El Cerro | Peru Cup of Excellence #2

From our Green Coffee Buyer for Peru Jay Cunningham:

Most of the truly great coffee in Peru has been blended into obscurity.  There, coffee is mostly collected from thousands of growers and bulked into large, homogenized lots that dilute the quality of dozens or perhaps hundreds of small lots of exceptional quality.  In the United States and other countries where Peruvian coffee is consumed, you may find it hidden in colorfully named blends on grocery stores shelves, but you would have to look hard.

Peru is one of the top-10 coffee-producing nations in the world by volume, but it is still struggling to make a name for itself where quality is concerned. Thankfully, that is beginning to change.

Peru’s Past

Peru’s coffee sector faces challenges that are typical of many coffee-growing countries, including persistent poverty, limited economic development in rural areas and poor infrastructure, and others that aren’t: it is massive, meaning that many parts of the country’s coffeelands are exceptionally isolated from ports and markets.  Development aid and organic and Fair Trade certifications have made an impact in Peru: coffee growers are making a better living and the cooperatives that link them to markets are able to reinvest in technical and agronomic assistance.  

A Culture of Quality

Peru has not had a reputation for great quality, but not because it doesn’t have the conditions to produce extraordinary coffee. Peru’s soaring Andean peaks, lush coffee forests, cool temperatures and traditional varieties make it a natural source of quality coffee.  What it lacks are a culture of quality, the commitment to lot separation and premium prices that make all that separation worthwhile.

Incentives for Quality

In recent years we have been working to create incentives for growers to begin to separate their lots based on quality, and the results have been genuinely exciting.  Last year we released the first edition of our new Rayos del Sol Organic Peru lot, our first Direct Trade single-origin from Peru in years. Earlier this year, the Cup of Excellence underscored the idea that there is value to be captured by lot separation when it held its first-ever competition and auction in Peru.

Enter CoE

In our blind cupping of all the winning Peru CoE lots, this particular one really stood out on the table as exceptionally sweet and clean.  We were thrilled, but not surprised, to learn that it came from Efraín Carhuallocllo, a member of the Café Solidario cooperative that puts together our Rayos del Sol Organic Peru lot.

Efraín and El Cerro

The village of El Corazón is located in the Province of Jaén, four hours north of the bustling city of the same name that serves as the official capital of the province and the unofficial capital of Peru’s coffee sector. To reach Finca El Cerro requires another hour-long walk from the village. The landscape of the farm is rugged, with elevations up to 2000m and lots of natural shade and untouched forest. Or at least, that’s what we have come to understand from members of Café Solidario’s leadership team, who have been telling us for years about Efraín and his farm.  We attempted to make our first visit this year but were thwarted by roads that weren’t merely too muddy to navigate, but too much for our vehicle to take: the effort to make it through the mud to the farm actually killed our truck and we had to hitchhike back to our hotel!

Like most coffee farms in Peru, El Cerro is small: a two-hectare plot (less than five and one-half acres) planted with about 10,000 Caturra trees. Unlike most coffee farmers in Peru, Efraín is hyper-focused on quality and part of an organization committed to relentless separation.

Efraín has been working this farm for seven years, making steady improvements every year. He maintains a small but pristine depulper and fermentation tank, as well as a small solar dryer that allows him to avoid the risks of El Corazón’s finicky wet weather.

Efraín was already well-known for his meticulous approach to coffee before this year’s Cup of Excellence.  Now he is nothing short of a celebrity in El Corazón, where his neighbors have sought his advice on fermentation, his help constructing new drying infrastructure, and most of his Yellow Caturra seed, all of which he has shared happily.

This spectacular lot, which reminds us of persimmon, turbinado sugar and dried cherry, is the harbinger of a new era for Peruvian coffee.

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Visit our single-origin coffees page to pre-order this coffee.  It will be roasted and shipped on 12/15 and arrive in time for Christmas.  If there is any left after that, we will fulfill orders every Friday until we run out.


Three Cups of Excellence

The Cup of Excellence (CoE) is the world’s most rigorous and prestigious coffee quality competition. With events in 10 different coffee-growing countries and an internet auction that exports winning lots to every major consuming market in the world, it is the only truly international coffee quality competition.  Forget about the gold standard, the CoE is the platinum standard for quality.

Collectively, our Direct Trade partners have more than 60 CoE awards among them.  But it has been several years since we have sourced a winning CoE lot.  Tomorrow we start taking pre-orders for the first of three winning lots from the most recent CoE competitions in Colombia and Peru, every one of them from a grower already part of the Intelligentsia Direct Trade network:

These release of these three stunning coffees signals our return to the CoE circuit and our continued commitment to source the world’s most extraordinary coffees.  It also reflects our belief that the CoE doesn’t just set the platinum standard among coffee quality competitions: it is also the one that delivers the most value to growers and roasters committed to building long-term trading relationships rooted in mutual pursuit of quality.

