; diversification away from coffee; and increasing productivity.  The first of these means more focus on coffee.  The second means less.  And the third is essential for all growers who seek to maximize the returns on their investment in coffee, regardless of how much they rely on it for their income.
  • [4.]  “We have to weaken the center and strengthen the regions.” 
    The presidential advisor argued that decentralization of the country’s coffee institutions is the only way Colombia will achieve the profitability the sector needs: “A profitable coffee sector will have to come from the regions.”  My reading is that on the commercial side, the continued centralization of the country’s coffee sector has failed to respond to clear trends over the past decade among specialty buyers looking for something more specific than “Café de Colombia.”  For coffees that bear the names of the regions where they were grown: Cauca, Huila, Nariño.  Or even the community.  Or farm.
  • [5.]  The State needs to reclaim its rightful role in the coffeelands.
    For decades Colombia’s government has outsourced its role in the coffeelands to the country’s coffee institutions, which perform the kinds of functions and deliver the kinds of public goods that are generally the domain of the State: policymaking, infrastructure, rural development.  Echavarría says it is time for Colombia to rein in its coffee institutions and resume these functions.
  • [6.]  “Colombia has to deregulate its coffee sector.”
    The Misión del Café believes the regulation of the coffee sector has hobbled it in a competitive international marketplace, and is calling for deregulation.  Echavarría cited Brasil–the world’s leading coffee producer and a frequent point of comparison in the Misión‘s preliminary report–as an example of a country whose competitiveness is related to its hands-off regulatory posture.
  • [7.]  “The conflict of interest between regulation and coffee exports in Colombia must be eliminated.” 
    Colombia’s coffee institutions are judge and jury: they make the rules they have to play by.  As a result, Echavarría says, they enjoy an unfair advantage in the marketplace.  He believes this was a useful arrangement under the International Coffee Agreement that expired in 1989, but says it has outlived its utility and has become a drag on Colombia’s competitiveness.
  • [8.]  “Public resources should not finance private trading activities.” 
    In a related point, the director of the Misión del Café argues that the taxes collected on coffee exports should not be used to finance the commercial activities of the country’s coffee institutions, but instead “should be used for public goods.”
  •  [9.]  “An environmentally sustainable coffee sector requires the adoption of good agricultural practices.”
  • [10.]  “The garantía de compra should be maintained in those places where there is clear evidence of market failure.”
    Finally, Echavarría argues that the garantía de compra is mostly used by Colombia’s coffee institutions as a public subsidy for their narrow commercial interests.  He argues that the garantía de compra should be reserved exclusively for those coffee-growing areas where the lack of competition among buyers makes growers vulnerable.  The perception of the Misión, clearly, is that these places are few and far between in the highly competitive Colombian coffee market.  In the end, he argues that the garantía de compra should be used to achieve the social protection it was designed to deliver and not as a commercial instrument: we have to separate what is commercial from what is social, he concludes.


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