Jan 11 • 44M

Coffee and Climate Change with Karla Boza

The third-generation farmer comes back to talk climate change and quality as a moving target in coffee.

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This episode is a day late! Apologies! I was working on this at midnight on Monday, and then I realized I didn’t have to do that…so I closed the computer and decided it was ok to wait a day! Enjoy and take a rest!

If you've been with Boss Barista for a long time, you've heard me talk about Karla Boza of Finca San Antonio Amatepec. She's a third-generation coffee farmer who works in El Salvador, whom I met by chance: we happened to sit next to each other at a coffee conference. Karla's coffee story is also one of chance: after being told that her father's coffee wasn't good enough to sell as a specialty—specialty coffee often garnering more money than commodity—she happened to sit next to a coffee taster who said her father's coffee was excellent. This comment put her on a path to discover that the buyer has been marketing their family farm entirely differently than they had been led to believe, using her father's image to sell their coffee as a single-origin offering. She's now working on a master's degree to uncover how farmers can enter the specialty market and understand the value of their coffee. 

I first interviewed Karla in July 2019, and this episode almost picks up right where we left off in our first discussion—you don't need to listen to her first interview to understand this conversation, but it's helpful. In this episode, we talk about the granular effects of climate change on coffee farms and ask big questions like what makes a coffee special? What qualifies anything as specialty? Here's Karla. 

Ashley: Karla, I was wondering if you could start by introducing yourself.

Karla: Yes, of course. So my name is Karla Boza and I am a coffee farmer at Finca San Antonio Amatepec, and I am based in El Salvador.

Ashley: You’ve been on the show before, and I’d like to almost pick up where we left off. In the last episode, you talked about your family’s farm and how you got into coffee growing and a lot of the hurdles your family faced—you were told that your coffee wasn’t very good, only to find out later that it was much better than you were initially led to believe. Now you’re in graduate school studying some of the issues you laid out in that first episode. Could you talk more about your research?

Karla: Yes, of course.

So a little bit about my research: I am doing my master's right now, it's a master's in geography at Virginia Tech. I got this incredible opportunity to do my master's through being a T.A., and what I really wanted to look into were the different barriers that farmers encounter when they want to make the transition from only selling commercial coffee into the specialty field. What this was based on was our experience as a coffee farmers.

So a little bit of background: my family, we've been in coffee for a few generations now, and my dad, he's had the same coffee farm since 1969. Up until maybe a few years ago, he had never tasted his coffee. He had never done a cupping and he was always being told by importers and exporters that the quality of his coffee wasn't great.

It wasn't until we were certified by Rainforest Alliance—they do a breakfast every year at [the Specialty Coffee Association] Expo, and we sent some samples to them and that's when we first cupped it and they told us, “Actually your coffee's pretty good. It's specialty grade. You should come to this specialty coffee event in Atlanta,” that year.

So we went to Atlanta, and we happened to sit next to the coffee cupper who had cupped our coffee, and she told us a little bit about it and we're like, “Oh my God. Our coffee's actually pretty good.” That led me to go online, do a basic Google search search, like Finca San Antonip Aamatepec, searching for Carlos Boza, who’s my dad—and a few things popped up.

I was really surprised how our coffee was being sold directly to roasters as a single origin. That sort of started this questioning in my mind of what does it take, what is the traditional route for farmers to take if they want to make this transition [into specialty coffee]?

So the way that we did it was very particular in the sense that we needed a lot of things to happen by accident, almost. We needed this little accident where—all of our coffee used to go to the exporter, but then this one time we saved a little bit, we processed it at home, and then we sent the samples. We had never sent samples before. So it was like all of these like little barriers that we had to overcome, which we did purely for fun, mostly for the [Rainforest Alliance] certification, which ultimately led us to realizing the quality of our coffee, and looking for clients and selling our coffee directly to them instead of selling it only to these exporters.

That is something that I wanted to sort of look into through my research, like how does this happen in a more organized or organic way?

Ashley: It's interesting that you mentioned the particular set of circumstances that led you down this pathway. I'm even thinking about you sitting next to the cupper who cups your coffee. Imagine if you had sit at different tables?

Karla: Exactly! Like everything would've been completely different or what happens if I wouldn't have had that curiosity of doing a Google search? That is something so simple.

