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The FNC weighs-in on the Castillo vs Caturra debate

From the July 2015 issue.

A new sensory trial shows that rust-resistant Castillo can achieve quality scores equal to that of Caturra when grown in similar conditions.

The success of the Colombian coffee industry’s response to the 2008 rust outbreak has been nothing short of extraordinary.

In the five years following the outbreak, the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) led a crop renovation program that saw the replacement of some 3.3 billion coffee trees, as of May 2015, with rust-resistant varieties, and Colombia’s return to its long-held position as the world’s leading producer of mild washed Arabica.

However, despite its success, the program has not been free of controversy.

Key to the FNC’s strategy of equipping its farmers for a world in which coffee leaf rust is a present and potentially devastating reality, was the introduction of the rust-resistant Castillo variety in place of the traditional Caturra.

Yet, there have been some rumblings among farmers and buyers alike that the Castillo tree cannot produce coffee of equal quality to that of Caturra.

The FNC has always maintained that this was not true. But now an independent sensory trial conducted by Catholic Relief Services (CRS), in collaboration with the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, World Coffee Research, and Songer & Associates, supports the FNC’s position.

These trials, the findings of which were presented at the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Annual Symposium in Seattle in April, show that while there are differences in flavour between the two varieties, there are no significant differences in the overall quality.

Chief Communications Officer of the FNC Luis Samper says that while his organisation was always confident of the quality of Castillo relative to Caturra, he understands where these concerns have come from.

“When rust arrived in Colombia back in the 1980s, it had an impact on plantations at altitudes lower than 1600 metres,” Samper says. “So growers never needed to change their Caturra trees at high altitude because rust wasn’t a problem for them. So people tended to compare a high altitude Caturra with the Castillo grown at low altitude and then they assumed that the difference was the variety.”

However, it is well known that plants grown at higher altitude produce a sweeter fruit.

This is because, in order to survive the greater range of temperatures they are subjected to at high altitudes, the cherries tend to take longer to mature and produce more sugars, which protect them against the lower temperatures experienced overnight at high altitude.

“In the industry, however, this kind of apples to apples comparison was never done, giving rise to the differences of opinion about the relative quality of Castillo versus Caturra,” Samper says.

The FNC spent 15 years developing the Castillo variety out of a process of cross-breeding the Timor Hybrid – which is itself a natural hybrid of Arabica and Robusta – with Caturra, focusing on introducing the size and rust-resistance of the former while retaining the quality of the latter.

“There was a lot of scientific work that went into developing that variety,” Samper says. “The process of trial and error is narrowed versus the previous generation of varieties because we have so many more techniques. We have the genomic information. So we use all of these tools in a much more efficient way and we can be much more sure of the results.”

Despite the level of scientific knowledge that went into the process, the FNC still only settled on the Castillo variety after five generations of breeding and trials.

One of the participants in the study, Michael Sheridan of Catholic Relief Services, says that while there are differences in the flavour between the two varieties, overall the two fare the same in sensory trials.

In his own blog on the results of the trial, Sheridan notes that: “A good Castillo was fruity but not citric, with notes of dark chocolate and roasted nuts, while a good Caturra was floral with cocoa and caramel notes.”

He adds: “There was no statistically significant difference in the average scores that the two varieties earned during the cupping panels. And the cupping panel data showed that there was no statistically significant difference between the average scores for any of the specific sensory categories included in the analysis.”

Samper says that while most of the industry has been very welcoming of the new variety, there have been some pockets of resistance.

“The big brands, both mainstream and specialty, did their homework and saw that there wasn’t a problem,” he says. “The small, very high-end segment had more reservations. They probably didn’t have the means to do the full comparisons to get all of the information that they needed.”

This information, Samper says, is about the relative impact that genetics makes on cup quality compared to environmental factors.

“It’s understandable, because you are starting with the premise that genetics makes a huge difference, but then you are looking at what the genetic differences are between Castillo and Caturra and they are actually very small,” he says. “Our research has shown that the primary difference in cup quality is not due to those small genetic differences – it is due to the environmental factors.”

This resistance also extended to some farmers, who were nervous about the impact that a move to Castillo could have on their business.

“If you’re asking a farmer to plant a new variety that he or she doesn’t know, it is a big, big decision,” Samper says. “It’s a big financial decision because you probably have to take a loan and sacrifice the next 18 months’ or two years’ income because that tree’s only going to produce after that time.”

While the FNC has been at pains to make it clear to farmers that there are no rules dictating which variety they have to plant, the rust outbreak has shown that Caturra is particularly vulnerable, and therefore can pose a significant economic risk to farmers.

“We are not in the business of saying that Caturra is bad. That is not the case. What we are saying is that for sustainability and for quality, Castillo performs better,” Samper says. “If they find a buyer who is willing to compensate for those risks [associated with Caturra] care of a higher price, that is their decision – there is no such thing as a variety police in Colombia.”

Given that Castillo has only been grown at high altitude since the rust outbreak around 2008-09, there has only been mature Castillo grown at altitude to compare with Caturra very recently.

“This apple-to-apple comparison has only been possible in the last couple of years,” Samper says.

And since, the Castillo variety has proved itself on the world market, with the rust-resistant variety even featuring in a winning lot at the Cup of Excellence auctions.

“We had many people who couldn’t believe it,” Samper says. “It was so ingrained in peoples’ minds that they couldn’t consider the possibility that this could happen.” GCR

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