The Boss Barista Takeover — Dispatches from Colombia
Discover this two-part episode, featuring interviews with coffee farmers in Colombia
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Welcome to the Boss Barista takeover!
A few weeks ago, I put a call out to coffee folks, fans, and drinkers across the globe to pitch ideas about the podcast they’ve been dreaming of making—and today we’re turning the mic over to the fourth in our series of guest creators.
This episode is a little different than what you’ve heard so far. Sebastián Diácono is a country manager for Latorre & Dutch, an international coffee-trading and -exporting company. He’s based in Colombia, and his job is to act as a liaison between people who want to buy coffee and people who grow it, understanding and synthesizing the needs of both in the process. When I first mentioned this project on Twitter, he messaged me almost immediately, saying he’d like to help me tell stories of coffee producers in Colombia.
What we decided to do was interview two coffee producers and ask them questions about the side of coffee-growing that’s not often talked about—the struggle of selling coffee, the power dynamics between buyers and sellers, and the volatility of the coffee market. The farmers, named Deiro García and Alejandra Hoyos, were given a set of questions and then recorded their responses as voice memos—their responses are in Spanish. Sebastián and I then listened to the audio and he broke down their answers.
Sebastián and I talked for almost two hours, so we broke this up into two episodes. In the first episode, we talk to Deiro, who owns a farm in Colombia. Sebastián and I begin by setting up the premise of the episode, and then you’ll hear responses from Deiro, which Sebastián translates and gives further insights on.
Episode two—which is out right now—does the same but with Alejandra, a producer who is part of a women’s cooperative in southern Colombia. I can’t stress how much I learned in these two episodes. Anyone who buys coffee should tune in—as I record this introduction, there are demonstrations in Colombia to protest corruption and inequality, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, so I hope this encourages anyone who buys coffee from Colombia to think critically about their purchasing decisions and listen to farmers. Here’s part one with Sebastián and Deiro.
Ashley: Sebastián, I was hoping you could start by introducing yourself.
Sebastián: Hi, Ashley. My name is Sebastián. I am from Colombia. I'm from a region of Huila, which is pretty famous for coffee-growing right now. I am the country manager for Latorre & Dutch Coffee Traders, an Australian company that trades coffee from a lot of regions in the world.
I am here right now. I'm in Colombia. I am at the farm of Latorre & Dutch called La Maria. I am here to give an overview on how coffee grows inside in this industry and the insights that the farmers here think about the specialty coffee. And also, as a buyer, I search the region, I get coffees—and yeah, I think that's the idea of me being here and I'm really excited to be part of it.
Ashley: I'm excited for you to be part of this too. I think having a little bit of background about how we got connected would be helpful.
A couple of weeks ago, I asked people to make different pitches or share different ideas about podcast episodes that they would want to see. And you, as far as you can do on Twitter, raised your hand and were like, “I can help you tell stories from Colombia. Let's do that.”
And you did—you totally delivered. We've been talking for a couple of weeks back and forth, and I was wondering what drove you to want to reach out or want to share stories about farmers in Colombia? What were you not seeing that you were like, “This story needs to be told?”
Sebastián: Well, I am pretty active on Twitter, mostly reading, not tweeting. I have been working in coffee for four years. I have been working with more than 200 growers, mostly in Huila. I have seen and learned a lot of things with them. Also, I have been in the other part of the chain—that is to sell the coffee to roasters. So I am lucky to be in these two parts.
So when you wrote that on Twitter, I said, “Hey, I can give you maybe what the farmers think.” I was a farmer too. My family is a farmer too, a coffee grower too. So I know a little bit of what is not being told in the industry, the insight of this small grower. Because everything is pretty on social media, but I think I can give a better insight on things done here in this region, right now, from Colombia.
Ashley: I think one of the things that we talked about the first time we spoke was the discrepancy between what people see when they see a coffee farm—the pictures, or the stories that roasters tell—versus what actually happens to you. The emails you get, the requests you get, the things that people say to you about how little they want to pay.
The first time we spoke, it was actually pretty, it was a pretty eye—not eye-opening, because I think that a lot of people probably have some context that what we see isn't always what we get—but you were pretty straightforward about all of the questions that you get that are pretty disrespectful in a way.
