Cup of Excellence Part II: Competition Craze

My previous blog post on the Cup of Excellence was fairly broad in scope and introduced the purpose of the competition and also delved a bit into one specific community and how the Cup of Excellence (henceforth COE) has affected said community. I focused on Santa Barbara, Honduras and we heard a bit from Benjamin Paz, whose family has San Vincente, the premier specialty coffee mill and exporter in Santa Barbara.
 
Benjamin covered a lot of ground in his comments and responses to my questions and I wanted to unpack some of the things he mentioned, and also dig deeper into some things he alluded to, but did not speak directly about. In this blog post I am going to focus on the frenzy that can follow a competition. This will likely leave room for a third and final blog post on the COE/competitions in general.
 
A number of years ago Eulogio Martinez needed seeds. As is typical in Honduras, he went to a local government store, of sorts, to obtain seeds of the Pacas variety. Pacas is a naturally occurring mutation of the famous Bourbon variety. Further, Pacas is fairly ubiquitous in Santa Barbara amongst those producers who are intentionally producing specialty coffee. Strictly speaking from a genetics perspective, Pacas has the potential/ability to produce excellent coffees. The store was out of Pacas seeds and as such Eulogio was handed a bag of seeds of unknown origin. Judging by the slightly larger than usual size of the seed, Eulogio was told that it was most likely a variety called Pacamara. Upon returning to Los Yoyos, Eulogio’s farm in Las Flores, Santa Barbara, he cultivated the dubious variety.
 
At the time of the plants’ first fruiting, Eulogio was not a producer focused on specialty coffee production. Rather, he was focused on commodity coffee. Benjamin Paz, whose family owns San Vicente, the exporter and (more importantly community organizer responsible for bringing the coffees of Santa Barbara to market, asked Eulogio if he could taste his mystery variety. Upon tasting the coffee, Benjamin, as well as a number of international buyers, noted its unique flavor profile. Extremely acidic and uniquely fruited, the cup profile was immediately divisive, prompting some to say it was amazing and yet others to say it was atrocious.

Hands rummage through a Parainema lot drying in parchment on Eulogio's Finca Los Yoyos.

On a whim Benjamin Paz decided to enter the coffee into the COE. Many people laughed at Benjamin and said the coffee would be disqualified as defective. The coffee was entered into the competition and was labelled as a Pacamara lot, though it had earned a different nickname amongst the team at San Vicente: Pacaweirdo.
 
To the surprise of many, not only did Eulogio’s lot not get disqualified, but it won first place in the 2015 Cup of Excellence! A remarkable accomplishment for any producer. Thus began my first serious exposure to competition frenzy.
 
Nearly as much as the COE itself has shaped the coffee landscape in Santa Barbara, Honduras, the Pacaweirdo variety has disrupted specialty coffee production in this region. We now know that this variety is not Pacas, not Pacamara, and certainly not Pacaweirdo, but is a hybrid known as Parainema. Within the industry a hybrid is a variety that was created using genetics from Coffea Arabica's less delicious, but much sturdier cousin Coffea Canephora, more commonly known by its colloquial name: Robusta.
 
A note of clarification: I make the distinction "within the industry" because botanically speaking, a hybrid is the result of combining the qualities of two organisms of different breeds, varieties, species or genera through sexual reproduction. This means most 100% Arabica cultivars are also hybrids, as they are the result of crossbreeding different varieties of C. Arabica. Pacamara, for example is a cross between Pacas and Maragogype. That said, in our industry the term Hybrid has come to refer almost exclusively to coffees which have C. Canephora (Robusta) genetics in them.
 
Hybrids are typically produced in order to gain some of the positive characteristics of C. Canephora (nematode resistance, high yield, resistance to certain funguses, etc.), while gaining positive characteristics from C. Arabica, namely good flavor in the cup! At some point in the future I will write a blog post about how hybrids are actually developed, but for now you should know that it is not a simple one to one breeding. The C. Canephora genetics are essentially bred out to make the most delicious coffee possible, while retaining the positive characteristics imparted by the Canephora genetics. The problem is, no matter how carefully the varieties are bred, there is almost always the indelible gustatory mark of C. Canephora genetics left in the finish of every hybrid.
 
