Knowing if a farm will produce good coffee is one of the hardest, and most important, things about being a coffee sourcer. As an entrepreneur, I’ve learnt to look for eight key criteria. They tell me if the coffee will be high-quality if there’s risk of contamination or illness, and how quickly it can be produced.
1. What are the farm’s priorities?
There are two types of coffee farms. One grows commercial-grade coffee at a high volume. The other grows high-quality specialty coffee. Of course, it’s the second one that you want.
Don’t assume that a beautiful farm or wet mill with a good crop means high-quality coffee. In Colombia, most farmers grow commercial-grade coffee, thanks to our National Federation of Coffee Growers (FNC)’s focus on renovating crops, planting Castillo (a cultivar developed by the FNC to be leaf rust resistant), and then producing as much coffee as possible regardless of the quality.
On the other hand, don’t assume that a poor farm will never produce specialty coffee. Many small and medium-size growers want to farm high-quality coffee but lack the capital to do so. The FNC don’t provide enough support for these farms to make that transition; however, these farms may have potential in the future.
2. What are the coffee varieties and condition?
In Colombia, most coffee is Castillo—but there are many varieties of Castillo. You’ll also find Caturra, Typicas and Bourbons. Identifying the variety is important for traceability and, crucially, for evaluating the crop condition. Bourbons, Typicas and Caturras can produce better cup quality, but they’re not leaf rust resistant. A bout of that can seriously affect your supply and your grower’s budget, so it should always be taken into account.
After harvest, defoliation is normal for Caturra, Typica, and Bourbon plantations—but not for the Castillo. Pay attention to the size and shape of coffee trees, too. Heirloom varieties are often larger than cultivars.
Three-year-old Costa Rica at Finca La Suerte, Sevilla, Valle del Cauca
Typica at 1.810 m.a.s.l in Salento, Quindio
3. What’s the production process?
In Colombia, free exposure to the sun is the norm. This isn’t a bad system, but because it’s used to produce a large amount of coffee, lots of fertilisers are needed. Farmers here normally use NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), so watch out for microelement deficiencies (zinc, magnesium, calcium, etc.). Deficiencies will affect the cup profile.
Look for shade-grown coffee, too. The plant won’t be as stressed during production and, because the bean will grow more slowly, the pulp will have more sucrose. The trees providing the shade will also lower the ground humidity and help with fertilising the coffee. If they are legumes (particularly Guamos, otherwise known as ice-cream beans), they’ll fix nitrogen deficiencies, too. Just be wary of fruit trees—they’ll compete with your coffee trees for the nutrients in the soil.
A mix of Variedad Colombia and Caturra under the shade of Guamos at Finca Linares, Caicedonia, Valle del Cauca
4. What’s the altitude?
Knowing this will help you understand how rapidly the coffee is produced—and what it will taste like. At higher altitudes, coffee takes longer to grow. In Colombia, coffee is grown between 800 and 2,100 m.a.s.l, which is higher than in many countries. For Colombia, an altitude coffee starts from 1,600 m.a.s.l., and it’s said that for every additional 100 metres in altitude the sucrose in coffee pulp can increase 10%.
5. How is the coffee picked?
Common practice in Colombia is to pick 60% ripe and 40% underripe, green and overripe. Underripe and green cherries produce an astringent taste, so it’s important to check the ratio. Changing that ratio is a challenge—but not impossible. It requires the farmer to provide incentives for only picking ripe beans. It also means the farmer needs to understand the coffee varieties and use checkpoints.
Traditional picking in Colombia, Finca Santa Monica, Armenia, Quindio
Picking correctly at Finca La Gitana, Armenia, Quindio. This coffee is being dry processed.
6. How clean are the machines?
Flashy equipment might look good, but when it comes down to it, cleanliness is more important. Check that there aren’t any old beans in the pulper, tank, or hopper. The de-pulper needs to be cleaned each time it’s used as well, otherwise stray beans will remain inside and start to ferment.
Traditional wet mill at Finca La Arauca, Montenegro, Quindio
7. What are the drying facilities?
Don’t underestimate the importance of the drying time. Rapidly-dried coffee loses chemical properties and the shelf life shortens. You need to remove excess water droplets from the skin as quickly as possible—but after that, slowly dry the beans so that more lactones are produced. This only happens when beans are dried at 45°C or above, and it means the coffee lasts longer and tastes better.
If they have mechanical dryers, smell the dried coffee. With old dryers, exhaust systems can pass smoke and petroleum odours on to the coffee. You also need to make sure there aren’t any animals or cigar butts in the drying area, whether it’s machine dried or not.
Finally, be aware of the altitude the coffee’s dried at. At high altitudes, it’s cooler but the UV rays are more damaging.
Drying Green House at Finca Santa Ana, Quimbaya, Quindio
8. What about the storage area?
This is crucial. Coffee is like a sponge; it absorbs everything. Any chemicals, fertilisers, petrol, or animals in the area will affect the taste and aroma of the beans. Make sure the farmer has good storage containers, too. Pallets and GrainPro are fantastic, although GrainPro are expensive. If the farmer can’t afford them, gifting them might be a good investment. You’ll profit in the long run when your coffee remains uncontaminated.
But remember, these points aren’t everything…
The thing that really makes coffee great is the farmer’s commitment. Spend time getting to know the farmer—on the farm! Even if the farm doesn’t meet all eight criteria yet, if the farmer’s willing to improve the conditions, it could be a worthwhile investment.
In Colombia, it’s difficult to find farmers committed to producing high-quality coffee. It’s not a priority for farmers who, for years, have successfully produced commercial-grade coffee in high quantities—especially if they’ve never even tried their own produce. Yet the situation is improving. Don’t give up, and don’t be afraid of negotiating terms with farmers.
Does this all sound like a lot of effort? Next time you visit a farm that meets all eight criteria, try their coffee. Then you’ll understand why it’s worth it.
Edited by T. Newton
Perfect Daily Grind.