Sebastián: Yeah. I think in every industry you have good customers and notable customers. For example, right now at Latorre & Dutch, we have a lot of customers, roasters around the world, and we are lucky enough that they share our same goal—that is, to pay farmers a fair price.
Me being here in the region is to listen to the farmers and say, “Hey, [it’s not only about] the price, a fair price, but what are your other concerns?” It's not only price, it’s, “Can [a buyer] buy all my coffee? Not only the super crazy ones, or the 90+.” So a lot of roasters shared [that philosophy] with us as a company.
But of course I think—if any coffee buyers are listening to this, they can relate—a lot of people, I don’t know, maybe they’re new roasters or something, they’re just like, “Hey, can you give me a cheap coffee or not? That's too expensive.” And I don't think they do that because they’re bad. Maybe they do that because they don't realize how incredibly hard it is to grow coffee. And I think our job as coffee buyers—in my part or people that are in the inner region—is to share with them why that coffee is this expensive.
Ashley: The things that you talked about are things that are going to come up in this episode. So I asked you a couple of questions. Some of the questions are straight-forward, like, “What do you want coffee consumers to know about growing coffee in Colombia?”
Some of them are a little bit tougher, like “Can you talk about times where you're worried about a crop,” or, “Have you ever been photographed by a roaster who maybe claimed that you two have a relationship when you don't?”
Then you reached out to two of the farmers that you know and they answered those questions by sending voice memos to you. So we're going to hear those voice memos from both of the farmers. So I was wondering if you could set up the first person that we're going to hear from.
Sebastián: Perfect. The first guy is Deiro García, he's a super friend of mine. He's a super grower. He's one of the most knowledgeable growers in Colombia. I [picked] him because he sells coffee, really good coffee at really good prices, but also he sells a standard or normal coffee, normally standard prices. So I think he's the person that can give us a good insight on how’s everything—the pretty and not so pretty—about growing coffee in Colombia.
Ashley: Alright, let’s hear from Deiro.
Deiro García: Hola buen día, mi nombre es Deiro García, soy un caficultor de Pitalito Huila, Colombia. ¿Qué quisiera que los consumidores supieran sobre el cultivo del café y que se habla poco?
Lo primero sería el relevo generacional, no? Los hijos de caficultores ya se están ocupando en otros asuntos que no son sobre el café. Es decir, una vez inician una una educación formal y sus aspiraciones no giran en torno al café, al menos que sea referente al campo como la agronomía. Sí, eso sería lo primero. Lo segundo es que cada vez es más difícil encontrar mano de obra calificada. Ya se está dificultando conseguir personal para cultivar. Y sobre todo en Colombia, que el café se da en laderas, no? en montañas y es muy difícil mecanizar. Y tercero, es que a pesar de que somos un país productor, realmente nosotros como colombianos consumimos muy poco café de calidad. Es decir, el café bueno se exporta y pues como se llama popularmente en Colombia, pasillas, se consumen, si? Entonces no hay una motivación, algo que anime a las personas a consumir el producto nacional y así ayude con los costos del caficultores en su producción.
Ashley: Can you tell us a little bit about what Deiro said in that first part?
Sebastián: Deiro talked mostly about what he wants the roaster or the importer to know. I think everyone knows that coffee-growing is super hard. Sometimes it's not really rewarding. So he talks about that and how he thinks we can face that challenge nowadays.
So one of the problems is that young people don't want to grow coffee. Why? Because it's hard and sometimes it doesn't pay. And also, for example—I can talk about Colombia, I don't know other origins—but agriculture is an economic sector that is not really interesting for young people because people in Latin America think that agriculture [is a sector that] only poor people work. That's a misconception that people have here.
There's also the social context of the country that sometimes it's true—agriculture doesn't reward a lot so sadly, we won’t have coffee growers in 50 years because people don’t want to grow coffee. For example, the average age of a coffee farmer is 55 years old in Colombia. So in 20, 30 years there won't be coffee growers. So that's really, really hard.
That's what Deiro talks about. Also, to find workers, knowing [that in] Colombia, most of the coffee grows on slopes—which is different from Brazil, for example, they have plains and put in machines to harvest coffee—but in Colombia it is really hard. So to find workers that are going to pick coffee on these slopes is really tricky. And sometimes if the growers don't make much money, you can imagine how much money the pickers get. So it's even harder. So people, they don't want to do coffee because it's sometimes dangerous and it’s not well-paid.
