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February 2012 Newsletter

Colombian coffee has long been the benchmark that other coffees
are measured against. Coffee has been cultivated there since the
middle to late 1700s, but commercial exports began with the
construction of interior railways in the 1870s and 1880s. By 1928
Colombia was the world's leading producer of "mild" coffees and
the overall second largest producer of coffee after Brazil.

Colombia is also unusual for making it unlawful to plant or grow
non-arabica coffee varieties. If you see the label "100%
Colombian Coffee" you know that it is also 100% arabica. This
made Colombian coffee the de-facto "gourmet" choice in American
supermarkets for over half a century.

Of course, the fact that a particular coffee was grown in
Colombia didn't necessarily mean that it was a  great coffee, but
more or less guaranteed that it would be no worse than good.
Coupled with a great marketing campaign featuring "Juan Valdez
and his donkey" this firmly established Colombian coffee as the
byword for excellence in the mind of the great American public.

And then along came the idea of "Specialty Coffee" with its
obsessive attention to detail, its cupping and tasting and
scoring and ranking systems, its emphasis on crop management and
terroir and processing and freshness. All of a sudden "100%
Colombian" was no longer a guarantee of the best in coffee.

In fact, most generic Colombian coffees rated somewhere in the
low to mid 80s against the 90s required for true specialty grade
coffees. There have always been exceptions to generic, though.
The Colombian Maragogype that I've been selling for over 25 years
has been one of them, a distinct varietal that only grows in
certain conditions and can't be replaced by higher yielding or
more disease resistant species, which generally have inferior

Not always, it seems. There is a coffee varietal called
"Castillo" which is fungus resistant, high yielding and
supposedly good enough to win the 2010 Colombia "Cup Of
Excellence" auction with a record score of 94.5. This has
generated much debate in the specialty coffee world, most of it
from people who have never actually tasted the coffees being

When it comes to the roasting and cupping process for my monthly
special coffees, there is only one factor that determines the
coffee I choose, taste. One coffee stood out in the selection
process, and it's this month's special.

Colombian La Union

The outstanding characteristics of this coffee are its fruity
aroma and sweet acidity. These are backed up by a rich coffee
flavour and full bodied finish.

Compared to the Maragogype it's more acidy and less malty, but it
definitely rates as a specialty coffee. I'd score it at a 91.
Only after I had committed to buying it did I find out that it
was the Castillo varietal. It is actually grown near the town of
La Union in the Narino Province.

Storms, floods, landslides and fungal diseases have cut Colombian
coffee production by a third or more in the last couple of years,
and the arguments over the merits or otherwise of the Castillo
varietal have led many in the specialty industry to question the
long term quality of Colombian coffees.

Based on the quality of this one, I don't think that there's much
to worry about.

Until next month