The Antioquian specialty revolution

The Antioquian specialty revolution

Joanne Berry
July 15, 2020

The classic Antioquia profile is changing. The heavy-bodied chocolatey coffees the region was famous for are making way for new fruity and bright profiles as savvy producers seek the specialty market. The relatively large size of the farms in this department mean farmers can produce high quality coffee on scale, which appeals to bigger volume roasters seeking quality coffees at a more accessible price point.

Antioquia - A Brief Overview

Antioquia is a mountainous department in north-western Colombia covering very diverse climatic areas and geographically ranging from the Andes region to the Caribbean sea. Medellin is the department’s capital and the second most populated city in Colombia with ~2.5 million inhabitants. The city also serves as the entry point to the region.

While also an industrial center, agriculture is a major sector in Antioquia, contributing to about 15% of the total Colombian agricultural output. With an infamous 1990s decade, Medellin and Antioquia have left the past behind and are ready for a new challenge: specialty coffee.

Coffee Production in Antioquia

Antioquia has historically been the powerhouse of Colombian coffee production, accounting for  roughly 14.5% of the total coffee production with roughly 90,000 coffee producers in the 94 coffee-producing municipalities.

Antioquia produces about 70% of the total yearly crop in the last trimester of the year (September to December) with a mitaca or fly crop during the first half of the year. Antioquia had the largest planted coffee area in Colombia until 2012, when it was surpassed by the now well-known Huila department. Currently, the top three coffee producing departments are Huila, Antioquia, and Tolima.

In the chart below, spanning almost two decades, one can see how Huila (blue) almost doubled their production. Tolima (grey) also increased production and solidified, but Antioquia (red) barely maintained and has, in the last five years, decreased production area in favor of cacao and avocado, among others.

Source: Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia

Coffee Cooperatives in Antioquia

Antioquia is home to four of the largest coffee cooperatives in Colombia: delosAndes, Cooperativa de Caficultores de Salgar, Cooperativa de Caficultores de Antioquia, and Coopeoccidente.

Specialty coffee is a somewhat confusing to many cooperatives, and private buyers. Quality was generally only assessed in “physical” terms plus lack of defects.In any case, with tens of thousands of coffee producers who deal exclusively with cooperatives, the specialty market buyers in Antioquia need to better understand and work alongside cooperatives.

First Steps Of Specialty Coffee In Antioquia

Historically, specialty coffee in Antioquia was limited to what many coops were selling as “certified’ - in other words, “sticker coffee”. As the specialty coffee market was developing, some medium-size producers started doing things differently to bypass the commodity market and try to capture higher returns and more recognition for their work.

In an effort to promote and foster Antioquian coffee quality, the local administration introduced a yearly specialty coffee competition called “The Best Coffee Cup of Antioquia”. This competition has been an effective tool to convince some of the most open-minded producers about the merits of specialty coffee.

The Antioquian Coffee Revolution

In the last five years, some Antioquian medium-sized producers have seriously started to improve the quality of their coffees through hard work in the farm and wet mill. Specialty coffee is now being produced as a result of good agricultural practices and careful post-harvest processing, and less of a lucky strike.

What’s unique to Antioquian coffee is that because of the relatively large size of the farms, specialty coffee can be produced in higher volumes. This appeals to specialty coffee roasters that look for quality coffee in larger volumes and more accessible price points.

Producers have also experimented with different preparations including naturals, honeys, and special preps. Altogether, the Antioquian coffee profile is becoming more versatile and now can supply a much wider range of coffee buyers.

The Future For Antioquian Coffee

The future of Antioquian specialty coffee looks very bright. The potential for specialty-grade is there, and the first signs are clearly visible: specialty coffee roasters like the profiles. After all, specialty coffee might even be the only sustainable long-term alternative for Antioquian coffee, a highly coffee-dependent area with decreasing production, high costs, and low availability of labor.

Mountainous terrain requires very hard work on the farm and it limits the scope for mechanisation. Current picking wages make coffee unsustainable for many and every year it gets harder to find pickers. Quantity is not a sustainable approach for most Antioquian (and Colombian) coffee producers.

Specialty coffee is an attractive alternative for Antioquian farmers. Investments are generally necessary to produce quality, but in Antioquia, most of the infrastructure is there already. It’s a matter of vision, conviction, and attitude. We are hopeful.

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