The choice of coffee variety affects a coffee’s flavour, growing conditions, roast profile, and more – which makes the release of a new Colombian variety, Cenicafé 1, an exciting moment.
Agronomist Claudia Florez, PhD in Plant Breeding, works with the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) and their research centre Cenicafé. She kindly agreed to talk to me about this new variety.
The early stages of a coffee plant. Credit: Dogs Drink Coffee
Why Are New Varieties Being Created?
According to World Coffee Research (WCR), “new varieties are needed, and needed quickly, to meet the challenges of the 21st century – changing weather patterns, increased temperatures, and new disease and insect prevalence.”
As weather patterns change, often growing warmer, the land available for farming Arabica is starting to shrink. And with temperatures rising on the farms, certain varieties more suited to cool temperatures will struggle to grow. What’s more, pests that previously couldn’t survive at high altitudes, thanks to the cold climates, will now thrive there. Weaker trees and stronger pests is a dangerous combination.
WCR makes the point that, as the amount of Arabica decreases, coffee will need to become more productive to keep up with the market demand. But this issue extends far beyond productivity. It represents lost farmland and crops for producers, unless they can find alternative varieties that are more suited to these new conditions.
In addition, Arabica coffee is currently dangerously homogeneous. With little genetic variability between varieties, the species is more vulnerable to climate change, pests, diseases, and more.
Ideally, new varieties would offer not just genetic variability but also quality, productivity, and hardiness – a golden trio that is hard to achieve. This would help producers to avoid the risks of crop failure, pests, and diseases, while also facilitating access to the higher-paying specialty market.
Coffee cherries ripen on the branch. Credit: John Espitia
Cenicafé 1 vs Caturra
Cenicafé 1 is the latest variety created by the FNC and Cenicafé. The FNC has a history of creating new varieties, from Colombia to Castillo, that are rust-resistant. Each new variety is an attempt to further improve the options on offer to producers.
Cenicafé 1 took 20 years of research to create. Claudio tells me that the aim was to provide a solution for Colombian coffee growers who wanted Caturra-like trees that were also rust-resistant.
Caturra is a common dwarf tree throughout Latin America, and it has average yield, average quality, and average bean size. Its smaller size allows for easier management and denser planting. However, it’s also susceptible to rust.
Cenicafé 1, Claudia explains, is a cross between Caturra and the Timor Hybrid 1343. As part of its Coffee Breeding Strategy, Cenicafé originally selected 116 advanced progenies from this cross. From these 116, they continued to narrow down the progenies until they had their new variety, recently made available for distribution.
It’s resistant not just to leaf rust but also the Coffee Berry Disease, a fungus that lives in the bark of coffee trees. The fungus’ spores then attack the coffee cherries. While this disease is not currently an issue in Colombia, affecting primarily African coffee crops, the FNC and Cenicafé want to plan ahead in case it ever does spread to Latin America.
Cenicafé 1 also has Castillo-level yield, a large average bean size, and has received specialty-grade scores on the cupping table, according to the FNC. Let’s take a more detailed look at it.
A producer examines soil on his farm. Credit: Jhon Espitia
Cenicafé 1: An In-Depth Look
Claudia tells me that Cenicafé 1 can be grown all over Colombia, something demonstrated by regional testing. What’s more, it can be planted at a density of 10,000 trees per hectare without shade or 5,000–7,000 trees per hectare under shade, thanks to its Caturra-like structure. This high density will allow farmers greater harvests from smaller amounts of land.
Per tree, Claudia continues, it produces 17.6 kg of cherries during a cycle of four harvests – a yield that is similar to Castillo. This will further increase farmers’ harvests.
And of this harvest, Cenicafé surveys found that producers could expect 84% of the beans to be screen size 18, which will lead to Supremo status. In turn, this can lead to higher prices. The ICO advises that, “while there are numerous exceptions, there would… appear to be a loose correlation between size, density, and sensory quality.” In contrast to Cenicafé 1, Cenicafé surveys find that Castillo harvests are 79% supremo and Caturra 54%.
Claudia also tells me that initial cuppings of Cenicafé 1 have resulted in cup scores of 84, and a panel in Caldas Department found notes of cocoa, honey, and hazelnut. She reminds me, however, that quality is complex and cannot be determined by the variety alone: farming practices, terroir, processing, and more also have an impact on the final coffee quality.
Cenicafé 1 grows in a nursery. Credit: Coffeeland
Farming Cenicafé 1
As a newly released variety, producers have not yet been able to grow, harvest, and cup their own Cenicafé 1 crops. However, Jairo Lopez, a Colombian producer, tells me that he is interested in it. He expects it to have a similar cup profile to Castillo and likes the fact that it is leaf rust and Coffee Berry Disease resistant.
Claudia tells me that four tons of seeds will be equally distributed throughout the country this year. There are also three 10-hectare lots across three locations dedicated to sowing it.
A Colombian coffee plantation. Credit: Angie Molina
Cenicafé hopes that this new coffee variety will offer producers freedom from the worry of coffee leaf rust or low yields, while also allowing them to access the specialty market. They feel confident that consumers will appreciate the sweet and nutty flavour profile it offers.
But Claudia emphasises that, no matter the variety, it’s important that farmers pay attention to sowing density, crop management, fertilisation (ideally based on soil analysis), weed management, pest control, and more.
Seed selection is a crucial part of farming – but it’s only the beginning of producing a great coffee.
Written by Angie Molina.
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