Though there are larger coffee-producing countries in the world, it's hard to think of a more versatile one than Colombia. Nowhere in the world can you find big, rich bodied coffees alongside high acid, delicate ones in the quantity and quality you find here. As the Colombian specialty coffee industry has grown and evolved, many producers are focusing on exotic varietals and complex processing methods in ways not seen ten, or even five years ago. The core production hasn't changed, though: if you look at most coffee blends out there, the vast majority of them feature a Colombian coffee as one of their main components. Full-bodied, chocolatey coffees that work really well with milk are found in spades in regions like Cauca and Nariño, and are a perfect fit for the Australian market, where nearly half of the coffees ordered are lattes. Our very own Maven Seasonal Espresso has been 100% Colombian for the last two years, and we owe much of our success to it.
Though most of the bigger lots that come from Colombia are 'regional blends' put together by co-operatives and exporters as a way to highlight specific characteristics of the various coffee-growing regions, importers are hard at work to make smaller lots from specific estates or producers more accessible to roasters. In 2016, MAKER founder John Vroom was in Colombia with our good mates Cafe Imports Australia, and got to spend time with producers and exporters alike, cupping and selecting both farmer-specific lots, as well as bigger, regional ones that later became the basis of our coffee line-up. It is this kind of scale and range that make Colombia such a fascinating origin to source coffee from.
Last week we sat down with co-founder and co-director of Cofinet and La Pradera washing station (in Quindío, Colombia), Carlos Arcila, and spoke to him about the changing face of Colombia's coffee, and the challenges of supplying it to a coffee-obsessed country like Australia.
Tell us a bit about Cofinet and its history.
Cofinet turned three years old in June of last year! I'd say we're a very young company for Australian standards, but behind it is all the experience of the many years my family has grown coffee for.
I am the co-director and co-founder, along with my brother Felipe. We founded Cofinet with the intention of adding value to the coffee produced by my family and to process it through La Pradera washing station. We quickly realised this wasn't going to be enough and that we needed to work with other producers. Most of my family's coffee was, and still is, fairly average in quality, and we needed better coffees and more offerings in order to grow.
I actually never did any coffee-related courses during my studies, everything I have learned so far has been through working with coffee hands-on with people I have met along the way, and through talking and learning from coffee producers in Colombia. I learned from my family and their experience, and through the close circle of people they have worked with for decades. Before starting Cofinet, I actually cupped every Saturday and Sunday, for over two years straight, with a number of roasters and coffee professionals in Sydney. I listened carefully and learned a lot, and developed my palate that way. Even though I studied Civil Engineering for seven years during university, I now feel like I actually know more about coffee!
Felipe and I mainly learned through doing, heaps of practice and gathering heaps of empirical data. This is especially so at the farm level, since there aren't many people who are doing experimental processes (like naturals and honeys), so there's been a lot of trial and error.
Now, three years in, I feel comfortable cupping with any coffee professional I meet, and at La Pradera, our processing and farming techniques are improving day by day. We've applied all that we have learned and come a long way in a very short time. I never imagined I'd be in this position three years ago. It's something we have to continually remind ourselves of, because we strive to improve every day, but it's important to look back and say "Wow! I never imagined we could accomplish so much in three years!"
How long has your family been working with coffee?
Eighty years! It all started with my grandfather, and later with my father, who inherited a single farm. With time, he purchased six more farms, and now we grow coffee in seven farms. One of them is where we operate out of (La Pradera), and they are all located in Quindío, a region were many of the largest coffee companies in Colombia started out, as it is part of Colombia's Coffee Triangle.
Most of the larger coffee companies in Colombia still have head offices in the region, but as the coffee industry has grown, it's moved on from the area. Now, places like Cauca, Huila, and Antioquia are better known and produce higher quality coffees.
Eighty years is a lot! Does that mean you've literally been around coffee your whole life?
My dad has been working with the same coffee exporters for forty-five years, which is the same company where my grandfather worked for thirty-eight years. I've been going to coffee farms with my dad since I was a kid. One of my favourite childhood memories is climbing to the top of my dad's enormous harvester, and jumping on to giant piles of coffee! We'd do flips and all sorts of acrobatics in the air, and end up completely buried in the coffee. We also have horses in the farms, and grow a few other crops, so we'd ride around the farms every time we visited.
As a kid, I wasn't very involved in coffee, but we'd always be out and about with dad as he worked. We just didn't know or understand much of what was happening. My mum actually managed all seven farms for about fifteen years - she probably knows more than most professional agronomists because she did it mostly by herself. The farms produced avocados, oranges, bananas, and pineapples too.
In fact, a lot of coffee farmers in Colombia have had to cut down their coffee plants and replace them with fruits, as the price of coffee is too unstable. People like my family have had to grow other produce, because in some years, coffee's price is no good; farmers end up losing money rather than making any. Price has become unstable and production costs are on the rise, which is why nowadays our farms actually grow more oranges than coffee! If you work hard and have a good harvest, but the price drops, or you don't sell your coffee at the right time, you end up losing money. To avoid that, you have to have other crops growing in your farms. Ten years ago our farms produced twice as much coffee as they do now, we've had to cut trees down over the years, because it's too hard to make a living out of growing coffee exclusively.
You mentioned Cofinet started as a way to bring your family's coffee into Australia and to increase La Pradera's output. How has that model changed as the business has grown?
That was the initial idea, but the samples we kept receiving weren't very good, and we quickly realised we had to do something different. That's why we began bringing other farms' coffee as well. La Pradera produces just under 10% of our total output, but those coffees come with a premium on top of the price, as they are exotic varietals, or processed using experimental methods. Thanks to this growth, La Pradera employs fifteen full-time staff, and during harvest, our family's farms employ around 300 people - with hundreds more across the farms and cooperatives Cofinet works with.