Ashley: Right. The idea that you even took time to say, “Wait, hold on. If someone's saying this, maybe let me just find out more about like how my family's coffee is being sold,” and seeing it sold for way more exposure and clout than you were being told— the assumption being that you would never look.

Karla: What's even worse about all of this is that this story that happened to us, it's not even that uncommon. This is the most traditional, basic standard coffee story out there for coffee farmers, where a lot of us don't really know the quality of our coffee because we've never been told if it's good or bad. And we've never really been able to figure out these things on our own, I guess. We've been always been guided by what importers and exporters are telling us.

Ashley: I think hearing that you might be like, “Wait, how do you not know that your coffee is good?”

But there's a lot of factors as to why that is. Number one, taste are often dictated by quote unquote “consuming countries,” for better or for worse, whatever that means.

Two, and I think that we'll probably delve into this a little bit, is there's not a lot to educational resources on farms. So the metrics that we use to quantify quality aren't being taught to farmers.

Karla: Exactly. For my research, what I did is that I interviewed a lot of people, in El Salvador mostly. I also interviewed other people that were—I don't know, like industry experts, let's call them. So what producers were telling me here in El Salvador is that one of the main barriers that they faced when trying to make this transition into selling their coffee as specialty—it wasn't necessarily meeting quality standards, because most of them already had really good coffee, but what they were missing was education.

That is something that came up in each and every one of my interviews. People mentioned, “We've never been taught or even knew what the process was for cupping coffee the proper way,” I guess, or to do an evaluation of quality. Not necessarily through cupping, because what happens a lot of the times, at least here in El Salvador, is that a lot of coffee producers are only coffee producers. They sell coffee cherry to importers. They don't sell coffee.

What we call cherry, coffee cherry here is uvas. We call it grapes. So a lot of coffee producers will describe themselves as uveros, meaning that they sell only the coffee cherry. So what happens and what this looks like on the farm level is that a truck from the importer of your choice will come to your farm and will collect all these sacks full of coffee cherries. So then at this point we are selling fruit. We are not necessarily selling coffee seeds.

So then the fact of it even being converted into coffee, that is a whole process that many of us do not have access to. Even to this day, we do not have our own mill. We need to rely on a processing partner that will do all of the coffee processing for us, and then we can finally extract the coffee seed and be able to do a proper cupping.

There are all of these limitations and most of it comes from this process. We don't have the facilities or even the know-how of how to even dry our coffee, basically, for us to be able to obtain the seed and then ultimately do a cupping.

Ashley: It's interesting that you mentioned the way that coffee is purchased—almost in a way is just like picked up in a truck. Because so much of specialty coffee, as we were talking about before, is based on quality. We base so much of how we determine prices, how we sell coffee on the market, on quality.

But then on the other end of it, on the producing end, we don't seem to make any sort of investment into assessing quality in a way that's transparent for producers. So like, you were saying, a car or a truck comes in, picks up these sacks of what they're calling grapes, but there's no talk about like is this good?

How do we talk about quality? I wonder how do we start to bridge that disconnect? I know that you were saying education is one of the ways—did your research uncover any other things that you think are worth talking about or highlighting?

Karla: The reason that I mentioned education over and over again is because this was the one thing that kept popping up in all of the interviews, all of the producers said that they were a bit clueless as to—like, okay, we have our coffee, but how do we know if it's good, if it's bad?

How can we improve quality if it's not at its best or even if we wanna make it better, you know? So I think that, at least when it comes to El Salvador, that is something that is key to me. At least we have a proper institute of coffee. It's called like the Coffee Council of El Salvador. And this coffee council lies under the, I guess, like oversight of the Ministry of Agriculture.

So it's a government branch that deals with everything related to coffee. So then you would imagine the coffee Institute led by the government in a producing country would provide these educational opportunities for producers. But the fact is that we only have classes for baristas, for roasters, for cupping, and for brewing, I believe. But there is no courses or classes on processing, on how to do good management practices that are beneficial for your coffee plants. We lack that knowledge that caters specifically and solely to producers.

