January 10, 2020

Innovation in Colombia, From Coffee Fermentation to Varieties

We’ve been producing and consuming coffee for over 600 years, yet many of our methods are the same as they were centuries ago. High-quality coffees are still picked by hand and dried under the sun on wood-and-wire tables.

While there is innovation in production and processing – such as experimental fermentation and honey coffees – many farmers struggle to do it, due to a lack of resources, training, or financial constraints.

Yet innovation can be the key not just to better coffee but also to more profitable and resilient farms.

Lee este artículo en español Innovación en Colombia: De la Fermentación a Variedades de Café

Ricardo Oteros (in the middle) and César Echeverry of TECNiCAFÉ with coffee pickers at a farm in Cauca, Colombia.

Why Innovation Is Needed 

Innovation means that efficiency, quality, and yield can be increased. As this boosts profits (assuming the producer can find the right buyer), it in turn frees up cash flow so the producer can reduce debt and access more resources and training. When innovation works well, it creates a positive cycle.

“Without sustainable innovation, there is no progress,” Ricardo Oteros, General Director of Spanish roastery Supracafé, stresses. “We very often compare coffee with wine or [olive] oil; we say that coffee is like wine, it is like oil. When you analyze these gastronomic products, you see that there has been a great deal of innovation in the first links of the production chain over the last few decades. That innovation has meant that the product can be produced at higher yields, with a reduced environmental impact, and with less inconsistencies. They can refine the product and increase its value.

“In the coffee value chain, you can see that all the final links have benefited from great innovation and they increasingly see a greater share of the global value that is generated. Producers are progressively left with a lower percentage [of the value], but when you analyze the innovations that have been introduced at origin, you realize that they are extremely limited.”

Right now, innovation is desperately needed. The global coffee price crisis has seen prices tumble below what for many farmers is the cost of production, hitting the industry hard. It’s been linked with producers leaving their farms and even migrating to other countries. Some of them have been farming coffee for decades, but now don’t see a way to continue. 

Innovation will not fix the coffee price crisis. However, it can give producers tools to reduce their cost per pound of coffee. It can help them to increase the quality of their lots, meaning they can demand higher prices. And in doing so, it can help them weather this challenging time. It may help make farming a sustainable profession again.

You might also like Sustainability in Coffee: What Are The Main Issues?

Workers picking coffee cherries at a farm in Cauca, Colombia.

Improving Quality in Sorting & Processing

César Echeverry is the Director of TECNiCAFÉ, a Colombian technology park and training center dedicated to the coffee industry. The park’s creation was led by Supracafé in partnership with other organisations such as Gobernación del Cauca, the National Federation of Coffee Growers (FNC), Multiscan, and the Association of Women Coffee Growers of the Cauca (AMUCC). It supports the region through experimental drying, Q processing, variety research, and above all, a science-driven approach to improving coffee production. 

“We have many challenges that have to be tackled through innovation…” says Ricardo, “[and] that is the reason behind creating an enterprise platform which accelerates innovation like TECNiCAFÉ does.”

While a lot of attention has been paid to processing, the quality of the cherries used has a huge impact on the coffee’s grade. With just twenty cherries per cup of coffee, even one low-quality fruit can have a significant impact on the overall flavor, aroma, and cupping score.

Based on Supracafé-funded trials and experiments, César recommends the following process:

  1. Transportation: Coffee cherries should be transported from the field to the production line in fruit baskets and then placed in stainless steel hoppers. It is important that the coffee does not come into contact with other types of metal.
  2. First pre-fermentation sorting: The team prefers to avoid water usage when it’s not needed, so they don’t place the cherries in water to remove the floaters. Instead, stems, stones, and any broken or damaged cherries are removed. Cherries with cuts in them may contain bacteria that could lead to mold or affect the fermentation process.
  3. Pre-fermentation washing: The fruit is washed, which cools the cherries after having been under the hot sun. Since heat is part of the fermentation process, regulating the temperature can have an impact on consistency.
  4. Second pre-fermentation sorting with Multiscan machines: The cherries are separated according to density, cherry size, and color. Mixing high- and low-density beans, or large and small ones, could affect the homogeneity of the roast. Meanwhile, overripe or immature beans could add unpleasant notes to the cup. It is better to remove these in sorting and sell them as commodity coffee.
  5. Fermentation: Finally, the coffee should be placed in stainless steel fermentation tanks. Care should be taken to keep lots separate and maintain the traceability of single-farm coffees and micro lots.

Workers sort green coffee beans by hand in Cauca, Colombia.

Carefully controlled sorting leads to greater consistency and quality control. In turn, this can be used to differentiate a farmer’s crop and attract specialty buyers. When negotiating, producers can make the case for price premiums based on their coffee’s quality. It is for this reason that Supracafé first looked to Spanish company Multiscan to see if their sorting equipment could be a good fit for Colombian coffee mills. 

What’s more, a well-organized process can reduce costs. Investing in machinery requires an initial outlay but it can also represent future savings. It means sorting can be done in less time and to a high quality of work – although it is important to review the results with human staff to maintain standards and spot any possible issues as quickly as possible. 

Read more in A Coffee Producer’s Guide to Negotiating

Green coffee beans in storage in Cauca, Colombia.

Controlling Fermentation

It is important to control fermentation as much as possible to ensure homogenous and repeatable flavors in the coffee. Fermentation is the chemical reaction that takes place between yeast, bacteria, and microorganisms. It is a necessary part of the process for the non-mechanical removal of coffee pulp, but the application of oxygen, heat, and specific yeasts at this time can affect the results.

