A Matter of Tasting



(Photo: Cory Eldridge.)

Last year, I attended a cupping workshop at a camp for the college-age children of farmers in Colombia’s Antioquia Department. Rather than instructing the young, potential farmers on the ins and outs of an SCAA-protocol cupping like those done at roasteries every day, this was an introduction to the flavors of specialty coffee.

Laid out on each table was a mighty range of Antioquia’s specialty coffees, not just Colombia’s mandated washed process but honeys, naturals, and even experimental fermentations. As the students went around the tables, slurping away, their eyes would go wide, their eyebrows would go up, and little whistles of surprise would be sounded. They were experiencing something new.

Any roaster, or even barista, would have tasted these coffees and registered them as perfectly lovely but normal, roasts that would have fit comfortably among most roasteries’ offerings. They were what we in consuming countries have learned to expect from specialty coffee.

For the campers, though, they were mind-blowing revelations of flavor and potential. With the rare exception, each of the campers had tasted specialty coffee exactly once before, while attending a previous camp when a cupping workshop introduced them to the differences between soluble, commodity, and specialty coffee. These are the scions of multi-generation coffee farms, and this was something that none of their parents or grandparents ever had experienced. At home, the normal brew is either soluble coffee or a basement-grade local roast. This experience of tasting good coffee—a life-event several campers told me had changed their entire conception of coffee—is something that the vast majority of coffee farmers across the globe have never done.

Even more shocking: few coffee farmers, especially smallholders, have ever tasted their own coffee.

I believe shocking is the right word. I’ve seen more dumbfounded expressions following that fact than any other element of coffee, and it certainly walloped me when I heard it. Joe Behm, owner of Behmor, a coffee brewer and countertop roaster maker, first heard this more than a year ago, but he says, “It’s still mind-blowing to me that small growers haven’t tasted their coffee. How are they supposed to improve their quality?” That inspired him to launch a very cool project, which I’ll get to later.

This shock, I think, reveals how quickly the industry has grown accustomed to hyper-differentiated coffee and also how little we know about farming. Specialty coffee pros in consuming countries often imagine farmers are incentivized to differentiate their coffee, particularly through flavor quality, whereas most farmers are actually motivated by commodity economics. In their Borderlands Coffee Project, Catholic Relief Services and CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture) found that specialty coffee made up just 2 percent of output in Colombia’s famed Nariño Department. Fine-tuned quality is not the concern when 98 percent of your coffee is valued on a different metric.

A farmer worries about hard truths about her coffee—like defects—instead of fluffy ideas like tasting notes because defects are what the grader and buyer at the mill cares about, because that’s what the commodity market cares about. The coffee will end up mixed with a bunch of other similarly graded coffee, so its unique flavors don’t matter anyhow. Besides, tasting your own coffee means pulping, fermenting, dry milling, and roasting the beans, which all require equipment the farmer likely can’t afford and expertise she probably doesn’t have, all to answer questions no one asked smallholders until very recently.

Our shock is in part because we know that more and more importers and roasters are asking about quality, and having an answer when one shows up inquiring about the taste of a high-altitude lot might mean a windfall or even a long-term, premium-paying buyer. Without it, the only option is the volatile, uncontrollable C market.

As we’ve explored in previous columns, relying on commodity prices is a long-term economic loser for smallholder farmers, so many want a way out of that market. Improving quality and finding premium buyers is one attempt. And knowing what good coffee tastes like and how her coffee stacks up is required if a farmer follows this (still really new, not totally proven) model. If she can cup her coffee, she gains another tool in sussing out problems in her growing practices and identifying standout coffees. With that knowledge, she has a better footing in the supply chain. That was why the campers in Antioquia spent hours cupping.

It’s also why Behm has donated ninety-six of his Behmor 1600 electric, countertop roasters to Anacafé in Guatemala. The roasters have gone to co-ops and training centers, where samples of hundreds of coffees can be roasted and cupped by farmers and staff at the co-ops. “If they can roast their own coffee, they can understand how to improve the quality of their coffee, which means they can get a higher price for their coffee,” says Behm. Behm plans to donate more roasters to Anacafé and expand the program, Behmor Inspired, to other origin countries.

Cupping alone isn’t enough to close the gap in knowledge and expectations between buyers and farmers, but knowing when she has something special growing can change the fortunes of a smallholder farmer.

Cory Eldridge is the editor of Fresh Cup.