Ashley: Really quickly about the idea of slopes. It's easy to imagine a hill or something. That's maybe a little—no, you're talking about mountains. You're talking about 45-degree angles.
Sebastián: Yeah. It's really like that. So it's really dangerous sometimes. It's super hard because you have to pick cherries and you also have to be aware and that you are not going to fall, or if you don't fall, the coffee falls and you waste a whole day of work. So it's really, really difficult.
And the other thing is—and it's really interesting—in producing countries there could be a good market for specialty coffee, and growers can sell their coffee inside Colombia, for example, and they can earn a lot of money for that. But in producing countries, there is not a lot of awareness on how coffee should taste or what is a specialty coffee or varieties like, “Oh, this is a Pink Bourbon, this is a Gesha.” There’s none of that.
Mostly what people consume here is defective beans, they are not exported. So they are sold to local roasters, but huge roasters. They roast them super bold and they sell that and people put a lot of sugar in that and that's coffee.
Ashley: Thinking about Colombia specifically, and how you can increase consumption within the country—not that I know the answer to this by any means—but Colombia has a rich history of advertising. You have, oh, what's his name?
Sebastián: Juan Valdez.
Ashley: Yeah, Juan Valdez comes from Colombia! You have the FNC, which is the government organizing body that's very influential, very powerful. So there are mechanisms that could increase consumption in the country. But that's just not the case.
Do you think that because farmers don't often consume the high-end, specialty coffee that they make, because most often they're drinking sort of the defective beans—because that's what staying inside Colombia—that there's kind of a disconnect in values? How do you think that that contributes to how people feel about what they're doing?
Sebastian: In Colombia, coffee-growing is something that is cultural. A lot of growers grow coffee because of their father or their grandfather, the grand-grandfather used to grow coffee and they're really proud of it. And in Colombia there’s this phenomenon that a lot of people are super proud of Colombian coffee.
If you find a Colombian in, I don’t know, Russia, they will tell you, “Colombian coffee is the best coffee in the world—period.” And maybe he or she or they haven't even tried a specialty coffee in their life, but it's really cultural that I think we are born and they just put the chip in us. Like you have to like Colombian coffee and you have to be an ambassador of Colombian coffee in every part of the world—even if you don’t like coffee.
Regarding the consuming part, I think it is mostly education. For example, my grandfather was a grower and I remember that he used to pick coffee with a ladder because the trees are so tall. These trees were full of Bourbon, Typica—they were really old, and as you can imagine the coffee from the varieties are super amazing, but he used to drink defective beans.
The good ones—they would sell them. But it's not like they said, “Oh, I'm going to drink the bad beans.” They didn't think like that. They thought, “I have to sell the best ones so I can sustain my family. And the defective beans are something that we are used to. We don’t know anything else. So it's fine. It's no problem.”
It's more cultural than someone saying, “Oh, I deserve the defective beans.” I don't think it's like that. I think that's going to change when there’s more information for the growers. People don't realize that growers don’t always use Facebook, don’t use Instagram. So they have no idea about the new variety, the new coffee roasters or blah, blah, blah...
So I think, in a region, this is for local cafes to do that job. Like, “Hey, here is a Pink Bourbon—try it. Oh, that's good.” So it's more of an educational thing I will say.
It’s happening right now—but super slowly. But I have seen a lot of cafes with specialty coffee. For example, I [used to] bring my mom or my aunt and they have no idea and they say, “Oh, I used to drink Nescafé or instant coffee.” And now they're really hooked on specialty.
I remember when I was a kid, I used to make instant coffee for my mom. And now when I go home, I always bring coffee from a farm [that produces] Pink Bourbon—it’s really good. She starts to ask me questions about the processing. “Is it a natural? Is it washed?” She's already hooked, she used to drink instant coffee, but now she asked me about variety—is it a Gesha, it is a Pink Bourbon? So I think slowly, it’s going to happen.
Ashley: It seems like continuing to talk about it is the way to go.
Ashley: The next part we're going to hear—so he asked Deiro how often do roasters and coffee buyers ask him for things that aren't feasible, like only buying a small portion of his farm or asking for an experimental process that might cost a lot of money. And then we asked him how he responds to requests like that. That's what we're going to hear next.
