A symbol of coffee’s promise

Direct Trade , In Season , Sourcing
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I began working in coffee nearly 15 years ago.  During that time I have been on more farms than I can remember and taken more photos than I can count.  But I can’t recall a farm photo that means more to me the one of the old friends above.  The content may seem unremarkable.  But the improbable backstory of this photo validates everything I have come to believe over the past 15 years about specialty coffee: that quality-based differentiation is the most reliable source of value for smallholders; that long-term relationships are the most viable approach for sustained smallholder participation; that varietal diversification is an effective strategy for mitigating risk in the field and seizing opportunities in the marketplace; that there are still, even in coffee origins as established as Colombia, growers producing exceptional coffee in relative obscurity without direct access to markets willing to pay premiums for quality; and most of all, that specialty coffee can be an engine of inclusive economic growth in the communities where it is grown.

I first met Corona Zambrano nearly five years ago when I was working for CRS leading the Borderlands project in southern Colombia. Our project design was based in part on the belief that the areas where we were working in Nariño were capable of producing exceptional coffees, even though few growers there were accessing significant premiums for quality.  So in 2012, we collected green coffee samples from roughly 80 farms from more than 1,500 participating in the project to test our hypothesis. Doña Corona’s was one of them.  When I first took notice of Doña Corona, she was a name on a spreadsheet, the grower of one of the randomly selected coffees that scored over 87 points and delivered a powerful validation of our hypothesis.  

The following year, Doña Corona came to my attention again, thanks to our friends at the exporter Caravela who were helping us get Corona’s coffees into the hands of roasters willing to pay premium prices for them.  While they were processing samples from her farm, they noticed a big discrepancy between the sizes of the seeds we sent.  They sent us a photo with the seeds from the sample grouped into two separate piles, one with average-sized Castillo, Caturra and Colombia seed, and the other with large, oval seed Caravela believed to be Maragogipe.

It was just the pretext I needed to arrange a visit with Doña Corona, one of a handful of women throughout Nariño whose coffees seemed to be continually outperforming all the rest.  To be honest, her farm was underwhelming.  It was not significantly different from the other countless farms I had visited in the region.  In fact, she had less shade cover than many of those farms. Less vigorous plants.  Less active soil conservation practices.  Less evidence of an overall organization plan for the farm.  And it was small, under four hectares.  But her coffees were delicious.  And sure enough, she did have a small grove of Yellow Maragogipe plants near the ridge at the top of her farm.  

When she showed them to me, she told me she was planning to tear them out and replace them with disease-resistant Castillo plants.  I had seen many farms ravaged by coffee leaf rust, so I understood the impulse.  But I had also tasted Maragogipe varietal lots and seen them command high prices in the U.S. market.  I didn’t try to talk Corona out of renovating with Castillo, but I did convince her to wait just a few weeks.  I proposed bringing in some of my roaster friends to visit the farm, cup the coffee and contribute their perspectives to Corona’s decision-making process.  That group of roasters included Geoff Watts, Intelligentsia’s Vice President of Coffee and Colombia Green Coffee Buyer.  I took the photo below during that visit, just as Geoff was cupping Corona’s coffee.  

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Geoff cups Corona’s Yellow Maragogipe for the first time in 2014 during a visit to Colombia.
Geoff cups Corona’s Yellow Maragogipe for the first time in 2014 during a visit to Colombia.

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As our release of this coffee suggests, Corona’s coffee turned heads that day.  Every year since then, it has commanded the highest price of any coffee in her community: not just enough for her to keep it in the ground, but enough for her to plant new Maragogipe seed in her nursery and share it with her neighbors so they can plant some, too

It is hard to overestimate how long the odds were five years ago against Corona becoming a celebrated coffee grower.

Five years ago, Corona was a price-taker: she delivered her coffee every year to the plaza in Linares, where she had little choice but to accept the prices posted at the buying stations there, earning narrow margins in the best years.  This year, she sold her coffee directly to a U.S. roaster for the fifth year in a row, and negotiated a price for this lot that was more than three times the local market price.  

Five years ago, Corona was an anonymous participant in supply chains designed to source and blend large volumes of homogenized coffee.  Today, her coffee is being separated and offered as a single-farm varietal lot to some of the most discriminating consumers in the United States in a bag that bears her name.  

Five years ago, Corona had never met a coffee buyer.  Now Geoff visits her farm every year so we can review the previous harvest, plan for the next one and put in place the kinds of guarantees that help to mitigate the risks she takes on the farm on our behalf.

If her farm hadn’t been randomly drawn from a hat, we may never have met her. But it was, and we did.

If the folks in Caravela’s lab hadn’t spotted the Maragogipe seed in Corona’s sample and called out attention to it, we might not have made the special effort to visit her farm until it was too late for this coffee.  But they did, and we did.

If Corona hadn’t been willing to take a risk on a low-yielding variety susceptible to coffee leaf rust or a quality-first strategy, or if we hadn’t provided appropriate incentives for her to do so, this coffee might never have found its way to market.  But she was, and we did.

The result, more than five years after we started on this journey together, is this tiny, beautiful and altogether unlikely lot of Yellow Maragogipe, one of the finest coffees from the Southern Hemisphere we will release this year.

And it’s not just Corona’s Yellow Maragogipe that stands out on the cupping table.  Her mixed-variety lot is always one of the top coffees we get from her region.  And it’s not just Corona: her neighbors have followed her example and cast their lot with a quality-first approach, as well, becoming part of our annual Tres Santos Colombia single-origin offering.

None of that context is visible in the photo, of course, but everything in the photo reminds me of it.  The most telling detail in the photo, the one that speaks best to the depth of the quality focus Corona has developed over the past five years, may be the coffee cup in Geoff’s hands.  

Smallholder coffee growers commonly serve you their own coffee when you visit them on their farms.  But even the ones who routinely produce exceptional coffees rarely drink great coffee at home, usually roasting defects and rejects, and so doing poorly over open flames in their kitchens.  It makes the ritual a painful one for visitors, who compliment their hosts more out of courtesy than genuine pleasure. But on this visit, Geoff didn’t merely oblige Corona by taking a few brave sips.  He liked the first cup so much he asked for seconds.

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Order our Corona Zambrano Colombia Yellow Maragogipe Special Selection HERE, but hurry: it won’t last long.

Posted in Direct Trade, In Season, Sourcing