Origin Update: Colombia 2023
Colombia Origin Update – January 2023
It’s been a couple of years since we have looked closely at Colombia, both as a producing country and from the perspective of our producer partners there. I had the pleasure of visiting Quindio and Huila recently and wanted to share some observations from the field. Among the many salient topics from the trip were the erratic weather, inflation, Pink Bourbon and sustainable farm labor, which I will delve into below.
2022 marked the third year of La Nina weather patterns in Colombia, and much of Central America. This brought unusually heavy rain to the region, complicating the normal order of events in coffee producing areas – everything from flowering, to the maturation of fruit, to harvesting, was thrown off course. Conditions have been improving somewhat since December and Colombia is now estimating production of 11 million bags this year, compared to nearly 15 million three years ago.
In the areas where 49th buys coffee, namely Huila, deliveries of cherry to receiving stations were down around 50% this past year – much of this related to lower production in high elevation areas. Furthermore, deliveries were smaller and more frequent, due to a dispersed a flowering pattern resulting in coffee maturing a little bit at a time.
We have seen prices increase in Colombia and much of the coffee producing world over the past year and a half, and the assumption is that farmers are reaping the rewards of this. Yet, just as consumers in North America are feeling the pressures of inflation on the cost of goods and services, coffee farmers have seen the cost of fertilization increase upwards of 60%. Fertilizaiton is a critical element to producing not only good yields, but also good quality. Labor, much like in the North, has become scarce, making it in turn more expensive to contract. And the cost of transportation from rural farming areas to regional towns where coffee is collected, has also increased in line with the rise in the cost of fuel. This triple inflation means that many coffee farmers are not doing nearly as well as it appears.
I visited Carlos Guamanga, a long-time producer partner, on his farm El Recuerdo and asked him how he felt about coffee prices, and whether he was feeling comfortable economically. Keep in mind that the price paid to farmers we work with has more than doubled in the past two years. His answer was somewhere along the lines of, “The dollar figures today look generous on paper but when considering the cost to produce it, along with lower yields due to La Nina, it’s about the same.” It is perhaps fair to say that farmers like Carlos Guamanga are thriving despite the inflation, because they benefit from the long term stability that comes with relationships and work with excellent exporters like Azahar – but they are not necessarily doing better than they were two years ago.
In spite of the complexities of weather and inflation, I could not be happier with the quality of Pink Bourbon we are seeing from Huila. Carlos Guamanga and a handful of other producers are growing and processing top quality Pink Bourbons, a varietal that turns pink rather than red as it matures, and has distinguished itself amongst specialty coffee buyers as well as in competitions. I have fallen in love with Pink Bourbons over the years – there is something so appealing about it’s juicy red-fruit character, distinguishable on any cupping table. Carlos’ coffees regularly score at the top of our range, competing easily with the best Ethiopian, Kenyan or Panamanian coffees we source.
While in Colombia I cupped his most recent deliveries of Pink Bourbon, which blew me away as usual. After a number of months without these coffees, related to logistical challenges, we now have a regular supply of Pink Bourbons lined up from Carlos, as well as other wonderful coffees from our partners there. Be on the lookout for releases throughout the year.
Azahar and Manos al Grano
I spent most of my time in Colombia with the exporter Azahar – who I have written about before. They have been an important partner for some years now, and are a key link to the coffees of Carlos Guamanga, Heladio Ossa as well as larger blending lots destined for our staples like Epic and Old School. The past year and a half really tested our relationship, with logistical challenges delaying shipments by months – neither Azahar’s nor our fault – making shipments from Colombia impossible for a period of time. I am happy to say that we have turned the corner in this respect, and that our relationship has stood the test of a global pandemic.
49th has been committed to Azahar for years because it is so much more than a traditional exporter. Yes they manage the logistical and QC elements of an exporter better than most – that’s a given. Beyond this, Azahar is committed to fundamentally changing the way we approach coffee sourcing, something that is relatively unique amongst exporters.
How is Azahar pushing the boundaries? Establishing direct relationships between roasters and coffee producers and then facilitating long term relationships is perhaps the cornerstone of this mission. But Azahar regularly goes beyond facilitating direct trade. They have published two Coffee Buyers Guides and are taking this online – these resources help 49th and other roasters understand the cost of coffee by region in Colombia, which in turn leads to more meaningful conversations about what is or is not fair pricing. This couldn’t be more important or timely given the confusion around inflation.
Over the past few years, and particularly in the past year or so, Azahar has been rolling out a program to pay coffee workers according to Colombian law, with all of the benefits this entails. Manos al Grano, as it is called, came into being because just 1.5% of coffee workers in Colombia are legally paid – most are paid informally and do not have the benefit of a social safety net. Workers kept outside of the formal labor sector are also more at risk of exploitation. The question is: Why should agricultural workers be treated differently than any other worker? Azahar’s answer is that they shouldn’t – we should find ways to make sure they have the same legal benefits - minimum wages, social security and health care - as everyone else.
This of course is easier said than done, and therefore Azahar has set up a Foundation to run their program. I visited a number of producers that are participating in the pilot program, including our longtime partner Heladio Ossa, and Luis Albert Jojoa, who was a partner for a number of years and could be again in the future. As these coffees come to market 49th looks forward to partnering with Azahar and Manos al Grano.