Deiro: Muchas veces los tostadores y los compradores piden café de muy buena calidad, sin tener en cuenta que hay cafés que son buenos, pero pues no de acuerdo a sus expectativas no? Que buscan un café con una buena taza y un buen factor de rendimiento. Entonces, cuando le hacen a uno el requerimiento de un café y de procesarlo, no comparten con uno el costo que con lleva sacar un café de calidad. El riesgo, porque así como uno se esmera por sacar un buen café de recolectarlo bien, abonarlo bien, procesarlo bien, corre el riesgo que el café se fermente demás, corre el riesgo que el café tenga un daño físico como embrión muerto. Entonces son cosas que a la ligera se piden, pero al final no son factibles, sobretodo cuando el comprador pues no le interesa, sino la calidad de otra, de que hay tostadores y compradores de café, que si corren el riesgo con uno y se procesa un café de tal manera y compartimos el riesgo y te compro el café salga como esté. Entonces no aplica para todos, pero en su gran mayoría el el tostador y el comprador de café no están asumiendo y no saben que eso nos cuesta a nosotros como caficultores inventar o tratar de sacar un café que ellos quieran.
Ashley: Can you tell us what Deiro just explained in this part?
Sebastián: Yeah. Deiro, he's a well-known grower. So for example, on Instagram, some roasters approached him like, “Hey, I really like these,” maybe they’ll try his coffees, mostly in Europe. “I want to have your coffee,” and I used to help Deiro with that too, to talk with the roasters one year ago.
And I told him, “Say yes, but tell them if you want, for example, a batch or a lot, you need to share the risk with me.” A lot of people [are asking for that, because there] now are in trend, [about] fermentations, like, “Hey, I have this idea. You should put your coffee in, I don’t know, tanks for one month and let’s see what happens.” And Deiro says, “Okay, I'm going to do it, but I need you to sign something with my importer or exporter to make a promise that no matter the outcome, you have to buy the coffee.” Because if the coffee is amazing, if it's a 90, of course [the roaster] is going to buy it, but if it’s not, Deiro has to sell it in the local market and then he's going to lose money.
So I think a thing to do is to share everything, share the risks. For example, when the roasters tell me, “I need something from Colombia, blah, blah, blah…” If it’s something really specific, I tell them, “Hey, look, we’re going to do it like this. I’m a friend of the grower, we can do it, but you have to share risk.”
We, as a company that buys coffee and sells coffee, we think about our customers—roasters. We have good customer service. We tell them, “Hey, we can do this, do this and these things,” but also we have to have the same good customer service for the farmers, not only with the roasters.
And that's my work here in Colombia for Latorre & Dutch. I have experience with the growers. When [roasters] ask for coffee, I go to the growers and I sit with them and I tell them, “Hey guys, we're going to do this and this—tell me what price you’re looking for. This is the quality we’re looking for, blah blah blah…”
And that's how it works. That's how it works as a trader—[you have] to make sure all the [members of the] chain are winning. And I have learned that at Latorre & Dutch here in Colombia, because we are dealing with bigger volumes, it’s good to sit with them. And maybe there’s a coffee buyer listening to this—it’s super rewarding just to sit and listen. What do the farmers want, need, or expect from this negotiation?
Ashley: That was a really good summary of everything that's happening.
Sebastián: I would say for me, it's easier of course, because I'm from Colombia and it's easier for me to communicate here. But maybe, if you are not from Colombia or you’re from another country that’s a consuming country, and you buy coffee and you go to a region, just sit with [the farmer]. It's really rewarding. And I think it will be a better negotiation with the farmers and your customer also will be happier.
Ashley: I think one thing that you mentioned that should be highlighted a little more is the idea of risk. As you were telling that story, you were saying that Deiro is good at asserting what he needs—saying, “Okay, you want me to do this experimental process? You need to sign a paper that says you're going to buy this coffee regardless of what happens to it.”
Then you said that a number of roasters did respond to that request, except maybe a handful. It seems like we understand that experimental processes can be valuable, but we don't know how to distribute the risks across the supply stream, which is exactly what you detailed.
