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.
A VARIETAL AGNOSTIC
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.”
– – – – –
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. >>