That to me is just unacceptable and it's incredible that we've gotten this far and we still don't provide these classes that are so necessary for coffee because El Salvador used to be such a big coffee producing country back in the day. Right now, our numbers have gone way down, and what we have been, I guess, pointing towards is not necessarily quantity, but quality. But we can't have quality if we are not giving producers the educational insights of how to get there—and how to even market their coffee, how to taste through coffee and evaluate the coffee themselves.

It's just this huge gap that I think we need to cover or target somehow.

Ashley: But then there's also the incentive of a government being invested in the coffee production of its country.

I just talked to somebody recently who was telling me about coffee production in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and he was saying that there's very little government interest and that has severely affected their ability to import and export coffee. So we see that government buy-in is really important. You’re right, it should be from the government.

Karla: Yeah, it should be. And the thing is that in El Salvador, because of this strong history that we have associated with coffee—there is even this institute that is dedicated solely to this. We also have so many laws and regulations that limit the way that we talk about coffee and even market coffee and sell coffee in so many ways.

For example, one of the limitations that also came up during the interviews was that when it comes to coffee, you need to be certified. You need to have a certification for everything in El Salvador. So then you need to be certified and you need to have government approval to be a coffee farmer, to be a coffee roaster, to be a coffee importer, to be a coffee exporter, to be a coffee processing facility.

So then you need permits for all of these things that, as far as I know, you do not need if you are dealing or growing corn or beans or other things. Then that puts a lot of limitations because, for example, and I think that this is something that we have talked previously in our other call, but we were trying to sell our coffee directly to a local roaster.

They were an entrepreneur, a small business. They were just getting started. They didn't necessarily have all of the permits stating that they could officially be a roaster, but they had all of the equipment and everything, and it was so hard for us to be able to sell them that coffee because since they were not roasters, they couldn't legally buy coffee from us.

We had to ultimately end up selling it to someone else who would sell it to them. So then it was just this huge mess and in between all of that, everyone wants to make a profit out of all of these transactions. Instead of it being direct, as we wanted it to be, which would've benefit the small roaster and it would've benefited us, we couldn't do it that way.

It does have its pros and cons, having these institutions built in, but at the same time, if you don't keep up with new market trends and with things that are happening now, these institutions can become something that pushes you back.

Another example is that, and I was talking with a barista about this, this year we did not send anyone to the World Barista Championship because we didn't even have our national competition. I asked him about that and I was like, “Why didn't it happen?”

He was like, “Oh, the Coffee Institute said that there weren't enough people interested,” even though that's not true. Since they hold the license to hold these events, we weren't able to send a barista to the World Championship, which I was like, oh my God—you know, I may have many thoughts about these events, but at the end of the day, it's still an opportunity for someone from a producing country to go, take space in these industry events.

Ashley: Right. Especially this year, where there were no people from producing countries in the top six.

Karla: I know! I know!

Ashley: Just for people who maybe don’t what we're talking about: we’re talking about the World Barista Championships that just happened in Melbourne, maybe a couple weeks ago when we're recording.

There are people from all over the world that go from a lot of countries. This year, the top six competitors, all really strong, all really great people, but none of them were from producing countries. Which was noticeable, which was stark. So to even hear you to say, “we weren't even able to send someone from El Salvador,” is kind of heartbreaking.

Karla: I know, and I know that baristas locally, that is something that they do look up to. We had a world champion barista here from El Salvador from, I wanna say 10 years ago or something like that. So there is that precedent still locally in the country of like, we wanna send people over there so they compete and then maybe they win again or they rank really well—I don't know.

Ashley: I wanna talk a little bit about the idea of quality, because it's something that we've talked a lot about when it comes to education and how we seem to prize quality on one end of the spectrum, but don't seem to invest in assessing quality on the other, but at the same time, and this is something that you've mentioned in the past, it feels like quality is often a moving target.

At one point, as a farmer, you were told the goal is to grow specialty coffee. The goal is to grow coffee that scores above an 80—80 out of 100, this is how coffee is generally assessed on this point system. And then a couple of years later you might be told something totally different. Like, “Oh, it actually has to be an 84 coffee or it has to be this.”

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that's meant for you and how the definition of specialty has kind of affected you personally.

Karla: Yes. Um, so…

Ashley: I know that's a big question. I was like, “Oh, no we're getting into it!”

Karla: And this is something that I have many, many opinions on as well.

But basically when we started getting involved in the coffee industry, technically the term was 80+ out of the hundred point system, that's specialty coffee, right?

