On Tuesday, Noah and I got back from about 10 days in Colombia for their Best Cup competition and auction. It was an amazing experience that in many ways will change our lives and Sagebrush Coffee forever. I’ve started to write several blogs about different aspects of this trip, but before those are complete, I wanted to send a trip report out while some of the trip is still fresh.
It took us two days and about 18 hours of travel to get to Popayan, Colombia; our home for the next week. We stayed in an old monastery that had been converted into a hotel and is now used as a home base. The Best Cup crew consisted of about 17 people from nine different roasteries. Add to that six or so individuals from Café Imports and about the same each day from Banexport and we had quite the traveling party. We traveled around the edges of Popayan all week in a Chiva, which is a converted U.S. school bus that is decorated by the owner. A typical day on our trip started with cupping around 30 different coffees. We would cup a table of 10, step aside as a group and discuss what we just cupped, and then repeat. We’d then eat lunch together and head out in the Chiva for a farm or mill visit. Most days ran about 14 hours and although it was a lot of riding and talking, it was exhausting.
Highlights of Colombia
Prior to this trip, I had not been to South America. I have made many visits to Central American countries, but never anywhere south of Costa Rica. So, I kind of knew what to expect, but also really didn’t. Now having been there, I have to say that I fell in love with the country. The climate was beautiful, although I am an Arizona guy so overcast and rain are always beautiful to me. The people were some of the kindest and most fun people I’ve interacted with. I think the coffee industry breeds this strange comradery that I haven’t seen in many other industries. I mean there are still competitors in the industry, and I don’t shed a tear for any of the big chains that struggle, but there is this love for each other in the specialty industry that is contagious and a privilege to participate in. It’s like we all have this sick love for a single drink and love each other because of it. I felt that in extreme ways on this trip.
One of the benefits of origin trips is to see firsthand what our partners are doing as it pertains to the coffee supply chain. I mean, there are so many programs out there that try to make sure every level of the supply chain is getting properly compensated for their work, but you don’t know if that is really happening until you spend a week with them and see what they’re doing. This week was amazing. I am now convinced more than ever that Banexport is the company to work with in Colombia. I will write more about this in a future blog, but I love what the brothers who own it are doing with that company, and I'm excited to put their coffees on display. A couple of weeks ago we wrote a blog about Manos Juntas, and I’ll be writing more about that program later but take this much away today: With programs like this, we are seeing farmers' compensation and support in ways that were just unheard of even five years ago.
Quick Farm Tour Takeaway
We got a chance to visit three farms and a dry mill on this trip. The highlight of the trip was seeing a previous Best Cup winner show off his farm. We ate lunch with his family and walked the farm. We got a chance to see the impact winning Best Cup had on both his farm and livelihood. We got a chance to see some of the tools they use and practices they put in place that increase their yields by 40%, which goes back to what I was saying. I don’t want to get entirely into the give a man a fish/teach a man to fish analogy, but Banexport is not satisfied with either. They are not satisfied by only paying producers better than fair wages. They have on-staff microbiologists and consultants that are cost-prohibitive for even the best farmers. They use these experts to help the farmers increase their yield, increase their coffee quality and learn about varieties that have a higher selling price but would be too difficult to grow without their support. This isn’t fair trade, direct trade, or even farmgate. This is next-level support and as I said, it’s a privilege to participate in. And, selfishly, they produce some pretty amazing coffees, so we get to reap the benefits of their hard work.
So, what was the Best Cup? This is a contest/auction that is sponsored by Café Imports and Banexport, as well as several other companies in Colombia. I went into the trip not really knowing what we were getting into. On a travel day on our way home, we were at a coffee shop in Bogota, about 350 miles away from the competition, and Noah was wearing his Best Cup T-shirt. One of the baristas asked us if we were there. We said we judged it and he pointed out another barista that went and asked us to cup coffees with him. He was excited to have a Best Cup judge at his shop. So…I think it’s a big deal.
When we arrived we were told that this was the first Best Cup since COVID and the producers had been asking for it to start back up again. They had over 1,200 coffee producers submit samples to this competition. The parameters for submission are that all of the coffee must be washed, of traditional varieties, and the producer must do the processing on their own farm. The goal of Best Cup is to show the best of what Colombia has to offer in traditional Colombian coffee. Jairo, one of the owners of Banexport, was telling me that for six months they had been cupping coffees and narrowed it down to the top 30 that we got to try, rank, and buy at auction. There was some pressure with this because we knew the winner, and really any of the top 15 producers, were going to have their lives changed forever. It felt strange that just nine roasters in the U.S. got to participate in that experience. I mean, I pass seven coffee shops just on the way to mine each day. Think of the impact if each of us went to an origin and participated in programs like this!
So the cupping came, we picked our top 15 and I picked my top five. I was ready to go to the auction but had no frame of reference for what I’d end up paying. I had a total budget and really wanted the #3 coffee as that was by far my favorite of the week. As the auction started, I realized that I had a real shot at #3. However, it looked like that lot was the favorite amongst many of the roasters, so I made a deal with a couple that wanted to split the lot with me. That would leave me with the flexibility to potentially go for #1 as well.
The auction was something else all-together. We walked in and the crowd went nuts. Yes, there was a crowd and yes, they were cheering. It was so loud, that I couldn’t really hear anyone next to me. They auctioned the first five coffees and it was honestly a little bit of a letdown. I think when you have 15 coffees for nine roasters, there isn’t a lot of bidding against each other on #11-#15. But then we hit #7 and the price started going up. It was like a scoring drive in a championship game. The producers were screaming. Everyone was going nuts. It was at this point, that I realized the producers didn’t know they had made the top 15, only the top 30, which automatically got them double the going rate for their coffees. They also didn’t have a clue what place they were in until they were announced at the auction. It was like sitting in the stands and knowing you had a winning lottery ticket, but you have no idea of the value.
As we saw coffee after coffee of my top five go by, I didn’t bid once. I honestly had a feeling based on the prices, that I would for sure get #3, so I just wanted to hold out and go all in on my favorite coffee. As we came to the top three, they took a break and I confirmed with a couple of roasters that we had a buying group together. We decided on a top price based on what one of the others in the group wanted to spend. I told them I’d split it with them up to their ceiling, but that I was going home with this coffee no matter what. The auction started and we quickly passed the ceiling. So I bid above it. Then the group I was bidding with outbid me. We went back and forth a few times and the crowd was going nuts. The other roaster came up to me and asked a question, but I legitimately could not hear a word they said. They were screaming directly into my ear and I heard nothing. That was how loud this auction was. So I just outbid them and won the auction. As I walked up on stage to get photos with the producer, I asked her what she was asking. She said, “will you still split the lot?” I agreed and we all went on stage to greet the guy whose life was forever changed.
As the auction was completed, we ended up spending more than any other lot except #1 and I still think we walked away with the best value of the week. We also participated in a silent auction and napped a couple of Geishas, a natural Manos Juntas, and a few others. I’m super excited about the Colombian coffees we’ll have in the next few months. We will clearly have the best Colombian lineup in the history of Sagebrush, which means… I’ll be back at Best Cup next year. I honestly cannot wait and I just got home.