At this point you may be wondering: how did this blog post go from talking about the COE to talking about plant genetics and hybrids? A valid question! (I tend to digress - but trust me, the context is important.) Hybrids are common in most coffee producing countries. This is especially true in Latin America.
 
Lempira is a hybrid cultivated fairly ubiquitously in Honduras. This is a Timor/Caturra Hybrid that was bred to produce successfully at lower, warmer elevations. Semantically it is worth noting that Lempira is the name of the Honduran currency. So, no beating around the bush there! That would be akin to the United States government creating a corn, soybean or wheat variety that was called "Dollar." The Lempira was developed by IHCAFE (Instituto Hondureño del Café) and it was supposed to make farmers money. The issue is... generally speaking, the cup quality is very poor. This is something that buyers have noted again and again and is, at this point, relatively common knowledge amongst growers in Honduras.
 
Once again, I want to note that the Parainema variety (aka - Pacaweirdo), that won the 2015 COE is a hybrid. And yet, it won the most stringent cupping/quality competition in the country. Is Parainema the magic variety - both delicious in cup profile and resistant to nematodes and diseases? No, it is not. In fact, what happened in the 2015 Honduran COE perfectly highlights the shortcomings of cupping forms and comparative assessment. To be clear: this is not me taking a stance that is anti-cupping form, or anti-cupping competition. Rather, I am acknowledging a weakness, something that I think is critical to be able to do in any situation.
 
As I mentioned above, the issue with most hybrids is that they have a distinct (and unpleasant) character in the finish when tasting them. This is usually a harsh character. Acrid and cloying. Parainema is not free from this quality. That said, in conjunction with a cloying finish, Parainema lots seem to possess an intensely heightened acidity. These coffees can be shockingly bright. As is often the case, this heightened acidity also informs and bolsters the perceived sweetness of the coffee. As such, you often find relatively extreme acidity and sweetness in Parainema lots - what you often lack is balance and cleanliness (normally I speak of cleanliness as relating to processing, but here I refer to cleanliness as an innate characteristic of the variety, affecting the finish and making the coffee cloying and harsh). What can happen - and what did happen at the 2015 Honduran COE - is when compared to a table of relatively subtle and mild Latin American coffees, the Parainema lot, though not entirely clean, stands head and shoulders above the others purely in its ability to grab the attention of jurors; so much so that the jurors overlook the lack of balance and cleanliness and award the flashy characteristics of the coffee.
 
I will come back to hybrids in general and Passenger's stance on purchasing them shortly, but right now I want to move on to the subtitle of this blog post: Competition Craze. This competition ended up being my first exposure to this level of craze that can follow a high profile competition. I was with Benjamin Paz in Seattle when we got news that Eulogio's Parainema lot won first place. That was spring, 2015. By my next trip to San Vicente the following winter (2016) the Parainema variety had spread across the mountains of Santa Barbara like wild fire. Nearly every specialty coffee producer I interacted with was talking about it and many were planting it!
 
The COE, and other competitions as well, are excellent tools for spreading information amongst producer groups and producing countries. That said, it can also promote dubious "truths," such as this one: that the Parainema variety produces the best coffee in Honduras. By and large this is simply not true. Parainema lots tend to lack balance, clarity of flavor, and cleanliness. But, the town crier had set forth the decree: this variety is a winner. And said crier's voice becomes surprisingly hard to silence. In 2015 Eulogio's Parainema lot won first place, received an average score of 91.19 from the international jury, and received a price of $23.30 a pound during a time when the market was at roughly $1.35 a pound. All of this and the coffee is resistant to Rust (a fungus that has devastated Lain America in recent years) and nematodes thanks to its partially Robusta genetics. It's no wonder that coffee producers jumped on planting this variety!
 