Ashley: Right. And what year was this?

Karla: This was whenever SCA Expo in Atlanta happened.

Ashley: I think 2015, I think.

Karla: Either ‘15 or ‘16, either of those, so it was, yes, a few years ago, but it's not that long ago.

Ashley: No, it's not that long ago.

Karla: [laughs] It's pretty recent, basically. 80 plus—that was the mark and we were like, “Okay, this is doable. We can do this within the environment that we're in,” because something that we are very conscious about at our farm is that where we are is what we have, you know?

To give some insight of what this looks like, we are an urban farm, basically located in San Salvador. The area where it's located in—if anyone wants to look into this a little bit more—it's called San Marcos. And just to give you an idea of this, where I live, where I'm taking this call from right now, it's maybe considered the outskirts of San Salvador, the city, right? The capital of the country.

It takes me around 15 to 20 minutes if there is traffic to get to the gates of the farm in San Marco. So it's really close by, and just to give people an idea of how urban this area has become in recent years is that if you want to go to a McDonald's, get a Big Mac for lunch or whatever, I don't know, it will take you maybe like seven minutes from the gate of the farm to drive to the nearest McDonald's. So it's like, it's right there. It's super close. You can get Uber Eats delivered to the gates of the farm.

It's really urban, basically, is what I'm trying to give the idea of, and what this means for us is that the climate around us is not what it used to be like before. It's definitely not as—it doesn't get as cold as it used to. There are a lot less trees because of how urban the area has become. A lot of deforestation that has affected our microclimate.

The gates of the farm are at like 900 meters above sea level, and the top of the farm is at like 1,200 meters above sea level. We can't move our farm and take it with us and bring it someplace else. It's already there. And unless the hill where we are grows, there are many limiting factors that we can't change in coffee because of where we are located and all of that ends up impacting our quality.

So then when we hear 80+, it's like, “Okay, that's doable. We can definitely reach those numbers.” And we have, but then last year I was at a coffee symposium targeted to coffee professionals in Central America. It was hosted in El Salvador, so then we had people from all over Central America and Mexico come and it was a really nice event to connect with everyone.

But then the keynote speaker, what he said is that these days 80 point coffee—it's okay, but that's commercial, like commercial quality. These days, what we need to be targeting towards is 86+.

And I'm like, what? That is a six point difference. That is massive, in case people listening aren't as familiar with coffee scoring, a six point difference—that's wild.

Ashley: Yeah, let's give people some context for this, because we're talking about this 20 point differential, between 80 and 100, but coffees do not score in the nineties. I mean, some do, some very rare coffees do. So we're really talking about a 10 point differential in terms of most of the coffee that you're drinking.

So six points between 80 and 86 is monumental.

Karla: Exactly. So I was like, “Oh my God!” Like freaking out. What does this mean? And of course I was already thinking of all of the issues that come up with changing it from 80 to 86. That's wild.

Then a part of me was like, “Okay, this guy, he doesn't really know what he's talking about,” and I just decided to ignore him. But then a few months after that, there was an importer that works directly with a lot of well-known roasters. And they came up with this report where they asked roasters about their perceptions of quality and what it means to them and all of these things.

And in their findings, they published that there are three areas for specialty coffee, basically. There are the 80 to 84 [point coffees], and that coffee is called commercial specialty or something like that, they decided to call it. And I was like, “Oh my God. Maybe that guy from the coffee symposium was right.”

Then they talked about the actual new specialty grade, which is 86+. And I'm like, “Oh my God.” But then I was like, “Wait a minute, what's up with 85?” They skipped it and what they said was that 85 point coffee is this gray area that no one really is interested in because it's too low and it's not good enough. They basically said you're better off selling 84 point coffee than 85, because 85 is just close but not good enough to 86, the new specialty mark.

And that was just wild. There's roasters out there with this mentality, and it's been repeated enough times for it to actually become like the new normative and to be published and to become accepted.

Ashley: Something that you mentioned, and I wanna talk a little bit about this too, is that coffee farming depends so much on climate. It depends so much on the microclimate of your farm. It depends on rain patterns, it depends on terroir, it depends on all these growing factors around you, and the climate is changing.

We all know this, and it seems bizarre that we're expecting higher and higher standards for a worsening climate.