Working with fermentation can allow producers to better control their cup quality and highlight or induce notes that might otherwise not be as noticeable. However, this is only if it is well controlled. Uncontrolled fermentation can lead to the development of rotten notes, as well as inconsistency between lots or even different cherries in the same lot.

César tells me that there should be no more than 30 minutes between the first and last cherry being added to the fermentation tanks to ensure homogeneity. He also explains that TECNiCAFÉ is working with two different types of fermentation tanks whose development was led by Supracafé:

  • Tanks with pressure systems: César tells me that this tank allows them to control how much oxygen is present during fermentation, giving them greater control over the reactions. Generally speaking, anaerobic or oxygenless fermentation is more controllable.
  • Temperature-controlled tanks: By controlling the temperature, César tells me, fermentation can be accelerated or slowed down. This then has an impact on the flavors present in the coffee.

Read more in How Does Fermentation Affect Coffee Flavor Development?

He adds that TECNiCAFÉ is also running experiments with yeast. Different yeasts can enhance different profiles in the coffee, from sweet and fruity notes to citric acidity. 

César Echeverry of TECNiCAFÉ in the coffee warehouse.

Varieties & Flavor Profiles

Colombia is known for producing Caturra and Castillo, which are associated with a certain type of cup profile – typically sweet and well-balanced yet less floral and fruity than African coffees, for example. Different varieties can open up the possibility for a much broader spectrum of flavors and aromas. 

However, experimenting with coffee varieties can be risky. If not planted in the right environment or given appropriate care, they can become weak and susceptible to diseases and pests. Some of the varieties most famed for their quality, such as Geisha, are also infamous for being difficult to grow. It is important to consider elevation, soil conditions, climate, and more.

Additionally, often varieties associated with exceptional profiles yield less coffee each year. This can cause problems for producers who did not plan for a smaller harvest. Depending on the availability of buyers and the quality of the coffee, which in turn hinges on the resources and time the producer has, a higher-yielding but lower-quality variety may be more profitable.

César tells me that the nursery at TECNiCAFÉ has more than 200 varieties. The team at Supracafé studies how these plants adapt to the Colombian environment to better understand the potential and required care for each one. Having such a wide selection means that they can pinpoint varieties well-suited to specific terroirs, that are more likely to produce certain cup profiles, that are resistant to disease, or are high yielding.

When a producer has a wider choice of varieties, they are able to approach this as a business decision. They can evaluate their resources and capabilities, consider their brand, and analyze how much they need to earn per meter of farmland each year to be profitable. 

Read more in Choosing The Right Coffee Varieties For Your Farm

César Echeverry of TECNiCAFÉ at a farm in Cauca, Colombia.

How Can Coffee Producers Innovate Without Risk?

Any change can represent a risk – especially when that change necessitates extra resources (yeast or pressure systems), training, or different systems. Careful testing is important for innovation, meaning it can be challenging for smallholder farmers to attempt without support. Controlled experimentation and data collection should always be done before adopting new technology or processes.

Ricardo says, “You can’t ask farmers in the current context to put themselves at risk by taking actions that haven’t been proven. This means that the support of institutions through CENICAFÉ or through innovation parks like TECNiCAFÉ or projects that can be developed by companies are important when it comes to generating value. 

“What is unquestionable is that if we don’t innovate…, it will be very difficult for the first links of the chain to generate added value.”

César also underscores the importance of training so as to learn from other people’s experiments. He tells me that TECNiCAFÉ was the first place in the world to offer Coffee Quality Institute’s Q Processing Level 2 (Professional). It is still the only place it’s possible to do the year-long Q Processing Level 3 (Expert) designed for those who “would like to be able to have the ability to move an 84 coffee to an 86 by understanding how to manipulate processing.” Having access to this training allows producers to innovate in a controlled and knowledgeable way.

Yet it’s not just about formal training. César notices the impact when they teach producers how to roast coffee. This allows them to conduct quality control on the farm and evaluate the results of their experiments.

Woman producer at a farm in Cauca, Colombia.

Innovation is more difficult for disadvantaged producers. Dedicating a lot to experiments that might not work is only possible when producers don’t need the income from that lot. For smallholder, indigenous, and female coffee producers, experimenting is often riskier – even though these are often the groups that most need the benefits of innovation.

Cooperatives can be a way to access support and resources. César tells me about AMUCC, an association of female coffee producers in Cauca that sells coffee to Supracafé. 15% of AMUCC’s members are indigenous. The association helps producers innovate by providing access to loans. They also cover part of the costs during the three-year conversion process to producing organic coffee. This financial support can reduce the risks inherent in experimenting and adopting new processes.

Members of AMUCC with a TECNiCAFÉ representative.

“Less than 1% of the final price of a cup of coffee makes its way to the producer, which means that the children of coffee producers don’t want to continue farming coffee,” César says. 

Poor prices and unprofitable farms are driving producers away from coffee. Innovation alone cannot solve this. However, it can enable producers to maximize their profits and make their business more resistant.

Varieties, sorting and pulping, controlled fermentation: all of these allow producers to improve the quality and consistency of their coffee, as well as make informed decisions about what is best for their farm. And when this happens, everyone gains. The consumer drinks better coffee. The roaster has a consistent quality supply of beans. And the producer has a more profitable business, one that allows them to plan long-term and better support their family.

Read more in Sustainability in Coffee: What Are The Main Issues?

Written by Daniel González. All quotes translated from Spanish. 

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