September 17, 2020

How To Prevent Coffee Varieties From Being Misidentified

Every day, producers, traders, roasters, and consumers seek out different coffee varieties. Each variety has its own unique cup profile, among a number of other individual traits.

Farmers will seek out different varieties for a number of different reasons, not just quality. They may also consider disease resistance or yield, for example.

Furthermore, different varieties will suit different producers’ needs. For example, producers with less available capital will generally look away from varieties that require more fertiliser.

Unfortunately, sometimes coffee varieties are unintentionally misidentified and then circulated. This accidental mislabelling has left some coffee supply chain members sceptical about certain varieties.

I reached out to three coffee industry experts for insight into how coffee seeds are identified, how miscategorisation occurs, and what can be done to address the issue.

Lee este artículo en español Cómo Evitar Cometer Errores al Identificar Variedades de Café

Internal Seed Structures: How Seeds Are Handled In Different Countries

Each origin has what we call a seed structure or seed system. This covers everything from how the seed is sold to how producers cultivate the seed in nurseries before planting them in the field. This internal seed system also covers variety verification.

How seeds are handled differs from origin to origin. However, one of the major issues with some internal seed structures is a lack of transparency and traceability. When seed structures are more transparent and there is more information available, producers can feel more comfortable that they are purchasing the right, correctly-labelled variety.

Kraig Kraft is Director for Asia and Africa at World Coffee Research (WCR). He says that while countries like Colombia and Brazil have excellent internal seed structures, “many origins don’t really have the structure and traceability to verify that what you think you are buying is actually what they say it is”.

In Peru, sales are heavily based on trusted relationships between sellers and experienced local producers. Eric Jara of the Alpes Andino Association tells me that it’s common for producers to prepare their own seeds and sell them to locals at a reasonable price, as certified seeds are expensive.

He says: “Producing members of cooperatives usually have an engineer available to them who gives advice on quality, seed preparation, seed acquisition, and so on.”

Benjamin Weiner of Gold Mountain Coffee Growers tells me that in Nicaragua, internal seed structure verification exists, but access to this information is limited.

Ben adds that he has full traceability information on his varieties, and holds seed varieties at his coffee variety “museum” at Finca Idealista in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. This allows producers the opportunity to buy from a trusted seed seller.

You may also like Bourbon Coffee Variety: A Guide For Producers & Roasters

Why Is It Difficult To Verify Coffee Varieties?

One of the greatest barriers to accurate variety classification is a lack of access to industry information. Kraig explains that “if someone wanted to verify the Castillo variety with WCR, it wouldn’t be possible”. 

“This is because the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia (FNC) is the authority and breeder for the Castillo variety, and they do not share the genetic make-up [needed for testing].” While coffee federations have the right to this authority, it can make it complex for producers to access information and test varieties.

This therefore means that producers often have no assurance that what they’re buying is genuine – and accidentally grow the wrong variety as a result. 

This means that, for example, if a producer purchases a Castillo seed but thinks they’re growing a Geisha plant, they might attempt to fertilise it six times a year. While this would suit a Geisha plant, it causes the Castillo plant to be over-fertilised, and potentially impacts its success and yield.

Ben says because “there are not very many institutions that do verification, there’s a lack of verification within the industry”. He says that verification is therefore typically “based on producer experience”. 

Greater access to information is needed if producers are to be able to test varieties more effectively. This will help producers to feel secure with the varieties they’re planting and buyers to feel confident with the coffees they buy. 

Most producers also do not have access to DNA testing capabilities. This means that even if they have the right variety information from a federation or an organisation like WCR, there is no way to verify a coffee plant’s variety with 100% certainty.

However, there are ways for those impacted by the problem to begin to address it using the tools and information on hand.

How Producers Can Tackle The Problem

By establishing best practices in the coffee farm’s nursery, producers can mitigate misidentification and the unintentional circulation of “false” varieties. It also gives them a much better understanding of the varieties they are growing.

Firstly, producers should make sure they have access to quality information to implement these practices. WCR’s Good Practices Guides are easily accessible and detail good seed and nursery techniques. Among other things, they provide insight into:

  • The legality of buying and selling seeds
  • Genetic profiles/conformity of the varieties being purchased and sold 
  • Good nursery management

Producer-led cuppings are another way for producers to learn about different varieties when they can’t access DNA testing and verification information. Ben says that when resources are limited, it’s important “to continuously cup coffees to learn about each sensorial aspects of [different] varieties”.

Cupping can help producers better understand what to look for when verifying certain varieties, and help them to address questions from buyers. However, it’s important to remember that you will often be cupping mixed varieties in a coffee, so full traceability will be necessary in the first place to help with sensory identification of varieties going forward.

While varieties are generally only misidentified unintentionally, a greater focus on best practices in the nursery will reduce how often this happens. It will also, in time, lead to greater trust from those who buy from producers and improve traceability.

Right now, the tools for quick and accurate variety identification are often not easily available or affordable at origin. Instead, producers should focus on learning with the tools at their disposal. This will be their best chance to minimise unintentional mislabelling.

Enjoyed this? Then read What Cupping Can Tell Producers About Their Coffee

Photo credits: Eric Jara, Benjamin Weiner

Some quotes have been translated from Spanish.

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