Earlier this year I visited Colombia to see how coffee is grown, harvested, and processed. One of the most exciting, geeky parts of that trip was our visit to Cenicafé, Colombia’s 77 year old national coffee research center. Cenicafé is one of the world’s leading centers for scientific coffee research, looking for innovative ways to increase sustainability, improve quality, raise yields, mitigate the effects of pests and plant diseases, and much more. As part of the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC), their mission is to better the lives of the hundreds of thousands of small family farmers who grow coffee for export. Books could (and should) be written about its history and activities, but the show-and-tell below will hopefully suffice to give you a taste of the exciting energy and effort that drives Colombian coffee quality.
You get a bit of a Jurassic Park vibe driving through the heavy gates and security checkpoints. We’re heading to the research labs, located at the top of a tropical mountain. Why the top? Because this is a volcanic region and some of the original buildings at the bottom were damaged by a large eruption and subsequent flooding in the 1980s.
The new facilities have this great late 80′s institutional campus feel, with open-air architecture that allows the breeze (and more than a few birds) to fly through. In fact, the entire visit felt like spending office hours at coffee grad school, with passionate people working on interesting research projects down every corridor.
Combatting Leaf Rust
Cenicafé is engaged in many efforts to safeguard and grow coffee quality and productivity. One of the largest threats is coffee leaf rust, a fungus that has slowly been wiping out vulnerable coffee farms for over a hundred years. From Wikipedia:
“The disease was first described and named by Berkley and Broom in the November 1869 edition of the Gardeners Chronicle. They used specimens sent from Sri Lanka, where the disease was already causing enormous damage to productivity. Many coffee estates in Sri Lanka were forced to collapse or convert their crops to alternatives not affected by CLR, such as tea. By 1890 the coffee industry in Sri Lanka was nearly destroyed, although coffee estates still exist in some areas.
By the 1920s CLR was widely found across much of Africa and Asia, as well as Indonesia andFiji. It reached Brazil in 1970 and from there it rapidly spread at a rate enabling it to infect all coffee areas in the country by 1975. From Brazil, the disease spread to most coffee-growing areas in Central and South America by 1981, hitting Costa Rica and Colombia in 1983.
As of 1990, coffee rust has become endemic in all major coffee-producing countries.”
Colombia, however, was prepared as researchers at Cenicafé had been developing rust-resistant coffee cultivars, the most recent called Castillo. Michael Sheridan, working at the non-profit Catholic Relief Services, has written extensively about the history and challenges here, including the hesitance of specialty coffee roasters to accept Castillo.
Below, we toured the collection of coffee varieties grown for genetic research at Cenicafé:
The smell from the flowering trees was amazing!
Below, you see what happens when a tree is affected by leaf rust – bare branches.
The beginnings of leaf rust, below:
So many giant biting creatures, I’ve never had as many painful, huge bug bites.
Battling Berry Borer Beetles
It’s not just me getting bitten – another major pest that affects coffee growers is the coffee borer beetle. These tiny bugs dig into the cherry and live inside the seed, reproducing and weakening the integrity and quality of the resulting coffee beans. In an effort to find sustainable, pesticide-free ways to control this pest, researchers at Cenicafé are exploring many ways to try to fight back – from controlling the climate to try to encourage uniform flowering so that the beetles (attracted to ripening cherries) can be attacked comprehensively at once, to helpful fungi that can be applied to trees to kill the beetles. Check out the labs and scientists at work below:
In another part of the center, we spoke to other researchers who were conducting experiments to increase cup quality (i.e., desirable flavors, consistency). Recently they’ve been studying the effects of fermentation in an effort to provide clear guidance for farmers to manipulate variables – such as time, temperature, and type of fermentation (wet vs. dry) – to add value to their crop. This is really interesting territory because the farmer can manipulate the final flavor of the coffee by adjusting the way the picked coffee cherries are fermented – but the process can also ruin the flavor, so experimentation is needed to arrive at best practices. The definition of desirability is also key – is that chocolatey? Nutty? Acidic? Fruity? Depending on who you ask in the market, you may find different answers.
I asked about introducing specific yeasts in a controlled way to affect fermentation, but at this point their goal is to understand how natural fermentation impacts flavor so that the process can be controlled effectively by farmers. And this is no small challenge, as the many small family farmers are used to doing things a particular, tried-and-true way and it requires a lot of education and persuasion to change behavior when one’s livelihood is in the balance. At some point, however, it could be possible to ferment in sterile industrial environments to isolate specific flavor effects, akin to how beer is made…
Protecting the Brand
Another interesting part of Cenicafé’s work is the Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) lab that maps the chemical characteristics of coffee samples, resulting in a sort of chemical fingerprint that can pinpoint the region a sample comes from – and they are able to get quite specific as regional climate, soil, and processing techniques influence the chemical compounds in the coffee bean.
This is done for trade protection to guard the brand value of “Colombian” coffee (e.g., protected denomination of origin, quality and origin guarantees, like what EU has done with wine, cheese, etc.). At the country level, they’re already testing at ports to ensure that, for example, cheaper coffee isn’t shipped through a Colombian port and labelled as Colombian. They already have found international companies selling falsely labelled “Colombian” coffee, which can be the result of deceit, or poor supply-chain control at importers and other links in the production chain. As consumers become more aware of regional characteristics within countries, this system can also identify regional and local chemical characteristics unique to Colombia.
Sustainability and Environmental Protection
Another area they’re working on is reducing the amount of water required to remove the pulp from the cherry when the coffee is processed at the farm. They’ve created an innovative “Eco-mill” that only uses 0.35-0.6 liters of water per kilogram of dried coffee, compared to prior methods that can use 5 to 20 liters of water per kilogram of dried coffee. This is huge both as a resource saver and as a pollution reducer, given that water runoff from fermentation has negative environmental consequences.
Other innovations in sustainability include the leftover coffee pulp, which they are experimenting with turning into fertilizer, as well as ways to make a kind of coffee cherry molasses. We tasted samples and it was actually very nice – like a red wine reduction.
The Eco-mill, above, has a stainless steel tank to allow fermentation before processing the cherry to remove the seeds.
Becolsub, above, is one of the earlier mills created by Cenicafe to reduce water consumption.
Below, the coffee pulp molasses.
Below, a processing plant where they process coffee to use as seed, rather than to roast.
Watching the Weather
And last, but not least, Cenicafe operates weather stations like the one below around the country. Farmers can access forecasts and historical rainfall and solar data through an online portal, which also has regional soil data to help farmers optimize their fertilizer.
I found this whole visit fascinating – and way too short! I barely scratched the surface of this 77 year old organization and the important work it does for Colombia’s coffee growers, environmental sustainability, and quality focused coffee lovers everywhere. Thanks again to Café de Colombia for organizing the trip – and a reminder to sign up for the Colombian Coffee Hub, their site for global coffee geeks, where some of Cenicafé’s experts occasionally share current research.