My first introduction to Colombian coffee was through the iconic print and TV adverts of the day. Juan Valdez, the donkey, the deep aristocratic male voice indicating that 100% Colombian Coffee was “the richest coffee in the world.” Memories from 30 years ago that still fill me with the assurance that coffee from Colombia is not just a good thing but the best thing.
When I first started working for a local Vancouver roaster it was the late ‘90s and we were hit with the one-two sucker punch of a very high coffee market and a Canadian dollar in the toilet. Seems like only yesterday. I fondly remember many things about those early beginnings but one that I do not, ironically, is Colombian coffee.
At the time, the coffee we were seeing was poor and inconsistent. Good reputation, average cup. We tried over the period of a couple of years to find something redolent of the “richest coffee in the world.” Popayan, Medellin…. didn’t matter where it came from, the coffee was consistently disappointing. We stopped buying it.
I couldn’t believe it. Colombia was a juggernaut of coffee production, second only to Brazil. They had a sterling reputation and with grade names like Excelso and Supremo that impression was only solidified. They seemed to have mastered how to produce both quality and quantity unlike no other growing region on earth. Heck, they even have two harvests a year. It was like the promised land of coffee growing. So what happened?
The short answer? I don’t know. I’ve talked to old codgers who bought coffee before my time. They wax poetic about what Colombian coffee used to be like with varied insight as to what has since changed. Could it be poor weather, the choice of varietals being planted, a relentlessly high demand and consistent shortage of supply? Perhaps all of the above. I still cling to the hope of magisterial coffee from Colombia but since my start in the coffee business until now, I have seen very few examples.
Now, in no way am I trying to play the precious, “very little is good enough for me” coffee buyer role. Rather, I am simply a buyer who over the past 15 years of looking at coffee from Colombia has had a very low hit ratio. Speaking to others with a similar breadth of perspective (and longer), I am not alone.
I’m sure there is someone reading this and breathing the rapid, shallow breath of a three year old who isn’t being given what they want. I feel the same way. I’m also aware that some might even be offended at the suggestion that Colombian coffee is anything less than the ne plus ultra of specialty washed coffee. Mea culpa but to offend is not my intention. Rather my intention is a desperate cheer-“C’mon Colombia!” to work out the frustration of my most recent foray into buying some Colombian coffee and striking out. Again. Shoot.
Where did it go wrong? Why aren’t we knee deep in Colombian coffee equal to their reputation?
The 900lb gorilla in the room is the FNC (Colombian Coffee Growers Federation). They are an incredibly well funded and powerful organization that does an incredible amount of marketing, cutting edge research and ultimately (if their promotional material is to be believed) good. However I can’t help but wonder if for all their forward thinking, marketing savvy and development the FNC is ultimately stunted by politics and rather than truly flourish, they flounder. Have they set their sights on trying to produce volume and shipping a lot of average coffee rather than aiming for a more reasonable production of say 12 million bags a year and putting out something befitting their potential? That’s been at least one suggestion. I can only imagine and sympathize with trying to steer the interests of half a million families involved in growing coffee. Introducing the FNC. This is what they do.
Where does this leave us?
I’m going cold turkey. At the very least it’ll be some time before I tentatively dip my cupping spoon into a landed sample of 100% Colombian coffee. Until then it will quietly remain an origin of immense potential with a frustratingly under performing track record.