Let's move to that third part with Deiro because he then talks about times where he was maybe worried about his crop, or how to communicate that with a potential buyer. So that's what we're going to hear next.
Deiro: En la caficultura hay momentos donde uno se preocupa mucho por la cosecha, sobretodo con las plagas, no? Las plagas, el manejo. es algo que en Colombia no se habla mucho, es como un plan de de de trabajo donde se indique cuántos son los tiempos de abonada, que se planifique todo, no? Creo que en torno al café es el 90 por ciento de los caficultores están desinformados sobre ese manejo. Entonces, al estar desinformados, no sabe manejar su cultivo como tal. Se compromete la cosecha si se pone en riesgo la cosecha. Si no llevas café o si no llevo café, pues no, no me va a pagar nada. Si? Y no hay un como un una entidad que soporte una pérdida. Es decir, un año no coseché y me va a suministrar una cantidad de dinero que necesito para solventarme es año, para el siguiente año. En este caso no se ve, no se ha visto eso. No sé si algunos colegas caficultores lo hayan sabido manejar, pero cada uno debe preocuparse por su cosecha y el comprador no le interesa o hace caso omiso.
Ashley: Can you talk about what Deiro is explaining in this part?
Sebastián: Here, Deiro is talking about farm management. Sadly in Colombia, a huge number of growers don't have the skill of management because at the end, coffee-growing is a business. And as a business, the coffee growers should have a profit to live for him, her, and the family.
Due to the social context of Colombia, a lot of coffee growers—they didn't go to school, go to university, some of them don't know how to read or write. So at the end, if you are producing any product, you should know what are the costs of the product, and then you're going to sell it. And then you will know how much is profit, but a lot of people can't do that. And they don't do that. It's not because they don't want to, it's because they don't know.
And I think that's super, super important. And that's something that people don't talk about—people talk about price, price, price … But if you pay a super high price, but the management is so poor at the farm, that the cost of production is super high as well? It doesn't matter if you pay a really high price.
I think this is super important that Deiro says, because he's a really good manager of his farm and sometimes he says, “I need to sell my coffee at this price so I can have a 10% profit.” He's the only one that I have heard talk like that in coffee-growing—a lot of people, they don't know, they are really happy. “Oh, my coffees are an 87 and are super expensive.” Yeah. But to do this coffee, these growers had to buy a lot of plants, he got a lot of costs and he or she did not really put that in the formula.
Ashley: I think that when I think about the conversations that I've had with roasters about coffee prices, it is a very solution-oriented conversation that focuses on roasters. But what you're saying is that we need to—it's like price doesn't even matter if you're paying $6 per pound for coffee, but the cost of production is $6.50 because the management of your farm isn't set up appropriately.
The solutions don't matter at all. And they also very much focus on the roasters and the people on one end of the supply stream versus focusing on the farmers and what they can do to maximize their profits, which is really interesting.
Sebastián: Exactly. I think I haven't heard anyone talking about it because sometimes it's really personal to talk about money. But we should! Maybe the buyer should ask that, with respect of course, what are the costs of production? For example, $6 per point is a super [good] price. But if you're not making money with that price, there’s probably a problem at the farm.
Ashley: So the next question we asked changes the topic a little bit—but we talked about photography and the way that roasters portray the relationships to farmers. Deiro is going to talk a little bit about that, which you'll hear right now.
Deiro: Como caficultor colombiano si hay mucho que hay compradores de café que le toman fotos a uno en la finca y dicen que tiene una relación con uno, pero realmente es falsa. No? solamente es como para hacer publicidad, pero no realmente no contribuye en nada al al crecimiento del caficultores a menos que le compren el café a muy buen precio, que en otras palabras es lo que busca uno. Un precio, un precio bueno, como se dice popularmente, para cubrir costos y que quede algo para pues asimismo ir invirtiendo en la misma finca. Entonces hay gran desconfianza en el gremio cafetero por esos, pues esos tostadores o esos compradores de café que llegan a la finca, se toman la foto con el caficultor y consiguen el café por otra parte y lo venden diciendo que de determinado agricultor. Entonces esas relaciones estrechas creo que que se ven muy poco.
Ashley: Photography is a big deal, especially the way that roasters portray their relationships to farmers. If you go into—I don't want to call out any coffee shops specifically—but if you go to a number of coffee shops, you'll see pictures of white people and farmers, and [the roasters] saying, “Look at this relationship we have.”