Intelligentsia, COE and Direct Trade

Our current single-origin menu is filled with coffees that can trace their origins to the CoE.   

From 2003-2007, as we were establishing the foundations of our Direct Trade program, Intelligentsia was one of the leading U.S. buyers of CoE coffees.  CoE was never just a reliable source for great coffees for us, but a reliable source of access to growers committed to producing great coffees year in and year out.  While some buyers may see CoE as coffee’s version of Tinder, we think of it more like match.com: a matchmaking service for parties more interested in committed long-term relationships.

As a result, many of our perennial single-origin favorites have been built around relationships originally brokered by the Cup of Excellence starting 15 years ago, including our La Tortuga Honduras (Finca La Tina), Itzamna Guatemala (La Soledad), Malacara (Los Inmortales El Salvador), Matalapa El Salvador and Los Delirios Organic Nicaragua.   Two of these farms — La Tina and Los Delirios — have taken home the top prize.  

The three winning lots we release this week represent more of the same: the purchase of specially selected lots from growers in our Direct Trade network to accelerate emerging relationships or deepen established ones.

Efraín Carhuallocllo Salvador of Peru is a member of the Café Solidario organization that grows our Rayos del Sol Peru single-origin offering.  We have been working with the organization’s members and leadership for the past three seasons to develop a shared understanding of quality and lay the groundwork to a long-term Direct Trade relationship.  After our second visit earlier this year, we became the single biggest buyer of Café Solidario coffee.  

For Franco Héctor José López, this purchase brings our relationships full-circle, since we originally connected through our participation in Colombia’s CoE competitions beginning in 2010.  La Mina has been a perennial part of our single-origin Colombia lineup, originally released as part of our Amigos de Buesaco offering.  Franco’s daughter Cielo recently joined the entire Intelligentsia Direct Trade family in San Francisco for our annual Extraordinary Coffee Workshop, reserved for our most valued trading partners.

His La Mina farm is in the same neighborhood as Ángel María López Loaiza’s Llano Redondo farm in the Buesaco region of Nariño. This year, lots from both farms are part of our annual Tres Santos Colombia lineup: our annual Direct Trade lots from both farms are scheduled to arrive in January.

Sourcing these extraordinary CoE lots in addition to the lots we normally source from these partners enables us to help celebrate their achievements and contribute to financial impact CoE has on them and their families.  To date, CoE has generated more than $55 million in premiums to growers, but that is only a part of its overall impact.  Over time, the benefits of sustained access of CoE winners to Direct Trade relationships and the expansion of the specialty sectors in CoE origins is exponentially greater.  According to an impact assessment commissioned by ACE and published by the non-profit TechnoServe in 2015, when the value of expanded access CoE was $137 million in Brazil alone.

These are among the very best coffees you will drink this year.  They are also part of a system that creates powerful incentives for quality, supports the establishment of mutually beneficial long-term tradition relationships and drives real financial impact at the farm level.

Visit our single-origin coffees page to pre-order these exceptional lots before they sell out.  Orders received by Thursday, 12/14 at 3:00 pm will be roasted and shipped that day and arrive in time for Christmas.  In the (unlikely) event we have any left after that, we will repeat this fulfillment plan weekly until we run out.

CoE 101

This week we begin our releases of not one, not two but three winners of recent Cup of Excellence competitions in Colombia and Peru.  It has been a few years since we have had CoE coffees on our menu, so here are some CoE basics to jog your memory, courtesy of my colleague Geoff Watts, who has been involved from the beginning and served on more than 20 juries to date.

What is Cup of Excellence?

The Cup of Excellence, or “CoE” for short, is the world’s most rigorous and prestigious coffee quality competition. It is the only truly international competition in existence, serving 10 different producing countries and exporting coffees to every major consuming market via an online auction.  It is considered the gold standard for coffee tasting events.

What is the purpose of CoE?

The CoE was developed with four goals in mind:

[1.] serve as a discovery mechanism for coffees of exceptional quality that do not have clear paths to markets that reward quality;

[2.] create a prominent international stage for those coffees on which the growers who produced them and the origins in which they were grown can show a highly discerning and influential audience what they are capable of;

[3.] promote the values of transparency and traceability in the coffee industry; and

[4.] foster greater connectivity between roasters and farmers focused on coffee’s intrinsic quality.

How does it work?

The competition takes place every year at the end of the harvest season in each of the participating countries. There are six separate rounds for each competition, followed by an online auction.

National Jury | Rounds 1-3

Round 1 | Pre-selection

Up to 1,000 coffees or more are submitted by farmers wishing to compete. These are evaluated over a period of the weeks by a panel of national cuppers.  Coffees that score 86 points or higher are qualified to move on to the next stage of the competition.

Round 2 | 150 > 90

The coffees that are pre-selected in Round 1 (up to a maximum 150) are then roasted a second time and submitted to a National Jury comprised of as many as one doze of the best tasters in the host country. Up to 90 coffees scoring 86 points or above move on to the next round

Round 3 | 90> 40

Lots that survive the second round are roasted and tasted one final time by the National Jury, with up to 40 coffees scoring 86 points or above moving on to the International Jury segment of the competition.

International Jury | Rounds 4-6Round 4 | International Jury

In the third round, all the coffees that survive the National Jury segment are cupped by an International Jury made up of 20-25 professional cuppers from leading consuming markets from around the world, generally Japan, Korea, Europe, Scandinavia, Australia and the United States.  

Round 5 | 

During the fifth round, the International Jury whittles the remaining lots down to a smaller number that will be awarded Cup of Excellence honors and advance to the auction.  Coffees in that survive round 5 are divided into two categories — International Jury winners and National Jury winners — and qualify for the online auction that follows the competition.

Round 6 | Top Ten

On the final day of the competition, the 10 highest-scoring coffees from the first two heats of the International Jury round are roasted a third time, scored and ranked to identify an overall winner.

That evening an awards ceremony is held and the winners are revealed. These events are a BIG DEAL in coffee-growing countries, often attended by heads of state and other high-placed government officials. The excitement among the farmers in attendance is tremendous, because winning the CoE can completely change the trajectory of their lives for the better. There is a long list of past winners who were on the verge of failure before getting discovered in the CoE and who today are among the most successful coffee farmers in their respective countries.

Why is it considered the gold standard for coffee competitions?

There is no other coffee competition that comes close to the rigor and the discipline of a Cup of Excellence. Every coffee that reaches the finals goes through a minimum of five rounds of evaluation to get there, and hundreds of individual cups are tasted for each sample. Even a single defect can cause a coffee to be eliminated from the competition, and more than three dozen individual tasters from different countries need to agree on a coffee’s quality for it to make it through to the end of the competition. It is extremely hard to win a CoE.

There is also an unmatched level of traceability and transparency in the process.  International auditors are hired to oversee and manage the sampling process, and only they have access to the codes. Each coffee that passes pre-selection is held in a bonded warehouse under lock and key, and only the auditors know the identity of the coffees until the codes are revealed on the night of the awards ceremony.

Who runs Cup of Excellence?

CoE is owned and operated by the Alliance for Coffee Excellence (“ACE”), a non-profit organization committed to promoting quality in coffee and creating opportunity for coffee growers.

Why is CoE such a big deal in coffee-growing countries?

Cup of Excellence has had an outsized impact on coffee growers around the world, and has played a pivotal role in helping us develop the long-term sourcing relationships behind some of your favorite coffees.

CoE has delivered more than $55 million to coffee growers around the world since it started — revenues to which those growers simply would not have had access in the absence of the CoE competition and auction.  But the real impact of CoE goes well beyond the dollars and cents generated at auction.  Over time, the benefits of sustained access of CoE winners to Direct Trade relationships and the expansion of the specialty sectors in CoE origins is exponentially greater.  According to an impact assessment commissioned by ACE and published by the non-profit TechnoServe in 2015, when the value of expanded access CoE was $137 million in Brazil alone.

What is Intelligentsia’s history with CoE?

Intelligentsia has been a vigorous supporter of CoE almost from its inception.  We were a major U.S. buyer of winning CoE lots during the competition’s early years, and have participated in more juries than any other U.S. roaster.  Geoff has been on the jury for the inaugural competition in seven of the 10 countries where CoE has been held, and more than 20 juries in total.  He is also a current member and past chair of the ACE Board of Directors.

Karyenda: Music (and coffee) worthy of royalty

The karyenda is a traditional drum in Burundi, but it is not just any drum.  It occupies the highest order of sacred drums in a country that takes its percussion seriously.  It once enjoyed semi-divine status in Burundi, heralding the proclamations of kings at royal ceremonies and marking weddings, harvests and funerals, perhaps even the burial of the Burundian queen who reportedly lies in repose in the shady spot beneath this tree.  Whether in celebration or mourning, the karyenda thrums relentlessly with rhythms that are nothing short of mesmerizing.  We have named our annual single-origin release from Burundi for the karyenda because its coffees make us feel the same way as its drumming: pulsing with energy and marveling at the complexity of what Burundi has to offer.

Our 2017 Karyenda Burundi, in the words of our Green Coffee Logistics Manager and Burundi Buyer J Mlodzinski:

Yandaro Rises to the Top.

For the second year in a row, our Karyenda Burundi comes from the Yandaro coffee washing station (CWS).  It is located in the Kabarore Commune in the heart of the Kayanza Province, home to what are arguably the best coffees in the country.  The Yandaro CWS has been processing coffees since 1986, but in recent years the Greenco team that runs the washing station has elevated its coffees to a level that makes them worthy of the karyenda name.  

Although we loved the coffee we sourced from Yandaro last year, we cast a wide net in our search for year’s Karyenda Burundi as part of our commitment to find the very best coffees Burundi has to offer.  We cupped blindly through dozens of lots from Greenco operations in Gitega, Ngozi and Kayanza, and the Yandaro lots just kept rising to the top.

More than 3,500 coffee growers from 22 different villages scattered across Kabarore and beyond deliver fresh coffee cherry to Yandaro, but traffic doesn’t just flow into the mill there.  Yandaro’s team also pushes out into the hilly terrain that surrounds the washing station to deliver technical assistance in coffee agronomy and train growers on how to meet its high standards for quality.  The results have been evident in the cup.  The extraordinary efforts of the Greenco team and the growers they serve have turned the gifts that nature bestowed on Burundi – fertile soil, high elevations, regular rains, warm days and cool nights –  into impeccably clean and sweet coffee.  

This coffee goes to six.

Greenco’s team at Yandaro sorts its coffee relentlessly, dividing it into six quality tiers, with a relatively small amount reaching the HG/High-Grade tier at the top of the pyramid.  This coffee has been so good over the last two years that we have doubled down on our commitment to the Yandaro CWS: we bought all the HG coffee that Yandaro produced for the U.S. market this year and invested in the future of coffee in Kabarore.

Kahawatu: People’s Coffee.

Our visits this year to the villages surrounding Yandaro confirmed what we suspected: that as good as these coffees are, they can get even better; that coffee can create meaningful economic opportunities there; and that we want to make a long-term commitment to the region.

As a demonstration of that commitment, we are teaming up with Greenco’s Kahawatu Foundation to invest in the communities surrounding the Yandaro WCS. Kahawatu, or People’s Coffee, engages directly with the communities that deliver cherry to the washing station at Yandaro to help develop educational, financial and agronomic programs that directly benefit coffee growers and their families.  A portion of the price we paid for this coffee will be reinvested in renovation that positions growers to boost coffee production and increase coffee income.

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The 2017 edition of our sparkling Karyenda Burundi reminds us of blood orange, white peach and butterscotch.  Buy it here.


An architectural approach to agriculture

From our Vice President of Coffee and Colombia Buyer Geoff Watts:

The Santuario Farm Project was created in 1999 by visionary farmer-in-training Camilo Merizalde.  His explicit goal was to produce extraordinary coffee using traditional heirloom varieties that had nearly disappeared from Colombia. It was a huge leap of faith and more than a decade ahead of its time.  In those years, the idea of planting fragile varieties known to have low yields was considered a fool’s errand, extremely risky given the conditions in the marketplace and region.  Back then, specialty coffee was still a niche industry known more for French Roasts and Vanilla Lattes than for rare coffee types.

Nearly 20 years later, the farm is living, breathing proof-of-concept.  Camilo hasn’t merely demonstrated that it is possible to build a sustainable coffee farm on a vision that values quality over quantity, balances biodiversity and productivity and sees the heirloom coffees of Colombia’s past as the best bet for its future.  He has demonstrated that, if financial profitability and resilience in the face of climate change and volatile markets are important parts of sustainability, this vision may be the best blueprint for the future of coffee.  It is a model that farmers around the world have replicated, but few have matched.

An Architectural Approach to Agriculture

Nothing about the blueprint of the farm is arbitrary or accidental. Before a single seed was planted, Camilo spent two years investigating the critical factors that contribute to quality coffee production and plant health.  In consultation with agronomy experts from Colombia, Central America, and Japan he slowly developed a plan for his farm.  There would be wide spacing between rows of coffee to allow light and air to reach the cherries, promote good productivity and discourage disease. He would plant a diverse selection of leguminous trees and vegetation to provide shade, protection from winds, moisture retention and leaf litter as mulch to deliver nutrients and organic matter to the soil.  This biodiversity, while costlier initially, is the basis for long-term sustainability on any farm.  Creating an environment where nature can work its magic in the form of interdependent biological systems that support plant and animal life is critical to maintaining a healthy farm environment.

Camilo approached the layout of the farm as any good architect would, plotting it out meter by square meter and making arrangements that made sense based on the existing environment.  The original map of the farm is pixelated to detail every tiny parcel, with precise demarcation of all the various types of trees and shrubs planted there.  He chose specific varieties to plant after studying the specialty market and consulting with friends.  Rather than pick the high-yielding, easier-to-grow varieties widely available in Colombia like Caturra or variedad Colombia, he chose heirloom types known for their ability to produce sensational tasting coffee seeds.  Old Typica and Bourbon stocks are generally less productive and more fragile than the hybrids that are more commonly cultivated today, but they have a much higher ceiling when it comes to cup quality.  He planted them in distinct sections, keeping each lot restricted to one type so that the different varieties could be easily kept separated during harvest.

