The Blog

view all

436. The CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings: Stumptown

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 >>

– – – – –

The Colombia Sensory Trial and the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings are supported by a grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.






  • P Baker says:

    Colombia can provide the right kind of technical assistance, but who is going to pay for it?

    So the question is, how much more is the sweet honey citrus balanced Caturra worth than the astringent drying sweet citrus cherry balanced Castillo?

  • Adam McClellan says:

    Well, I think once specialty roasters truly realize what 100% Castillo tastes like on a large scale, they won’t pay premium prices at all, and will wish there was at least some higher % of other better cupping varieties were available. As far as funding agronomy support, I think first of all that the trade could and should do more to pay for it. Virmax is putting their money where their mouth is, so I think other exporters who sell, and want to sell, into the specialty and high end specialty markets, as well as their roaster customers, should follow and put funding towards agronomy support with the goal of developing more long term supply of the coffee that everyone knows and loves. But more importantly, I think the agricultural banks in Colombia (in conjunction with the FNC) who provide loans to coffee farmers for pre-harvest financing and working capital, should stop the insane policy to lend money to farmers only against certified Castillo. and no other varieties, irregardless of their productivity, farm health, and trade agreements. It’s shortsighted, unhealthy, and it doesn’t show good awareness of the diverse marketplace.

  • Michael says:

    Thanks, gents, for your comments.

    Sorry for taking so long to respond to them.

    Peter, you ask who is going to pay for technical assistance. The question I have heard from industry–and hear again here in Adam’s comment–is this: why not Colombia’s coffee institutions?

    There certainly are financial, natural and human resources available to support it. In the financial resources category, Colombia’s loan for renovation is the best I have seen. I have profiled it on this blog here and here. It isn’t just credit that is well-structured for the specific needs of coffee growers–it includes a subsidy that covers 40 percent of the loan capital. In the natural resources category, there is easy access to the certified Castillo seed growers must plant to qualify for the subsidized renovation loan. And in the human resources category there is the Federation’s army of yellow-shirted agronomists who tie best-in-class TA with access to seed and credit.

    And there seems to be political support across the board for investment in extension. It was one of the things that even the Mision Cafetera agrees MUST continue. In its draft report, the Mision praised Colombia’s coffee institutions for its agronomic extension services and the Cenicafe research program and argued that these represent the most essential public goods they should continue to deliver to Colombia’s coffee growers.

    In short, it seems Colombia’s coffee institutions COULD include TA for Caturra.

    They just don’t want to.

    I get it.

    The Castillo-only stance for seed provision and access to credit and subsidies for renovation is a sound utilitarian policy: it does the most good for the most people. What it doesn’t do is respond to the needs of growers like the ones in Adam’s supply chain who choose to grow Caturra and other cultivars based on careful assessment of the risks and a quality-oriented strategy. As a consequence, this policy may miss opportunities in the growing market for quality-differentiated coffees. The 86-and-up coffees people like Adam look for.

    Virmax has tied its preference for buying Caturra to this kind of customized technical assistance. From what I understand, it is less putting its own money where its mouth is than Adam’s money–Virmax passes the costs of its TA on to its customers, at least in part. If roasters like Adam want Caturra, they recognize they need to pay for it, and not just after it is harvested–they need to pay on the front end for the kinds of TA that keep today’s Caturra healthy and productive and create incentives for growers to plant tomorrow’s Caturra. Virmax seems to be showing that this model can work, even without access to public funds.

    Would it be risky for Colombia to start channeling public resources into renovation loans and subsidies for Caturra and other rock-star cultivars? Yes.

    Could it lead to a foreseeable loss of production among growers who can ill-afford to lose production? For sure.

    Is it politically astute to leave the higher-risk investments designed to seize market opportunities to private-sector actors like Virmax and reserve public resources for investments designed to mitigate grower risk? Absolutely.

    Is it worth piloting a publicly funded program for high-quality cultivars on a small scale in Cauca, Huila, Nariño, Tolima and Colombia’s other super-origins? Maybe.


  • P Baker says:

    Michael – thanks for that, a very clear picture.

    Two problems:
    1) buyers with an attitude like Adam’s are quite rare, are there ways that it could become a more broadly accepted practice, perhaps fostered by the likes of SCAA – e.g. buying guidelines, transparent indications of extra costs, etc?
    2) public involvement: state-supported FNC assistance does work, but all the signs are that they don’t ever want a repeat of 2008-2012. The Echevarria report on FNC seems really down on coffee research and suggests that the private sector (exporters were mentioned) should have more say – I’d hate to think that would result in preferential treatment for high-end coffee at the detriment of the mainstream, but I can imagine that happening. How do you see the fall-out from that report, anything coming through on the grapevine?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS