Colombia is one of the most diverse and complex coffee-producing nations in the world. The culture of coffee-producing has spread to all corners of the nation, and the result is countless communities tucked into mountainsides and valleys that produce excellent specialty coffee. Many of these communities are tucked into valleys and mountainsides in the most remote areas of the nation. The remoteness of these communities hinders producers from access to channels where specialty coffee is traded.
Instead of being paid based on the quality of their work, producers are instead forced to sell their crop to local buyers who pay based on the commodity price of coffee (C-Market)) that fluctuate every day. The C Market cannot act as any sort of realistic gauge of what prices coffee producers actually need to be paid, but it is still referred to by many as the “bottom line” price of coffee. As of today, the price of coffee based on the commodity market is $1.25 USD per pound, and as you can imagine this low price does not even begin to cover the actual costs of the product nor does it reflect the labor that goes into the product, or the resulting quality.
The consistently low prices paid to producers do not cover the costs of producing coffee and have driven many producers to look toward other means of financial security. Some producers move to the cities to look for work, while others remain in their villages and cultivate a potentially more lucrative crop: coca. The coca crop is used to produce cocaine which is smuggled and trafficked through Latin America and into the United States and abroad. The cultivation of coca may satisfy the immediate need for cash, but it often leads to dealing with less than reliable sources. More often than not, armed rebel groups facilitate the transaction of illicit goods, and without the presence of law enforcement, producers frequently find themselves being taken advantage of in this system as well. Without sustainable supply chains for specialty coffee, producers are forced to abandon coffee production altogether and cultivate illicit crops that cause damage to their own communities, as well as communities abroad.
At Utopian, we’ve committed ourselves to the work of paying premium prices for coffee that is not tied to the commodity market directly to producers in order to dissuade them from transitioning to illicit crops. In the past, we have partnered with producers in the Val de Cauca who were actively transitioning away from coca production in favor of specialty coffee because they believed in the opportunities specialty coffee presents. We are continuing this tradition of supporting vulnerable producers in Colombia by teaming up with Carlos and Angela and their company Toldopamba Coffee.
Toldopamba is the name of Carlos Burbano’s farm in the La Piedra village in the Buesaco Municipality of Colombia’s Nariño Department. Carlos’ grandfather, Noe Burbano, produced coffee for more than 40 years until Carlos and his family took over operations in 2009. Since its inception, the Toldopamba farm has focused on the production of specialty coffee with the underlying philosophy of creating differentiated lots (or selections of coffees) based on various quality levels. With all this experience, Carlos and his wife Angela began Toldopamba Coffee in 2014, a business venture focused on connecting coffee producers directly with coffee roasters in the United States, thus securing sustainable channels for coffee trading. Additionally, Carlos and Angela have taken the “Toldopamba model” of lot selection and differentiation and begun to work with several producers in Nariño to focus on creating high-quality microlots. In the past, these producers would have just sold their coffee into the commodity market which blends all sorts of coffees together to create a larger “macrolot” that can be sold to huge companies at lower prices. This creates a complete lack of transparency and identity and keeps genuine value away from coffee producers. Today, producers who work with Toldopamba are paid above the commodity market and above the local market prices, creating a supply chain that values producer’s labors.
Just a few days ago I spoke with Carlos and Angela to learn a little bit more about how Toldopamba works to ensure coffee producers are paid a fair wage. To break it down, if today the commodity market is $1.25, this is price traders are looking to for a “base value” of coffee. Many producers are paid precisely this amount or slightly less. In Colombia the local market prices are slightly higher, sitting around $1.40-50 depending on the area. Toldopamba pays producers a price-premium on top of this amount, too. In the case of the lot we purchased, the price paid to produces was between $1.70-1.75. Though at face value this may not seem like a significant increase, the extra 20-25 cents can truly make a difference in the lives of producers. That little amount of money often is what producers need in order to reinvest in their farm and plan for the next harvest cycle.
Alongside paying producers more than the local market price, Toldopamba also provides technical and agricultural assistance in order to maximize the yields of harvests each year. In their own words, Toldopamba promotes the use of “Biofertilizer Lab, Vermiculture and Apiculture. These projects aimed at income diversification, environmental sustainability, and training for our coffee growers.” Producers are receiving training in organic fertilization methods that help the plants grow healthy and yield a better harvest year after year which in turn provides more money for producers. It is important to remember that most coffee producers only cultivate a handful of acres. Making sure every coffee tree grows healthy ensures good harvests in the future.
In the Cup
This year Utopian was able to purchase some of a single-variety lot from Toldopamba. This lot comes from three producers working with Toldopamba: Pedro Janamejoy Janamejoy, Hideon Munoz Chavez, and Alier Agreda. These three producers all live in the greater area of the Aponte town within the El Tablon (Tablon de Gomez) municipality of Nariño. This area of Nariño is just beginning to gain recognition for coffee production, and from what we’ve tasted this is for good reason. Coffees from Tablon de Gomez have signature Colombian-coffee qualities such as bright acidity and rich sweetness, but depending on the quality of preparation, these coffees can display deliciously-distinctive flavors.
A single-variety selection means all the coffee in this particular lot comes from a single kind of coffee tree. This lot highlights one of the older varieties growing in Colombia: Caturra, a natural mutation of the Bourbon variety (which we love so much!). Caturra grows small and is easy to plant densely, meaning a higher coffee yield each harvest. The quality of Caturra is well known, and it provides rich and sweet flavors with mild fruitiness and sometimes floral flavors. Unfortunately, Caturra is susceptible to diseases that destroy coffee trees, leaving producers high and dry without any coffee to sell. Because of this, CENICAFE, aka Colombia’s national coffee-producing organization, created new hybrid varieties such as Castillo (which we’ve written about before) and Variedad Colombia. For better or worse, some coffee companies tend to prefer Caturra to these newer disease-resistant varieties. We love the flavors of both Caturra and Castillo, and we’re excited to be able to highlight the flavors of each in different capacities. It is a unique opportunity to feature a flavor of a variety that is slowly being replaced or slowly blended into larger lots of hybrid varieties. Angela and Carlos told me the three producers whose coffees create this specific lot grow Caturra because they believe the flavors in the cup are the best.
In the cup we’re tasting a decadent amalgam of sugary, sweet,nutty, and chocolate flavors with mild fruity and floral flavors in the finish.
The tasting notes we’ve given are Toffee and Cocoa Krisps (yes, like the cereal!) with soft flavors of citrus, berries, and flowers in the finish. This coffee is exceedingly smooth and sweet and makes for an absolutely stellar experience from start to finish. This is definitely one of those coffees that’ll leave you going back for a second or third mug!
We are really excited to be able to team up with Angela and Carlos moving forward to feature some stellar Colombian coffees from producers who are truly outstanding coffee.