The Everlasting Gobstopper

The Santuario experience has been a gustatory journey without end, filled with discovery and invention and an endless variation of flavors.  It is a real-time experiment that has generated new knowledge about the best way to manage a boutique farm at scale, and its coffees have become a reliable, perennial standard for our customers.  Each season offers slightly different forms of the same kind of pleasure, and the wellspring of flavor at Santuario is virtually inexhaustible.  

The farm has occupied a feature role at many groundbreaking Intelligentsia events of the last decade. Our inaugural Extraordinary Coffee Workshop took place there back in 2009 and launched an institution.  The next year we hosted an ambitious coffee tasting dinner at our Pasadena shop where local chefs developed an eight-course meal, each dish constructed to pair with a single coffee from the Santuario variety garden and reflect its most outstanding traits. More recently, we began showcasing individual cultivars in special edition tins created to allow our customers to experience how genetic differences between tree varieties can lead to intriguingly distinct flavor characteristics, even when these trees are grown under identical conditions. Naturally, Santuario was at the center of that exercise.

A Noble Variety

We often bring in Bourbon varieties from Santuario, sometimes with red cherry and sometimes with yellow.  This this year we are featuring a red Typica specimen that caught our fancy.

World Coffee Research calls Typica “one of the most culturally and genetically important C. Arabica coffees in the world” for good reason.  Typica is a tall, gangly tree with an important role in coffee´s history as the ancestor to many of the planet’s most celebrated coffee types, from Java to Blue Mountain. It was the coffee that seeded Yemen’s emergence as a global coffee power, the one that later traveled both east and west to become the rootstock used to establish coffee industries in countries as diverse as India, Jamaica, Indonesia and Colombia. Today it is increasingly difficult to find, as most farmers have transitioned to more modern varieties selected for their vigor and ability to generate higher yields. Typica is one of the least productive coffee tree types, and for that reason has largely been replaced over the past few decades. Thankfully there are still some farmers around the world who continue to keep these trees in production and preserve their legacy for the coffee drinkers of today to enjoy and appreciate.  This ancient seed is renowned for delicate, nuanced flavor and produces gorgeous flavors that remind us why coffee was once considered a sacred drink.  This year’s Red Typica harvest at Santuario reminds us of pomegranate, plum and lime.

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Buy our Santuario Colombia Red Typica here.

Tres Santos Colombia: Linares

From our Vice President of Coffee and Colombia Buyer Geoff Watts:
Nariño, Nariño! The mere sound of the name raises expectations. This little state is located as far south in Colombia as you can get, just north of border with Ecuador. And it as has a reputation for exceptional quality that has endured for decades.
Nariño is known for producing some of the most mouthwateringly sweet and juicy coffees in the country. Yet for the last few decades, individual producers there have struggled to get recognition for their coffees. More importantly, they have not been reliably rewarded for the quality they produce.
The civil conflicts in the area and its remoteness have further combined to discourage investment and slow the pace of progress relative to some of the other highland growing regions in Colombia. In the last ten years, departments like Huila and Cauca have had relatively good success in connecting growers with premiums for quality. By comparison, Nariño has remained largely untapped: as recently as 2012, fewer than 4% of growers in the region had access to markets that pay quality premiums, and over 98% of the coffees produced were bulked and sold as homogenized lots into the mass market for marginal premiums.
The CRS Borderlands project aimed to change that by fomenting a culture shift around coffee production that helped growers reorient toward extreme quality as a means of advancing their incomes. One of the shining stars of the project is Arcafé, a vibrant association of coffee farmers from a small town called Linares historically known more for its sugar cane and coca leaf than its coffee.
For the last five years they’ve been training, working both as individuals and as a group, to push their coffees to their highest potential by micro-managing cultivation and processing details. Getting coffee to realize its potential and sizzle in the cup is a craft that requires both patience and persistence, and is incredibly hard even for farmers with deep pockets and easy access to resources. It is an order of magnitude more challenging for farmers working from a base of relatively few resources, and the degree of difficulty is compounded for groups. In addition to figuring out how to optimize their coffees individually, they must also learn to work as a team because their coffees are mixed and sold together.
For several years now they’ve had some outstanding individual successes, and Intelligentsia regulars may recognize the names of some of these farmers—people like Corona Zambrano and Fidencio Chamorro—who have produced gems in recent years that we’ve sold in our stores to much fanfare. This season they took a major step forward as a group, and this new harvest release from Arcafé is the fruit of their incredible labor: the exciting result of many years of effort and collaboration. It is a delicious example of what is possible when people combine their energies for a common good, and proof positive that Nariño deserves its reputation for uncommonly good quality.