Deiro pretty much says a lot of these could be false. Maybe I don't have a relationship with these folks. So I was wondering if you'd talk a little bit about what Deiro was talking about in this clip.
Sebastián: Yeah, for sure. It happened to me as well, and I think it’s happened to a lot of growers. As you say, not to point fingers at businesses or something like that, because I think everyone knows when they are doing something good or bad, but social media has created a false world that everything's pretty and perfect and everyone is happy and sometimes—mostly roasters or people in the business—go and take the photo of the picture and it's not true. I think that's not the real issue because they can do it—it's a free world.
As a consumer, or maybe you're a roaster and you want to know more about, for example, an import company, you should know there is a huge database called The Internet that you can look for things and investigate for yourself.
So this guy has this picture of Deiro and Deiro’s on Instagram. Why not ask Deiro, “Hey, look, this guy bought for you, yes or no? Yes? Okay, good. No? Maybe that's not a good business to buy from.” So it's mostly that. I don't think Deiro or any grower is going to fight with a roaster like, “Hey, take down the picture.” Nah, that’s too much work. Sometimes it's free PR for Deiro. But that says a lot about that business. And so I think it's mostly on the consumers’ part to make decisions based on information or facts.
Ashley: So the next question we ask—which is pretty much an impossible question to answer—is what is a good price for coffee? And we talked about how a lot of that depends on farm management and the way that you break down expenses on your own farm. Deiro goes a little bit into that, but as we mentioned, there's really no one answer.
Deiro: Con respecto a cuál es un buen precio para el café? Creería que si tengo un cliente, un tostador o un comprador de café, sería interesante fijar un precio independientemente la calidad que entregue, no? como caficultores cumpliría con el aspecto físico un café de calidad. Pero de taza ya debería haber un precio base no? Que cubra mis costos. Si la taza es alta, si la calidad es alta, entonces que haya una bonificación. Pero más que todo sería una base. Una base que fuera, o sea, por encima de mis costos. Como caficultor debo tener mis costos claros. Cuánto me cuesta producir una carga y que sobre esos costos haya una ganancia. creo que sería una buena base para definir un precio, tanto por la calidad, digamos, de un café taza limpia como por una taza 85 86, que sería especiales. Cuando alguien me plantea un mal precio no, realmente no, no es tanto de que haya mal precio porque pues uno busca, busca opciones de siempre vender a mejor precio su café.
Entonces no, no es algo que se tome de mala manera, solo que no, no se podría vender. En este caso, a ese precio que que se llamaría malo porque no sería conveniente.
Ashley: Something that Deiro mentions too is that there's this idea of what quality is. So he mentions this range, the 84-85 score range, which is technically still specialty. Technically—not technically, is specialty, is delicious—but that a lot of price comes from those scoring numbers, like what does this coffee score?
I would imagine that for a lot of coffee roasters, that coffee still has a ton of value when you sell it to consumers, but then you're negotiating these prices based on that cup score at the farm, which is really interesting—it's a weird breakdown because we would never sell coffee to consumers based on, “Oh, this coffee is an 85, this is an 84,” but we do negotiate price with farmers based on those numbers.
Sebastián: Yeah. It's tricky. Super, super tricky. Because that’s the rule in Colombia, that’s the rule when growers go to sell their coffee. And that’s why I’m telling you about how or why coffee growers should do research.
For example, say there is a coffee that is super fruity and I go to Exporter A. Exporter A really liked [the fruity coffees] and they give it an 87. But then I go to Exporter B and they don't like the fruity [coffees]. They like, I don’t know, citric ones? And they give it an 84. So I always tell that to growers—look for the exporter or the market that suits your coffee and that's their work. They have to do that, that’s their job. So just go and sell it to Exporter A, and that's it. If I am selling to, I don't know, China, they will have a different preference than Europe.
There’s this guy called Reinel from Huila—a super, super nice guy. And he always tells me, “Sebastián, I don’t know why my coffee’s always an 84 at the other export company. Always, always, always.”
