Juan’s World: A 5 Part Mini-Series on the Inner Workings of Colombian Coffee
Part 5: Roya, Broca, y Sr. Castillo
Roya is on the tips of the tongues of everyone who works in coffee. This fast moving leaf rust swept Central America over the past few months causing levels of destruction to cafetales unseen since the rust first arrived in Latin America in the 70s.
The rust shows up on the undersides of leaves and then almost instantly spreads from one tree to another, until it has infected almost the entire growing area. Breezy mountain hillsides- especially those with no other types of tree to break up the rows of coffee- make ideal environments to transport the spores through the air.
The rust covers the leaves, the leaves fall off, and the trees produce no fruit, standing naked and vulnerable. Roya doesn’t kill a tree (although it might be the last straw for older plants), but it takes two years before trees hit with roya will produce again; one year for the leaves to grow back, and other for the fruit to return. Meaning obvious loss in sources of income for growers subsequent loss of jobs for pickers, because there simply is no coffee to pick.
Guatemala and Costa Rica have declared national emergencies, Nicaragua fears for the livelihoods of its hundreds of thousands of seasonal pickers, and Colombia seems to have dodged the bullet.
Why? Some coffee trees are inherently resistant to roya, which seems exciting, but the most resistant plants are Robusta, which tastes decidedly more bitter and is rejected by roasters looking for specialty coffee. (Even “average” coffee is usually a blend of Robusta with Arabica to mellow out the harshness). Several Arabica-Robusta hybrids have been developed to use the rust-resistance of Robusta but keep the flavor of Arabica.
But hybrid development is a tricky science, and some hybrids taste better than others. (The more or less failed attempt was Catimor, which resists rust nicely and yields a hearty production, but apparently tastes pretty bad, such that Nespresso prohibits farmers with more than 20% of their land planted with Catimor from selling to the mill they run/buy from).
Because hybrid development is tricky, it also leaves a lot of room for variation. Catimor is a cross between Hibrido de Timor (Robusta) and Caturra (a natural mutation of the Bourbon variety of Arabica). Colombia’s personal scientific forces at Cenicafe (the science/tech arm of the FNC, whose sole goal is the defense of livelihoods of Colombian coffee growers and is therefore not particularly interested in sharing) used the same ingredients, Hibirdo de Timor and Caturra, to yield Variedad Colombia. Which is a ‘variety’ including varies progenies (vs. the monoline of Catimor) and had rust resistance, decent yield, and apparently a better taste.
But plant pathogens are infuriatingly resilient, and can mutate themselves to attack something that used to resist them. So the roya started showing up in some Colombia. The FNC was also worried about other diseases seen in Africa affecting the coffee fruit itself, and because they like to be preemptive, tweaked the Colombia variety to get the Castillo Variety, named for the lead scientist who developed it.
Castillo, being a variety as well, includes a variety of progenies from the F5 generation of the Hibrido de Timor-Caturra cross. Farmers would often tell me, “look, you can tell that’s my old lot of Catimor because they’re all exactly the same- same height, same size, same branches. And you can tell that’s my Castillo lot because some are tall, some have cherries in their first year, some have long branches, everything’s all different.”
Apparently 11 sub varieties of the Castillo variety were selected from the overall Castillo pot for suitability in Colombia’s different regions, to take into account different elevations and climates. The FNC is aggressively promoting Castillo, primarily by means of the regional committees. (At a SENA session I attended the instructor asked the group of 20+ assembled coffee growers, “and what’s the best defense against the roya?” And all answered back in unison, “the variety.” Using resistant varieties as preemptive plague defense has been drilled into Colombians for decades).
And it more or less seems to be working. Colombian hillsides are covered with leafy green trees and are not stripped bare like the painful photos of what used to be beautiful Guatemalan and Nicaraguan farms. On a visit to the committee (to turn in the receipt from sale to the middleman to get the government subsidy, issued post strike negotiations, transferred to his Smart ID), an extensionist gave Luis a 1kg bag of Castillo seeds. (I immediately noticed the expiration date of April 27, 2013 stamped on the bag and asked the extensionist if he was just giving them to us because they were about to ‘go bad.’ He just laughed and told me that they were good for at least two months after the stamped date).
Luis didn’t push his luck; we made a ‘germinator’ a few days later. On his family’s finca the Castillo he’s already planted has held its own and been rust resistant while giving a decent production, comparable to the lots of Colombia and Caturra they also have.
The regional FNC committees are pretty generous with giving away Castillo seeds because they want to keep the variety varied and discourage farmers from saving their own Castillo seeds to germinate. The standard practice when selecting seeds to germinate and then renovate lots is to choose seeds from the heartiest, most productive trees. Castillo, being culled from the F5 generation, is a stable enough hybrid that its seeds can be germinated and yield kids similar to each other and their parent plant. But because Castillo is a very varied variety, not all off the trees give rock star production and some do grow in odd shapes. A farmer selecting Castillo seeds would obviously only pick from the rock stars, and the FNC wants to make sure that Castillo stays a very varied variety, weak links and all, to slow the roya’s process of mutating to attack it.
So Luis and I cracked open the bag of Castillo to soak overnight before sticking them in the seedbed. And the first thing we saw, broca.
Coffee’s high caffeine content is an effective defense against most pests, but the coffee berry borer- la broca– is as much of an addict as we are. The tiny black bug bores its way inside the coffee cherry and devours the bean, they lays tons of eggs in the space created. It prefers ripe fruit and can hang out for months in fallen, dried out cherries and wait for the good stuff. It flits from tree to tree and can infest an entire farm almost as quickly as the roya.
You can still roast, grind, and drink coffee attacked by broca, but the roast will be uneven and obviously it just won’t taste the same. Left unchecked, broca can literally consume the entire bean until there’s nothing left but a deformed brown shell that crumbles at the touch, but because it likes ripe cherries, it will often have just bored into the cherry when the cherry gets picked, translating to a black dot at one end of the dried bean, referred to as “bitten by broca.”
And when we opened that bag of FNC issued Castillo, there they were: a bunch of black-dotted, bitten-by-broca beans peeking out of the pile. Of course we sorted them out. Around 100g of the kilo was bitten. A 10% rate of broca infestation is about average for any coffee farm, but I was pretty appalled. If the FNC can’t get its plants and beans broca free, what chance does anyone else have?
The FNC, and Colombian growers in general, are pretty agrochemical-happy. (Like I said, maybe Juan should swap his poncho for a regulation orange chemical-applying jumpsuit if he really wants to rep his people).
The products that exist to control broca range from downright lethal to just household cleaner toxic. The ones most frequently used here are pretty middle of the road. Paying for agrochemicals to control broca is a fixed cost in every caficultor’s budget.
But because you can still sell broca-chowed beans (even if at a major discount), this is often a cost that gets eliminated when money is tight. Which is often. Broca chemical controls tend to be haphazard and therefore not as effective as they could be. Broca, like roya, travels via air, meaning that you can do everything right, but if your neighbor is not as motivated, your work can all be undone.
Coffee has been studied intensely for about 100 years through the lens of crop science, plant pathology, hybrid selection, cloning via embryogenesis, and in passive organic settings.
But there’s still a lot no one knows. So it’s back to the lab, back to the field, up to the mountain, and always adelante. There are lots of forces that seem pretty determined to destroy coffee right now. But we drinkers like it enough, and its growers are innovative enough that I, for one, am confident that it’s not going anywhere.