A symbol of coffee’s promise

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.  


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.


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.

How do you spell flavor at Finca Takesi? G-E-M.

Today we begin taking pre-orders for three coffees that are extraordinary by design:

They are the surest validation imaginable that the three letters that matter most for cup quality are G, E and M: genotype, environment and management.

G: Panamanian Geisha

Panamanian Geisha is descended from an ancient variety of coffee that first grew wild in the highlands of Western Ethiopia.  It migrated to the Americas in the satchels of researchers more than a half-century ago, where it idled in obscurity for decades and seemed destined for anonymity.  But in the early 2000s, a farmer in Panama was observant enough to notice a group of coffee plants in his fields looked different from all the rest, curious enough to process and taste that coffee separately, and kind enough to share it with the rest of the world.  

G: Typica

Typica is the ancient coffee variety from which most of the world’s commercially traded traditional Arabica varieties are descended.  Like all coffee, it was born in Ethiopia, but eventually made the narrow voyage on a trade route between the Horn of Africa and Yemen, where that Typica took root and fueled the rise of the world’s first commercial coffee sector.  Since Yemen’s seaports linked it to global trade routes, it dominated the global coffee trade for centuries.

Typica slowly found ways out of Yemen, smuggled by mystics and merchants, and made its way to Asia and the Americas and repatriated to Africa.  Along the way, it mutated, first and most importantly, into Bourbon, whose various selections (from Laurina and Mokha to Pacas and SL-28) and mutations (Caturra) are in wide circulation around the world.  Later Typica’s own selections (think Kent, Pache and Pluma Hidalgo) and mutations (Maragogype) have become important cultivars in their own right. Through it all, the noble Typica has endured and retained its trademark sweetness and complexity.

G: Catuai

Catuai is a cross between Mundo Novo (a spontaneuous cross between Typica and Bourbon) and Caturra (a dwarf mutation of Bourbon) that is generally known more for its productivity than its cup quality.

But WHAT farmers grow is only a part of what determines cup quality.  WHERE they grow it is at least important.

And these coffees were all grown at Finca Takesi, and there is no place anywhere in the world quite like Finca Takesi.

E: Finca Takesi

It should come as no surprise that every aspect of the physical environment in which a coffee is grown affects its flavor and quality.  These factors, often referred to collectively as terroir, include location, temperature, rainfall, orientation, soil composition and quality, shade density and diversity, and more.

Every one of these variables is important, but arguably none has a greater influence on a coffee’s quality frontier than elevation.  From a quality perspective, the higher a farm lies, the better.  As elevations rise, temperatures drop and the maturation process of coffee slows, creating a sweeter and more complex profile.  We don’t know of any farm that sits quite as high as Finca Takesi.

It is perched precariously in a narrow fold in the Bolivian Andes, clinging to a steep hillside above a deep ravine cut over centuries by the rushing waters of the Takesi River below.  The majestic snow-capped peak of Mururata, pictured above, looms above the farm, soaring to an elevation of more than 5,800 m.  The farm stretches upward from the Takesi River bed at 1,700 m to a height of more than 3,100 m, with coffee planted over 35 hectares between 1,800 m – 2,500 m.  But it’s not just the elevation that makes Finca Takesi’s coffee extraordinary, it’s also the latitude.  There is plenty of coffee grown on farms over 2,000 m in southern Colombia, but those farms lie less than three degrees north of the Equator, where temperatures are higher.  Finca Takesi lies high in the Andes where the sun burns brightly during the day, but more than 16 clicks south of the Equator, where nights are cool: a climate that translates directly into complexity and sweetness.  Throw in volcanic soils with a full meter of soil organic matter in the topsoil for good measure, and Takesi’s environment seems custom-built for quality.

M: Experimental Agronomy

There is no handbook for an environment like Finca Takesi’s, where coffee production is pushing the boundaries of what we thought was viable, standard assumptions don’t hold and the rules of coffee farming need to be rewritten.  

The flowering that marks the start of the cherry maturation process takes place over a period of four months, a staggering fact when you consider that flowering generally peaks during a single month, or perhaps two.  As a consequence, coffee cherry matures over a period of 10 months or more and workers on Finca Takesi routinely harvest coffee for parts of six months or more.  Carlos and Mariana Iturralde, the indomitable father-and-daughter team behind Finca Takesi, have taken these wrinkles in stride, adopting a flexible and experimental approach to farm management and applying what they learn as they go.  If should come as no surprise that they were not daunted by these challenges, since the farm itself is an audacious and unlikely enterprise: there were no coffee farms in Yanacachi when they started laying plans for Finca Takesi more than a decade ago, and there are still none today.  The physical isolation of Finca Takesi in a rugged and remote stretch of the Bolivian Andes seems appropriate of its position vis-a-vis most other farms in the world: it sits head-and-shoulders above them.