How do you choose the farmers and co-operatives you work with?
It's a job that requires extensive field work. We got a lot of references through my father's job, but we then had to start visiting people and co-operatives in the farms surrounding us. Nowadays, people send their samples in to our lab, where we cup them. We easily cup 50-100 samples a day at times. Once we determine the quality is good, we visit each farm, and begin a relationship with them if we share a similar ethos.
One of our goals is to work with the same people year after year. We aren't a giant multinational company, and we don't force anyone to sign extended contracts. But if people have good quality coffee, and a desire to improve it, we try to maintain those relationships every year. Quality comes first, though.
People also like working with us because our preference is to pay for the coffees we purchase up front - always. We pay for the coffees we buy the moment we come to an agreement - not several weeks later, as has been the general rule in the past. Offering such good conditions made people interested in working with us, as it's a way to help so many struggling farmers.
Our structure isn't built on speculation - rather than waiting to see how much we can sell a coffee for down the line, we focus on identifying good quality coffees and buying them on the spot. We try to purchase complete lots as a way to make sure we can work with the same farmers the following year. This is why around 95% of the coffees we purchase end up on our offerings the following year.
With so many options and for such a big market, how do you choose which coffees to buy?
We have a few categories of coffee on our offerings. We've become well-known for the exotic and new varietals we bring into the market. We look for them every year, even though we recognise it's very difficult to maintain those relationships year-to-year. That's not because we don't try to, but if a producer makes a name for him or herself and gets a bit famous, they may get a better price for it somewhere else.
We also offer more conventional microlots, from more common varietals like Caturra, Tabi, or Castillo - these are coffees we work really hard to keep every year. We look for clean coffees with distinct flavour profiles, to guarantee they only get better every year.
When it comes to bigger regional lots, or working with co-ops, the plan is to build a relationship thinking forward. We have good relationships with several co-ops, which sometimes means we have to buy coffees that are slightly lower scoring than in previous years, because our aim is to be supportive. We work together so that we can then buy their coffee again the following year. We aim to buy whole, exclusive lots, even though there's a few that we share with other companies, as we aren't able to buy such big volumes - yet. Our goal is to one day only offer exclusive lots, as this would mean we've been able to support farms and co-operatives without relying on other parties to assist. With these bigger lots, our goal is to find big-bodied and sweet coffees that will most likely end up in a blend. Our goal is to find a clean cup, with zero defects, and a minimum score of 85.
What would you say is Colombia's biggest challenge in the coming years?
The most important thing that is missing in Colombia's coffee industry is transparency. We are the type of company that does all of its work internally; it's a vertical business model, as there are no brokers or third-parties in the way. We think that if roasters and farmers work more directly, things will improve, and the value of the players in the supply chain increases. This lack of transparency is especially noticeable at the farm-level, and it requires us to do countless quality control checks when sampling and purchasing coffee.
Production-wise, things are stable. With the recent explosion of new varietals and experimental processing techniques, Colombia is truly a specialty coffee producer! We no longer solely produce coffees for blends! The challenge now is to get the bigger producers out of the 'commodity coffee' mentality and to focus on quality. The older generations of coffee farmers are mainly focused on volume, and are very slowly realising that quality coffees will earn them a premium price. This switch will definitely improve Colombia's image. For generations, the focus was to produce more coffee, not high quality coffee - and our challenge now is for big farm owners to get on board with this idea and produce even better coffees.
Would you say this is due to the cost of producing high quality (85+ points) coffees?
I wouldn't say the raw cost of coffee is the only issue. Exotic varietals, like Geshas for example, yield less fruit and require more care. That means that you start off losing money before you even harvest your first crop. But the biggest thing that adds or detracts coffee's value is the picking and processing, and at bigger estates, it's hard to control their quality. Smaller producers do a lot of the work themselves, they are in control of every step of the way. At farms bigger than 5 hectares, things become more difficult to manage, and a lot of coffee can end up being picked and processed poorly. Educating pickers and farm managers is very important, but the bigger the estate, the more difficult that task becomes.
What would you say is the most exciting thing for Colombia's coffee industry in the foreseeable future?
More barista champions winning with Colombian coffees and the older generations of farmers continuing to change their minds! We are an incredibly diverse country when it comes to varieties and cup quality. I genuinely believe in 2-3 years we can be at the same level of a country like Panama. That's the level of quality we should be aiming for.
Finally, how would you like people in Australia to think about your coffee?
As a representative of Cofinet, I would love for people to think more carefully about what goes on behind each cup of coffee they drink. Sure, some coffees are better than others, but each cup deserves respect. For us, as coffee buyers and roasters, its easy to point out good coffees from bad coffees. But the reality is that behind each cup of coffee, whether it's a good one or a bad one, there's thousands of hands and heaps of labour - each one of those steps deserves respect. I would love for people to approach these coffees with that in mind. I always appreciate when people are able to give me constructive feedback, and tell me what they think makes one particular coffee good or bad, and how we can improve that, because we always want to be moving forward. It's really difficult to hear that your family's work produced something 'horrible,' with no feedback as to why that is. In that sense, feedback that isn't constructive can be really difficult to take.
When representing La Pradera, we want people to try our coffee and for them to think it may be from Panama, Ethiopia, Costa Rica... not a stereotypical Colombian 'blender'! We want them to associate our coffees with well-established specialty coffee-producing countries until we are able to change Colombia's image in the eyes of the world.