Finding El Derrumbo: Best of Cauca Auction

For a lot of people including my former self, coffee is a magical liquid serving as sustenance to start the day. It wasn’t until I delved into the coffee industry four years ago that I started wondering where that morning burst of energy came from. It started with simple questions, like “who ever thought to pull the berries off of a coffee tree, extract the seeds, and roast them?” Or, “how many hands must this product go through to be grown, prepared, sorted, roasted, ground, and brewed?”

Since opening Blueprint Coffee, I’m fortunate to build a company in a community of people who take pride in mastering a craft, and making that craft accessible to the masses. They’re some of the coolest coffee nerds I know. In an effort to initiate me as a fellow nerd, my partners here at Blueprint thought it’d be beneficial for fellow member and barista Nora Brady and me to take an origin trip. I was not in the least bit opposed. Having travelled to South America for non-coffee-related trips, I knew some of what I should expect. I relished the idea of traveling to Colombia, a part of South America I hadn’t previously been, and a part of the world in which I could hold a broken conversation. It was fun to be able to tell the customs agent for first time that I was travelling for business.

Nora and me at Finca El Recuerdo in Cauca
Nora and me at Finca El Recuerdo in Cauca

Nora and I traveled to the Cauca region of Colombia, located in the southwestern part of the country. We arrived in the capital city of Popayán, Our hosts, Café Imports, had also invited numerous other roasters from around the world. Among them were representatives from Bonanza in Germany, Climpson & Sons in the United Kingdom, Proud Mary in Australia, and many stateside roasters including Verve, PT’s, Elixr, Tandem, Argo Sons, Coffea, and Toby’s Estate.

Our main objective on the trip was to sample and vet samples from Cauca producers. Café Imports and their local co-hosts, the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) and exporters Banexport, narrowed the samples down to 40. We were then invited to score the remaining 40, after which the top ten would be auctioned off at a live auction.

The majority of the first two days of our trip was spent at the FNC’s facilities sampling coffees. Our first day consisted of non-stop coffee cuppings. Between calibration and the first group of coffees, we probably sampled around 30 coffees less than 24 hours after arriving in the Popayan. My stomach felt like it had formed ulcers. The second day was the same. We cupped the remaining coffees, compiled our scores, and re-cupped the top ten coffees to really familiarize ourselves with them before the live auction.

Nora scoring the coffees from Cauca
Nora scoring the coffees the top 40 coffees from Cauca

It wasn’t until the latter two days of the trip that we were able to see the true origins of coffee, and the people that make it possible. On the third day, we travelled north to Santander for an agricultural fair held by coffee producers of the Cauca region. Hundreds of farmers came from all around the region to listen to presentations, learn about processing machinery, and be present for our live auctions. In the evening, the results of the cuppings were announced followed immediately by the live auction of the top ten coffees. We were invited, along with our fellow tasters, to sit right in front of the stage where six tables had been set up as sort of a VIP section.

The roped-off buyers section of the auction in Santander

For me, this is where some of the more remarkable things on this trip happened. Hundreds of farmers gathered around us in anticipation of the results. Their livelihoods depended on how a group of coffee roasters scored their coffees. As announcements approached for the coffee rankings, the entire crowd seemed to focus its attention to the stage. As each of the top ten coffees were announced, they were then immediately auctioned before the next result was read.

That is where the fun began. As if taken from a scene of The Price is Right, a name would be called out, followed immediately by cheering. Those who knew the name announced craned their necks, looking about the massive crowd for the winning producer who then came forth to the stage and to reap the rewards of another season. Several of the lots ended up being highly sought after by our fellow auction and tasting participants. Most of the lots were small, which led to some friendly competition. One coffee went back and forth up to $9.60/lb from $5.00/lb in $0.20 increments! Remember, the market price for green coffee over the last 6 months has floated between $1.60 and $2.25 per pound.

Each bid sent the crowd roaring louder and louder. The energy among the hundreds of farmers, roasters, committee participants and family members could be felt without a doubt. Taking a moment to look around as each bid was made, I noticed the grins among the crowd were some of the largest I’d ever witnessed. Everyone there shared a common goal, improving conditions and opportunities for farmers in the specialty coffee industry. The scoring results and auctions would reinforce this idea for the following years’ crops and hopefully improve the quality of coffee produced by farmers in this region of Colombia.

Unfortunately, the farming practices and resulting acquisition of machinery that contributes to a better tasting bean for farmers usually requires significant financial resources. It was immediately apparent that the first place farm, El Recuerdo, had more resources as compared to the other participating farms we visited. The encouragement of national growing associations, importers, and roasters, can help to mitigate discrepancies between the qualities of coffees amongst farmers in the same region.

Parabolic, bunked drying beds at El Recuerdo are an example of the improvements that can be made to improve coffee quality
Parabolic, bunked drying beds at El Recuerdo are an example of the improvements that can be made at the farm level to greatly improve coffee quality

It is our aim to aid with this encourage these improvements by facilitating recurring demand for high quality coffees. In our second year in business, Blueprint has already sourced coffees from the same producer groups as we did in our first year in business. Many of these relationships can be more easily formed with newer farms rather than established ones. Newer farms have a greater potential to benefit from a relationship formed with a small, stateside supporter like Blueprint.

A beautiful sunset in Cauca.
A beautiful sunset in Cauca.

This is the part of building Blueprint that I hadn’t previously considered, and after this trip, could not possibly be more excited about. Now, when serving a coffee at Blueprint, I have the opportunity to picture all the smiles I saw, the people I met, and the things I learned in Cauca. I certainly encourage a visit to a farm if you’re a coffee lover and somehow find yourself in a coffee-producing country. It will make you realize the immensity of the coffee industry. Our taste buds affect the fates of so many lives, from the farmers, millers, exporters, importers and all of their respective families. It is our job to make sure their work is not squandered and that these producers are recognized for it. To end on a cliché, regretfully, we are but a link in the chain. Many of our interactions with our customers just happen to be the last or second-to-last link in the chain.