We are proud to be the exclusive U.S. partners of Finca Takesi and the Iturralde family, and we are delighted to offer this year’s Finca Takesi Bolivia Special Selection varietal lots in time for the holidays.  They will elevate your celebration, and they are only available at Intelligentsia.

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Pre-order our Finca Takesi Bolivia Geisha Special Selection here.

Pre-order our Finca Takesi Bolivia Typica Special Selection here.

Pre-order our Finca Takesi Bolivia Catuai Special Selection here.

Or better yet, order all three (a $92 value) for $75 and taste the difference variety can make.

This coffee is available for PRE-ORDER now.  Orders received by Tuesday, November 28 by 3 pm will be roasted and shipped on Wednesday, November 29.  This schedule will repeat itself weekly while supplies last, with orders accepted from Tuesday at 3:01 pm until the following Tuesday at 3:00 pm, with coffees roasting and shipping every Wednesday until this coffee is sold out.

Introducing Axioma

Our Direct Trade model has been more than 15 years in the making, and it continues to evolve.

We love to tell the story of Intelligentsia Direct Trade: why we built a Direct Trade program to begin with, how it has evolved over time, who has driven it forward, what it looks like today and where we see it going into the future.  It is a sprawling story of continuous innovation that covers a long period of time, involves a large and ever-expanding cast of coffee characters and is always adding new and exciting plotlines.  Axioma is part of that effort.  It strips away the narrative and presents a small set of carefully selected data points that taken together tell a compelling story about our Direct Trade model.

The first edition of the Intelligentsia Axioma takes a look back at the Northern Hemisphere season as we transition into our first Southern Hemisphere releases next week.

To begin with, we will publish Axioma three times a year: to mark the conclusion of our Northern Hemisphere buying season, again when our Southern Hemisphere buying season comes to an end, and once more in connection with our annual Extraordinary Coffee Workshop.


The changing of the seasons

The seasons are changing here at Intelligentsia.  Yes, the cold has descended on our home city of Chicago and the winter solstice looms, but that is not the kind of season I am talking about.  Next week, we will start updating our single-origin menus to include coffees from the Southern Hemisphere.  Over the next few months, our Northern Hemisphere coffees from Central America and East Africa will gradually give way to coffees from Central Africa and South America.  This is the concept of seasonality in coffee and the promise of Intelligentsia In-Season: our rotating menu of fresh-crop single-origin coffees is designed to for flavor and ensures drinking the right coffees at the right time of the year.

As we make the transition, we look back at our 2017 Northern Hemisphere single-origin releases before they start sharing the menu with our Southern Hemisphere offerings.

View our 2017 Northern Hemisphere Sourcing Map HERE.



Credit where credit is due

I have been in coffee nearly 15 years.  For most of that time, I lived at origin, where I worked extensively with and on behalf of smallholder growers and farmworkers.  And frequently during those 15 years, I have been frustrated by how often the people who make our coffee delicious remain anonymous.  By how many people remain in the shadows, even in the most transparent supply chains.  Fortunately for me,  I am now in a position to do something about that.   

Today I am pleased to announce the Intelligentsia Coffee Credits, designed to give credit for our single-origin offerings where credit is due.  Just like the names that scroll up the screen after every film, our coffee credits are designed to be exhaustive, including the names of every smallholder grower whose coffee has found its way into our single-origin lineup, whether they dropped it in ripe cherry form at washing stations in Central Africa or delivered it as parchment to the organizations they belong to in Central America.  Every farmworker who harvested cherry at peak ripeness to optimize the sweetness and flavor of the best coffees on our menu.  

This measure is entirely consistent with long-standing commitment to supply-chain transparency that we share with our Direct Trade partners around the world.

The first iteration of our Coffee Credits comes from the Sierra Mixteca of Oaxaca in southwestern Mexico, the source of our current La Perla de Oaxaca Organic Mexico offering.   Peruse the names of every grower who contributed to that lot — more than 100 in all — here.

Look for Coffee Credits on select releases in our Southern Hemisphere lineup beginning next week.  By the time the next Northern Hemisphere buying season rolls around, we expect to publish these credits with every single-origin coffee we release.  For everything these growers and farmworkers do to deliver us the cleanest and sweetest coffees in the world, it is the least we can do.

The Intelligentsia Extraordinary Coffee Competition: Best in Inventory

Last month, we gathered our entire supply chain in San Francisco for the annual Intelligentsia Extraordinary Coffee Workshop. The event itself is nothing new: this is the ninth year in a row we have convened our Direct Trade partners from around the world for ECW, a week of talking and tasting coffee together with the growers, millers and exporters in our supply chain. What was new for 2017 was this: the Intelligentsia Extraordinary Coffee Competition.