So I said, “Hey, come and cup with me. And maybe I can tell you why.” We cupped and his coffee was the typical Huila profile—sugar cane, super sweet, good coffee. But usually that's an 84 at the export company that he used to sell to. I told him that, “Look, it's not because they’re bad or because they are lying to you—it’s because of this.” So now he understands, and now he can look for another buyer. When you're honest with people and explain everything to them, they can make better decisions for their business.
Ashley: I think that's a really good point. I think we tend to look at numbers like an 84, 85—as very fixed. “Oh, this coffee is an 84, therefore it’s an 84—there's no question about it.” But the example that you gave is saying that these numbers are based on preferences. There are certain markets that have certain … maybe a roaster is looking for a specific coffee, or maybe this importer works with a market that's looking for these profiles.
So it's not so much about the quality being a fixed number, but rather as an exporter, as somebody selling coffee to roasters, it's your job to almost find farmers who are growing coffees that match the needs of a specific road.
Sebastián: Exactly. That's it.
Look, that happened to me once—I got a Pink Bourbon that was super fermented. I didn't like it, but there was someone from Asia, I think Malaysia, and they gave it a 90 and I was like, “Wow, okay!” So I sold it to them as a 90-point [coffee], and I wasn't even giving it 82 points, but it's my preference, you know?
And that can't, shouldn't—how you say that—make you lose the goal of why you’re there. You’re trying to sell the coffee to the best customer possible. And that one was the best. The grower was really happy, but I told the grower, “Look, I think this will be like, a once-in-a-year [sale]. So don't do that [too] often because most buyers don't like that note.” Now, you sell it really good, but I don’t know about the future, so maybe you could change the processing or something like that.
Ashley: So the last thing we—Deiro, what does he want people to know about growing coffee in Colombia specifically? So that's what we're going to hear next.
Deiro: Algo específico del cultivo de café, la venta de café en Colombia, que quiero destacar es que el caficultor y todo el gremio que que trabaja con café, sean recolectores, dueños de fincas, eeh sean catadores, tostadores, todo el gremio. Creo que se trabaja por pasión, si? Se debe tener en cuenta que se debe producir, pero los que trabajan café son personas apasionadas, que que en el medio del café se construye grandes amistades y es algo positivo que el café trae una región o una zona y sobre todo a Colombia por ser conocida por por un café de calidad. Creo que eso es importante, que cuando uno comparte un café, una de las personas que están en torno a él.
Ashley: So what did Deiro say in this part?
Sebastián: I think Deiro said that growing coffee in Colombia is very, as I told you, cultural. Most of the people are really passionate about growing coffee and they're really proud of it. When you ask them “Where are you a coffee grower?” and they say, “Yeah, I’m a Colombian coffee grower, Colombian coffee is the best in the world.” They're really proud of it.
And I think that helps to maintain the coffee-growing areas that are really big in Colombia. I think it will be better if it were a more profitable business. So he says, “Hey, besides the profit, it should be a good business.” [He also says] that people here in Colombia should drink good coffee, because that really gives you a boost of confidence in your work—when the grower grows and processes really good coffee, and you drink it and tell them, “Hey, this is a really good coffee.” They’ll be proud of it and they’ll keep going.
But as I told you, it would be the best if it were more profitable, and I think, yeah, that’s what Deiro told us in this last [piece of] audio.
Ashley: Do you agree with him?
Sebastián: To be honest ... I was a farmer. I used to grow with my cousin Pink Bourbon and a lot of weird varieties, but I started working within coffee trading and it was super hard, super, super hard.
I thought, “Well, I'm not that passionate about growing coffee.” I really like processing, cupping, and everything, but growing coffee for me was really hard. And that's why I have this huge admiration for growers. And that's why I do what I do. When I do it, I always sit with them because I know how hard it is.
I want to get the best for them when I buy coffee from them. But I think we need more improvement, as I told you, in management and more education on how or why a coffee is good so the growers can make better decisions when it comes to selling their coffee. I think we have a long way to go to educate more about that. But when we achieve that, I think coffee-growing could be one of the best businesses around.
That was my conversation with Sebastián Diacono, breaking down insights from Deiro García. I know in the intro I mentioned that we talked to two farmers—you can hear that conversation right now in part two of this episode.
Thanks again to Chobani for making this episode possible, and if you want to learn more, give Sebastián a follow on Twitter (@sebdiacono)—he’s more than happy to hear your responses and answer questions.