Monday, October 25, 2010

Touring The FNC

Discussing the categorization of the coffees.

The FNC. Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia. The Juan Valdez people. In a nutshell, the FNC controls most of the coffee in Colombia. Even though they only purchase 25% of production, they seem to have their hands in all of it somehow.

Which is not a bad thing. It is what it is.

Luis Fernando has arranged a tour of the FNC laboratories for us and we're eager to see what goes on behind the coffee colored curtain. Will we see the Wizard? Or will we find more coffee?

Last year, we enjoyed the hospitality of Alirio Laguna at the Tolima Comite of the FNC. The labs in Ibague are a bit smaller and less high-tech than here at headquarters and the scope of what is done here turns out to be quite impressive.

The main cupping room - where upwards of 64 samples of each coffee may be tested.

Those of us in the niche of specialty coffee like to throw around the quote that coffee is the second largest commodity after oil. Whether that's true or not is really irrelevant. What we do seem to forget in our niche is that this means that coffee is Big Business.

National coffee organizations, like the FNC, may find the specialty trade interesting, curious and beneficial, but they probably don't consider it significant. What's at stake here is the export trade of the entire nation and the FNC has its control over critical components of that trade.

For example, all coffees are inspected and graded by the FNC. Any Colombian coffee for export must meet certain criteria as established by the FNC. This is to ensure general uniformity and consistency of "Colombian Coffee" and this is where the FNC runs into opposition with specialty.

The roasting lab.

Within the niche of specialty, operators like myself, want to see the uniqueness of a farm or process in a cup. One may wonder how a natural processed Colombian will taste - the FNC and the system in Colombia is designed to prevent that from happening because it's not specified as Colombian Coffee.

At first, it's easy to take offense but as our tour of the facility continues, one sees that all of this is in the interests of commerce and producing a traceable, consistent and predictable supply of coffee.

While companies like Intelligentsia may roast two million pounds this year, it's still peanuts compared to commercial roasters. Coca-Cola alone may purchase two million pounds of solely Colombian coffee, dwarfing the production of specialty darlings like Counter Culture.

And when Coca-Cola is buying coffee for use in it's Georgia brand of coffee beverages, or as a component for Coke itself, it's looking for a decidedly consistent and predictable flavor profile. Unlike the specialty niche where we celebrate the seasonal differences in coffee, companies like Coke demand a consistent flavor profile year to year for their products.

And let's be honest, if Coke changed flavor slightly year to year because of these seasonal differences, you'd be unhappy about it too.

My expertise is called upon to settle a production issue.

A massive part of the FNC is to aggregate the years coffee crop, identify, quantify, categorize and track so that their customers can be delivered a consistent product. Everything going on in this laboratory is designed to facilitate that mission. And to me, it's massively impressive.

Impressive that anyone can take a crop that changes from year to year and cultivate results that are consistent from year to year. Some may think that this is terrible commercial industrialism (and it probably is) but I tend to view it as the artisans at the great Champagne houses in France who blend wines together year to year to produce a consistently great champagne. The work is truly remarkable.

Ian cupping for a second opinion.

So much is going on that it's difficult to absorb it all. Since my days developing syrup flavors for Jays Shave Ice and making cabernet sauvignon in the backyard, I've always admired and been fascinated by this kind of work. Perhaps one day, when I own Coca Cola, I too will return to cup coffees and place our order for ten million pounds of high grade, pure Colombian.

Luis Fernando demonstrates the new packaging.

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