A Coffee Battle Royale

We invited all our Direct Trade partners to send us just two kilos of the very best coffee they could produce. We received plenty of special submissions just for the occasion. Since many growers in our supply chain had already sent us their best coffees of the season, we put all the special submissions we received up against every one of the single-origin coffees already in our inventory. The end result was something like a coffee battle royale: nearly 60 coffees from 13 countries in the ring, all competing for the title Best in Show.

There were lots of other prizes based on different criteria, including geography (Best of the Americas, Best of Africa, Best Northern Hemisphere, Best Southern Hemisphere), farm size (Best Smallholder Coffee) and cup profile (Fruit Basket Award, Sugar Cane Award and Clarity Award). And we created a Best in Inventory Award so we could celebrate the most extraordinary coffee on our menu.

The Rules

The coffees were randomly assigned three-digit numerical codes and then randomly reassigned three-letter alphabetical codes as part of a double-blind procedure that kept nearly everyone involved in the process from unlocking the identities of the coffees until scoring was completed. The action progressed through multiple rounds, with competitors gradually eliminated along the way. The opening round took place at the cupping lab in our Chicago Roasting Works with a core Quality Control team that evaluated every sample using the Intelligentsia cupping form and narrowed the field of nearly 60 entries to 10 finalists based on overall score. Each entrant was eligible to send only one lot to the finals to maximize the diversity of the profiles on the 10-top table that would be cupped at ECW. Samples of each of those 10 coffees were transported to San Francisco by our Vice President Geoff Watts in advance of ECW in a locked briefcase that was handcuffed to his wrist. For real.

There, the panel for the finals consisted of our entire Direct Trade supply chain: growers, millers, exporters, importers, green coffee buyers, roasters and baristas. In keeping with the event’s focus on technology, the finals were scored on smartphones using the Cropster Cup app and a customized form specifically developed for the event by our friends at Cropster. That form included just four categories: sweetness, acidity, clarity and overall score. The three subcategories were selected as a kind of calibration and part of the joint sensory exercises that are an important part of every ECW event. These are the categories that carry the most weight as we evaluate coffees for purchase, and we wanted to underscore the relationship between these specific categories and our perception of overall quality. The results of that exercise were unambiguous: the coffee that had the highest overall score also had the highest score in each of these subcategories.  To determine a winner, the overall scores from both the Chicago cuppings and the finals at ECW in San Francisco were combined and averaged.

Best (and Second-Best) in Show

Best in Show was a stunning and beautiful Gesha varietal from the Gesha Village Estate in southwestern Ethiopia. It was a lot carefully assembled for purposes of the competition and not available for purchase. A close second, and Best in Show runner-up, was a coffee from our inventory:, a complex, crisp, clean coffee from Kenya that had been waiting patiently in the wings for its turn to fly on our menu under the Kunga Maitu banner.

We are delighted to make that coffee available to you as a special release: the ECW Best in Inventory Award Kunga Maitu Kenya. This outsized coffee represents the best of Intelligentsia. With huge flavors of candied grapefruit, chamomile and clove, we think you will understand why.  The ECW Best in Inventory Award Kunga Maitu Kenya is available now for purchase HERE, nd we are featuring it on the menus of all of our Coffeebars nationwide from Saturday, October 14 to Saturday, October 21.

The full list of winners from the inaugural Intelligentsia Extraordinary Coffee Competition follows:


Best in Show
Rachel Samuel Overton and Adam Overton
Gesha Village Coffee Estate, Ethiopia
washed Original Gesha

Best in Inventory
Intelligentsia Kunga Maitu Kenya
Kainamui lot
washed SL-28, SL-34, Riuru 11

Best of Africa
Rachel Samuel Overton and Adam Overton
Gesha Village Coffee Estate, Ethiopia
washed Gesha

Best of the Americas
Cielo y Nilson López
Fincal El Gallineral, Colombia
honey Geisha

Best Northern Hemisphere
Rachel Samuel Overton and Adam Overton
Gesha Village Coffee Estate, Ethiopia
washed Gesha

Best Southern Hemisphere
Mariana and Carlos Iturralde
Finca Takesi, Bolivia
washed Geisha (coming soon to the Intelligentsia menu!)

Best Smallholder Coffee
Mary Maina Manyeki
Manyeki Estates, Kenya
washed SL-28, SL-34

Fruit Basket Award
Rachel Samuel Overton and Adam Overton
Gesha Village Coffee Estate, Ethiopia
washed Gesha

Sugar Cane Award
Rachel Samuel Overton and Adam Overton
Gesha Village Coffee Estate, Ethiopia
washed Gesha

Clarity Award
Rachel Samuel Overton and Adam Overton
Gesha Village Coffee Estate, Ethiopia
washed Gesha