That said, as is often the case as we struggle through our infancy as an industry, no one stepped back and asked if this was the best thing to do. In fact, one could argue that there aren't particularly good systems for having these conversations. We are, without question, getting better at formulating useful feedback loops as an industry, but it never ceases to amaze me how frequently these conversations are between coffee roasters/buyers and producers. Even the best of intentions don't make up for the fact that most coffee buyers are not trained biologists/agronomists.
 
But, I digress. My point is to highlight the frenzy that happened after the 2015 COE. From the producer perspective the message from the results of the 2015 competition were only reinforced a million times over when, in 2017, the COE was won yet again by a Parainema lot, this time earning a price of $124.50 a pound! I would again argue and emphasize that this lot was unique and stood out on the table, but was not particularly balanced or clean.
 
I want to take a moment to clarify something. It sounds as if I am dismissing hybrids altogether. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, at Passenger we are over the moon when we come across a hybrid that we think is delicious. Why is that? Because the reality is that hybrids are very likely the future of coffee. With global warming becoming not only a threat, but a reality in coffee producing countries, varieties that do well in warm, humid areas and are not susceptible to funguses such as Coffee Leaf Rust, are going to be critical. As are varieties that are more drought resistant. Coffee's future is relatively dependent on the international scientific communities' ability to develop new varieties.
 
There is nothing I find more irksome than traveling with a coffee buyer who wants to share his or her negative views of hybrids with every producer they meet. Too often have I heard young coffee buyers comment in a country like Colombia, telling a producer that they should not plant Castillo (a hybrid), but instead should be planting a 100% Arabica variety such as Caturra. Yes, very generally speaking I agree that I prefer 100% Arabica varieties. But, this crop that I hear buyers very freely critique, may be the entire source of income for a family. To tell them that they should plant a variety that may easily be devastated by a fungus when there are varieties that are resistant to said fungus, is ludicrous to me.
 
This is a topic that really gets me going and is possibly best saved for a later post. This is especially true owing to the fact that there are other things it makes me want to share: like how I have seen hybrid processing evolve in Colombia over the past four years and the positive impact I think it has had in the cup. But, the big takeaway is: we at Passenger want to support producers in growing hybrids when it makes sense to do so. In fact, for the past three years we have bought Eulogio's Parainema lot! While it is a very divisive cup, we enjoy it and think it is a great experience and a pleasure to drink. Is it incredibly balanced? No. Is it interesting? Yes! Would we want every coffee in the world to taste like it? Definitely not! Do we enjoy this particular coffee tasting as it does and the role it plays on our menu? Heck yeah!
 
I spent quite a bit of time talking about the 2015 Honduran COE, but it's worth noting that I have seen this exact same thing happen in other competions. In 2016 I helped organize a competition between producers in Acevedo, Colombia. The winner of that competition was a woman named Jesucita Cuellar. She won with a variety called Tabi. My next trip to Acevedo nearly every producer we met with was trying to get their hands on Tabi seeds. What made that situation particularly interesting is that we visited a number of farms with plants that the producers were all calling Tabi and yet they looked completely different - morphologically speaking. This means they were almost certainly very different plants genetically speaking. So who had the real Tabi? And should Tabi be planted everywhere? Again... the very fact that a Tabi lot won a competition seemed to answer these questions automatically for the producers. (For what it's worth, I have cupped a good amount of Tabi and do think it is capable of producing stellar cups. It also appears to be resistant to Coffee Leaf Rust.)

Jesucita Cuellar, whose first place finish in the 2016 Acevedo Cup sent an entire region on the hunt for Tabi.

I still have a number of items relating to the COE that I would like to touch on in my next post. If there is anything specific you would like me to talk about, or any feedback on this post you would like to share, feel free to email me at david@passengercoffee.com.

— David Shaub Stallings

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