Karla: Yes, and that to me just makes absolutely no sense. I hope that in this day and age, there are less climate deniers out there than there used to be before.

Ashley: I've already weeded out all the climate deniers in a past episode, so they're gone.

Karla: Good! But it’s like, I feel before it became as normal to talk about these things, if there is a group out there that knows the effects of climate change, it’s people in agriculture. Regardless of what you grow, whatever you're growing has been affected because of climate change. And that is a reality. I think that we have been speaking out about this within other agro circles for years.

It’s come to the point, at least in our farm, where, every year we expect to be hit by massive storms that bring out a lot of, and cause a lot of damage in our coffee. That damage can look anything from like actual physical damage to our coffee trees, where maybe the trees start absorbing excess quantities of water and that causes the coffee to split open and like spit out the coffee bean, which is what we wanna end up selling. So then it causes that.

And then it also just completely devastates our coffee farms because, at least what's happened to us a lot over these past few years is that it will tear down a lot of our shade trees. Our shade trees are really old pine trees that are massive in height, massive in weight. And having those come down on our coffee trees, it just completely breaks them, ruins them, damages them.

We need to replant them eventually because the damage is so bad that they die.

Ashley: You've mentioned that your farm has specifically been affected by tropical storms, and I was wondering if you have any conception of what that's gonna do to harvest this year?

Karla: Yes. So the way that weather happens and works in El Salvador—and why it's supposed to be an ideal country for growing coffee and why it has worked so well in the past—is that we have very distinct weather seasons and there's only two of them really.

So it's either raining, which is our winter, or it's not, which is our summer basically. And it's split up in two halves of the year. So half of the year it's raining, half of the year it's not. With coffee that creates very distinct patterns that alters the way that the plant grows and stimulates it.

So when it's raining, the plant grows. It's healthy, it's thriving, living its best life, but then it stops raining for half of the year, the tree starts to get a little bit stressed and during this whole time it's developing the coffee cherries, because it obviously thinks that because of that lack of water, it's going to die, and then the coffee trees, the coffee cherries start maturing. Then you end up picking the [cherries] and then it's a false alarm. It's raining again. The plant doesn't die, and it repeats the whole cycle. During the months between November to March is when it stops raining, and when we harvest our coffee.

But what happened last year was that during harvest, it rained during December. And what that meant is that it alerted the plants during December and it said like, “Oh, the rain is coming. You need to start creating coffee flowers to restart that whole process.”

So [the rain] altered that, and a lot of our trees thought that winter was coming...and that was really destructive for the whole cycle of our coffee. So then, right now, even though it's still raining and raining and we're still in our winter, we have coffee cherries that are already red and mature and ready to be harvested, even though—maybe I want to say 85% of our coffee trees and our coffee cherries are still green. They won't be ready to harvest until maybe a month from now.

That is super damaging because it disrupts the whole cycle of these trees and ultimately affects your costs because you need to pull people from their day-to-day activities on the farm and into coffee harvesting. They need to pick and choose these coffee cherries that are [scattered throughout] the whole farm, which could even be in between the same coffee plant.

We do have some plants that had some flowerings in December, but then [parts of the plant] that flowered later, like a few months later. There are cherries that are still green, that are following the natural, normal cycle of coffee. So then it just alters everything.

Ashley: When you say that the plants are flowering, what does that mean? Is it that the cherries aren't ripening? I just wanna make sure I'm clear.

Karla: Yes. So what happens is that at the beginning of the year, let's say around April or something, we usually have a very strong rainfall. That strong rainfall indicates to the plant, "Okay, the winter is here, and the rainy season is here, and it's time to grow and expand."

Then, if you get a certain amount of millimeters of rain, it tells the plant, "Okay, it's time to put out the flowers," and maybe a week after that initial rainfall, you will have coffee blossoms come up, and that starts the whole coffee cycle. Once they shrivel up, you will see that in between, there is this little seed, and it will just start growing and growing and growing and plumping up, ultimately becoming a coffee cherry for you to harvest.

Ashley: Wow. That's wild. It's wild to think that there's so much disruption to these patterns that you really depend on, because like you were saying, it's not just about the plants, even though obviously the plants are heavily affected, but it's also the way that you're able to plan your labor.

