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Castillo vs. Caturra: Who Wins the Steel Cage Match in Colombia?

lucha libre masks

by Michael Sheridan of CRS Coffeelands Blog

At the top of our list of New Year’s resolutions for 2014 is a comparative cupping of leading Colombian varieties. In a snarky Tweet earlier this month that invoked the glorious Latin American tradition of lucha libre, I referred to it as a “steel cage match” between Castillo and Caturra. But this is not a winner-take-all affair. The two varieties need to square off in other arenas before a true champion can be crowned.

(more: Column: Central America’s Smallholder Farms Too Reliant on Coffee Income)

The Odds

If our sources were oddsmakers, Castillo would be the sensory underdog in this fight.

We have found in our work in Nariño a consistent preference for Caturra among both farmers and roasters focused on quality.

When we surveyed farmers in Nariño on their attitudes toward coffee varieties, we found that growers who favored Castillo overwhelmingly associated it with disease resistance and yields (77 percent of all respondents cited these reasons for their preference) but not cup quality (2 percent). Among farmers who preferred Caturra, 27 percent of respondents said it was because of its cup quality–the second most-frequent response after yields.

The most quality-obsessed coffee people I know in the marketplace seem to believe across-the-board that Castillo just can’t rival Caturra in the cup. Even Cenicafé, the research institute that created Castillo, doesn’t argue in this seminal study of cup quality that Castillo is better than traditional cultivars Caturra or Borbon or Typica, only that it rivals them.

But a Caturra rout of Castillo is far from a foregone conclusion.

  • Draw

The two varieties could very well come to a draw. Some specialty gurus have privately shared with me their own hypotheses – that Castillo will perform as well as Caturra at higher elevations. And the only kinds of elevations in our Borderlands project are high ones, most over 1800 m and plenty above 2000 m. If these considered hypotheses are correct, we may see little separation between the two varieties.

  • Split Decision.

There could be a split decision, with one variety performing better under one set of conditions – at certain elevation ranges, say – and another prevailing under different conditions.

  • Narrow Victory

Or one variety may squeak out a narrow win over the other.

Any one of these scenarios would reduce the weight that farmers give to cup quality relative to other variables in the decision on which variety to plant. But just for the sake of discussion, let’s say Caturra mops the floor with Castillo in this particular bout. That still doesn’t mean Caturra and its advocates can declare victory, since cup quality is just one of many variables that inform the decisions made by farmers and policymakers. In other words, this contest is just the first round.

(more: Exploring the Genetic History of Wild Arabica with Aaron Davis (video))

Other Arenas of Competition

  • Genetics

There may be only one Caturra, but that is not the case for Castillo. Through rigorous research at field stations all over Colombia’s coffeelands, Cenicafé developed six regional variations of Castillo that are optimized for local agroecological conditions. What we learn about Castillo in Nariño may not hold in other regions where other variations of Castillo used. A series of cuppings like this one may be needed just to establish an organoleptic winner. But again, even a decisive victory in the sensory arena won’t be the end of the story.

  • Yield

Yield is the ratio of coffee volume produced to total area. Castillo is widely regarded as the higher-yielding variety, doubly privileged by its genetics, which are designed to maximize both its yields and its disease resistance. It is capable of beating a Caturra plant that is healthy; when that Caturra plant is hobbled by coffee leaf rust, Castillo’s yield advantage is decisive. A farmer who produces 25 percent less with Caturra than with Castillo needs to earn an average price per pound 33 percent higher to generate the same amount of revenue.

  • Productivity

Distinct from yield, productivity measures the ratio of what you get out of your coffee field to what you put into it. The popular belief among many of the farmers and agronomists I have talked to in Nariño is that Castillo is a “hungrier” variety than Caturra, one that requires more inputs to deliver on its promise of higher yields. If the increase in production costs is significant, it could undercut the economic benefits of increased yields. This thorough study by Cenicafé of the economic implications of adopting Castillo presents some compelling evidence, however, to suggest that is not the case.

  • Market Opportunity

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a decisive victory for Caturra on the cupping table doesn’t mean anything if the market doesn’t reward the farmers who plant it for their willingness to assume additional production risk in pursuit of cup quality. Some of the farmers we surveyed said they prefer Caturra because they believe it produces higher quality in the cup, but the same farmers told us they have never received a price premium for cup quality.

They were accepting all the production risk associated with traditional varieties without getting any of the market reward — the worst scenario imaginable. If the market that wants traditional varieties isn’t willing to compensate farmers for the risk associated with planting them in an era of coffee leaf rust, Caturra may find its days numbered. Don’t believe me? Consider this cautionary from our Borderlands project. The coffee that registered the highest cupping score from our baseline quality survey in 2012 – one discerning roaster awarded it 89.5 points – was a Caturra. When it came time to search for some worthy coffees to put forth for sale in 2013, we started with the farmer who grew it, only to learn he had replaced much of his Caturra with Castillo.

The promise of quality premiums for Caturra never materialized, so he cut his losses and opted to maximize yields instead of quality. Who could blame him? In the end, without a market that understands this farm-level perspective, Caturra may win the battle on the cupping table but lose the war in the field.

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