In recent years, specialty coffee’s fixation with unusual and rare coffees has only been growing. This fascination is particularly noticeable at the World Barista Championship, with more and more competitors using rare and “forgotten” species and varieties every year.
The 2023 World Barista Championship was no exception to this trend, with many of the six finalists using unique coffees in their routines. For example, Australia’s Jack Simpson (who placed third) used Ombligon for his espresso, milk, and signature beverage courses.
Ombligon is a relatively unknown arabica variety grown in Colombia, but interest in this coffee is certainly growing following this year’s WBC. In line with this, is there potential for the market for Ombligon to grow in the coming years?
To find out, I spoke to Jack Simpson and Juan Pablo Campos. Read on to find out what they had to say.
You may also like our article on Sidra coffee.
What is Ombligon and where does it come from?
Like many other rare arabica varieties, the exact origins of Ombligon are unknown. Currently, Ombligon only grows in Huila, Colombia – a prominent producing region in the south west of the country.
The name “Ombligon” – which translates from Spanish to English as “belly button” – comes from this variety’s unique shape.
Juan Pablo Campos is a founding partner of Lohas Beans, a specialty coffee exporter in Colombia. Lohas Beans works closely with Nestor Lasso at Finca El Diviso – a well known Colombian coffee producer who grows several different unique arabica varieties, including Ombligon.
Juan explains that he and other coffee professionals believe Ombligon is related to an Ethiopian heirloom variety. He adds that because the variety is a natural mutation, it also shares similar traits to other native Colombian coffee varieties.
“Ombligon has similar characteristics to Caturra, such as wide leaves, cherries which grow close together, branches which grow vertically, and high yields,” he tells me. “However, many Colombian coffee professionals agree that Ombligon could be a natural mutation of other varieties like Pacamara, Bourbon, or even Castillo – mostly because of the high yield potential and resistance to coffee leaf rust.”
Producers in Huila, Colombia grow Ombligon at different altitudes, but between 1,600 and 1,800 m.a.s.l. tends to work best.
Jack Simpson is the Head of Quality Control & Sales at Axil Coffee Roasters in Melbourne, Australia. He is also the 2023 Australian Barista Champion. He tells me he first came across Ombligon a few months before the 2023 WBC while sampling coffees from Finca El Divisio.
“I was intrigued,” he says. “I had never heard of this variety before and it had a very unique flavour profile.”
Growing and processing the variety
Juan explains that Ombligon isn’t particularly challenging to grow. This is mostly because it produces high yields and is fairly resilient to certain diseases – particularly coffee leaf rust (or la roya).
However, there are still important considerations to factor in when growing Ombligon.
“It produces rather large beans, so producers who aren’t used to this could end up breaking or chipping some of them when using traditional depulpers for washed processing methods,” Juan says. “To avoid this, you need to properly adjust depulpers to accommodate the larger beans.
“Ombligon is also denser than other varieties, with less ‘floaters’ or non-developed beans present in floatation tanks,” he adds.
When it comes to processing methods for Ombligon, there has been much innovation with natural fermentation techniques. Colombian producer Nestor Lasso has been pivotal in developing these methods, which have led to some exciting results.
Juan explains the process includes the following steps:
- After careful harvesting, mainly overripe Ombligon cherries (which have Brix levels ranging from 24°Bx to 26°Bx) are selected for processing
- The cherries are placed in bags and left to oxidise for 48 hours. This is followed by a 12-hour resting period, and then another 60-hour oxidation stage
- After 60 hours, the bags of cherries are left open to increase the temperature inside of them
- The cherries are then washed in 32°C (89.6°F) water to reduce the temperature difference between the water and inside the cherries
- Ombligon cherries are then placed into sealed plastic tanks to undergo anaerobic fermentation
- The cherries are washed in 60°C (140°F) water to stop the fermentation process, and are then dried using specialist dehumidifying equipment
Processing Ombligon for competitions
Juan tells me the processing techniques for Ombligon are much stricter and more precise when used for competitions.
“We process Ombligon cherries in stainless steel tanks in 200kg batches,” he says. “This means the variables are more controlled and are on a smaller scale, which helps to enhance the characteristics that Nestor wants to highlight for competitors who use this coffee.”
What does it taste like?
Jack explains that there were several reasons why he chose Ombligon for his 2023 World Barista Championship routine.
“This coffee is very unique. It’s complex, but it also has definable flavours and characteristics, which I think is one of the most important elements to consider when choosing a coffee for competitions.
“Using a variety that is new and interesting always excites me, but this year, Ombligon also fit so well into my routine,” he adds. “I spent a lot of time learning about Nestor’s innovative approach to fermentation, so his processing technique combined with the complexity of this coffee was a perfect choice.”
Many coffee professionals report tasting notes of raspberry, guava jam, mango, and white chocolate. Jack, meanwhile, tells me he has tasted red cherry, blood plum (a type of cherry plum), blood orange, watermelon, yellow peach, orange marmalade, dark chocolate, and toffee.
During his 2023 WBC milk beverage course, Jack also mentioned notes of boysenberry ice cream and malted chocolate.
“The mouthfeel is incredible – it’s very silky and thick, and it coats the mouth,” he says. “It also has a long-lasting sweet finish, which is one of the reasons why I chose this coffee.”
To highlight all of Ombligon’s best qualities, finding the right roast profile is essential.
Jack explains how he spent a lot of time adjusting the roast profile. He found that the coffee works well as both espresso and filter.
“For espresso, I found that we needed to take a more gentle approach, as well as using a longer development time than usual, to balance the acidity,” he says “The Agtron readings were quite low, [which indicates a darker roast profile], but this made for a more balanced, sweet espresso.
“When prepared as espresso, I tasted more flavours of stone fruit, citrus, and chocolate,” he adds. “Meanwhile when roasted for filter, there were more flavours of cherry and a more vibrant acidity.”
Could Ombligon become more popular?
Given its potential for producing high yields and resilience to certain diseases, it seems there is some potential for Ombligon production to scale in the coming years. Moreover, there is a spotlight on this variety following the 2023 World Barista Championship – and this is likely to continue for some time.
Additionally, when using the right processing methods, Ombligon has produced some excellent flavour profiles that many coffee professionals and enthusiasts would certainly be interested to try.
However, for many producers, there is an obvious level of risk when experimenting with growing and processing new varieties. In order for more farmers to grow Ombligon, they would need the right level of support and access to resources.
“If it’s possible for more producers to grow Ombligon, I would love to see more of it in specialty coffee,” Jack says. “Nestor did an amazing job with the coffee I used, so it will be exciting to see what the future holds for Ombligon.”
With its potential to produce incredible results in the cup, demand for Ombligon is likely to increase over the next few years – albeit at a very slow and steady pace. As this variety is currently only grown in Huila, Colombia, the ability to scale production is somewhat limited.
If we want to see Ombligon in more coffee shops, more producers would have to start growing this variety. For this to happen, they would need plenty of support and access to the right resources.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on what happened at the 2023 World Barista Championship.
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