Karla: Exactly. It alters the cycle because before, the weather was more predictable and the coffee cycle, it's set in stone—at least it used to be dictated specifically by the rainfall. So then back in the day, you could have coffee professionals, agronomists, who could estimate when you would be harvesting from that initial flowering.

So it's almost like—I don't know. The first thing that comes to mind is having a child. If you go to a doctor, they'll tell you like, “Oh, you will be in labor by like X day, nine months from now,” it's the same for coffee, [at least] back in the day. That's how predictable it used to be. Based on that initial flowering, you would know like, “Okay, X amount of days and weeks from now, I will be able to harvest this cherry because it will be mature.”

But these days that's become so unpredictable because of the rain and because now we have all of these micro storms happening in the dry season that is just giving false information to the coffee plants of when that winter is coming.

Ashley: Especially when we're talking about this idea of quality and the marker for quality constantly changing, it seems like there's a really big disconnect between understanding the realities of what's happening on coffee farms and the demands from the market.

Karla: Yeah, definitely. I think that there is a huge disconnect and honestly, I don't know what's the best way to tackle this because there's been this huge disconnect forever, basically. But I think that right now, the fact that the common discourse around pricing and compensating producers and all of these things revolves around specialty…

I don't know at what point specialty coffee became this savior for coffee farmers, where farmers were being told, “If you create coffee that is 80 points and above, you won’t have economical problems, you'll be paid rightly for your labor, for your costs, for everything.”

But then suddenly we are changing all of these standards so quickly, and there is no way really for coffee farmers to adapt to all of these changes because it's just happening at a rate that’s too fast for us to even be able to replant coffees, We need to take into account that for a coffee plant to be productive and have a strong harvest, it can take anywhere up to five years. That is a lot of time, and if in five years we're already changing the standards from 80 points to 86 points, there is no way that we can keep up.

Ashley: That totally makes sense and I think that also speaks to the research that you're doing with your masters is that there's this bridge that we have not built—that we seem to be completely okay with farmers stumbling into specialty. I feel like there must even be a narrative around—I don't know if you've seen this—but this narrative around like roasters discovering a farm or something like that. And it’s not right.

Karla: Exactly.

Ashley: And that's what I think is so compelling and interesting about the work that you're doing is that we should be able to see the bridge and cross the bridge. We should be able to walk right over and and even using the story of your farm as an example, we have this idea that quality is inherent and that we're gonna discover these best quality coffees, but we're not, we're just not.

We are doing ourselves a disservice by moving the target of quality so often that we're leaving out so many people—and this doesn't diminish the amount of labor that goes into coffee either. I have to imagine maybe there's some quality differences in an 88 coffee versus an 86 coffee in terms of farming, but I'm not sure actually—I have to imagine maybe not?

Karla: Yeah, and when it comes to quality, yes, there are factors that definitely affect it, like where you're growing your coffee, the altitude, the variety that it is—all of these things definitely matter, but at the end of the day, a lot of it is just pure chance and luck. The fact that you got enough rainfall, that it was not too much, not too little, that you had the right amount of shade that year, that you had the income to be able to fertilize properly…

That is another huge thing that a lot of people don't talk about is how the cost of everything at the farm level has gone up. We hear how the price of coffee goes up and we're no longer in a price crisis and all of these things, but if the price of fertilizer, which is essential for a coffee farm and has almost doubled, then what real profits are we talking about?

Ashley: Is there anything that you want people listening to this to know about the work that you're doing or the realities of coffee farming right now? Kind of like a big open question for you—what’s on your mind or what do you want people to leave this conversation knowing or feeling?

Karla: Something that I always try to advocate for is for people to ask questions. Don't feel embarrassed. Don't feel like—because I do know that the coffee industry can be super intimidating at times. There are a lot of big egos and personalities in the way, but don't let that stop you.

If you have a question about anything, ask it, don't feel bad about it. There is no bad answer. I think that there are so many misconceptions in our industry that the only way for us to build this bridge that we've been talking about is to break down these myths, make connections with people and just keep asking these questions that will ultimately, I think, will be leading us in a better direction.

Ashley: Karla, thank you so much again for taking time to chat with me. Every time I chat with you, I learn something new and I feel inspired, and you're just a really great person and I'm glad that you took some time to chat with me.