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SCAA lecture in review: The Coffee Variety Conundrum:  Does Breeding for Disease Resistance come at the expense of flavor?

This review is for those of you who were not able to make it to the lecture a few weeks ago.  There was a lot of competing lectures held concomitantly with really interesting content.  There is 0 chance of me getting to hear all the ones I want to be at.  Yet when the Expo comes, it seems like I go from meeting to meeting with a coffee in between.  So this review is for all of you who had the intentions of coming and couldn’t  – and for those who asked me to provide a recap.  I think this is an issue that bears more discussion and repetition – I was just at a national coffee conference here in Nicaragua and the same issues were raised.  There is a false dichotomy of quality and productivity/resistance assigned to varieties, yet this is a much more nuanced topic – a real conundrum, if you will.

The idea for this lecture came out of long running conversations we’ve been having with farmers who are recovering from roya or whom are renewing their plantations.  What should I plant?  Do I choose Quality or Productivity?  At the same time, last year, our colleagues in the Borderlands project, along with collaborators in CIAT and WCR evaluated the respective qualities of Castillo and Caturra grown in the exact same environments, showed that these varieties are different taste profiles, but on a 100 point cupping scale, they can be equally as good. This issue just isn’t in Colombia.  It’s a global coffeelands concern.  So, I decided that we could get some of the best minds in specialty, who occupy different parts of the value chain to talk about this idea.  I was stoked to be able to facilitate the discussion between some of the great minds of specialty coffee:

Dr. Tim Schilling, the Executive Director of World Coffee Research.  On this panel, Tim brings a coffee scientist and breeders’ expertise to the table.

Dr. Edgardo Alpizar.  Edgardo is the director of Sustainable Management Services for ECOM in Nicaragua and Costa Rica and they have been promoting cutting edge management technqiues to optimize the quality of coffee.  He’s bringing the point of view from the origin today.

Mr. Timothy Hill. Tim is the head coffee buyer and the director of quality at Counter Culture Coffee and was the only cupper in the Colombia Sensory Trial that was able to distinguish consistently between Caturra and Castillo.

Dr. Kraig Kraft.  That’s me, your humble host.  Not quite a great mind of specialty, my job was to set the stage and make sure that the questions flowed and that everyone got a chance to talk.

I introduced the idea behind the lecture – the varietal choice is a huge conundrum for farmers.  I talked about the origin of Catimores and then I used this great poster from James Hoffman to explain the lack of genetic diversity in Arabicas.  Dr. Schilling followed up and talked about the limited genetic diversity for Arabica and how the only way to boost its ability to be resilient and to adapt to the demands of a changing climate is to go and get some genes from Robusta and introduce them into newer varieties.  Edgardo followed up and talked about how in the current drought in Central America – it was the Catimores that were found to be the most tolerant to the harsh conditions.  He showed how they are working with farmers to help find the right time to start harvest by measuring the brix (sugar) in the cherries.  The hybrids and catimores tested had higher levels of sugar, earlier in the season.  Tim Hill rounded up the talk by sharing that the impressions of many of the varieties are roaster driven (see the descriptions for Catimores in James Hoffman’s amazing poster). He will continue to buy Caturras when offered, but he can’t in good conscience promote Caturras in this current environment and expose the farmer to risk of a failed crop due to roya or weather.

The bottom line is that the future holds more Catimores and Sarchimores and other, yet to have been developed rust and disease resistant lines.  But what about flavor?  I can already hear people yelling.  Specialty is built on quality and flavor.  The new tools that are available to breeders and the ability to continue to refine the Catimores and Sarchimores that are being released mean that these newest disease resistant varieties have higher quality than the Catimores of the past.  The Colombia Sensory Trial was the first demonstration of that.  What we lack is information that is balanced and objective and allows farmers (and roasters) to make informed decision.  Part of this gap will be filled with the Mesoamerican Variety Catalog, produced by years of careful study by World Coffee Research (which will go live on June 21st).   While the tool represents an important first step for farmers to carefully evaluate their choices, there is a lot of hard work that needs to follow this – making sure it gets into the hands of farmers, ensuring that everyone gets access to the seed and varieties that they want and making sure that what does get planted gets transformed into the highest quality coffee possible.

– Kraig Kraft

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