Innovation: Leaving the Comfort Zone
My career with coffee officially started in 2003. By then, I was working with the indigenous Arawak people of northern Colombia helping to devise a plan to fund their cultural permanence project. During the planning process, we found that coffee would be the best alternative crop for generating income and for gaining autonomy. So, we took on the task of commercializing their produce as an organic, indigenous coffee, processed at origin.
Today, after 12 years of working as a consultant in the specialty coffee industry, I have witnessed on countless occasions how the processes that coffee is subjected to are most of the time a thoughtless replica of how previous generations have processed coffee according to the challenges of their time. For example, the design of the cylindrical depulper we use today has remained largely unchanged since it was invented around 1800. Examples are numerous. Fermentation has traditionally been thought of as a way to remove the mucilage, without many questions about the microbiological realities of the process and the impact on the sweetness and acidity of our coffee, even though we now know that these attributes can be modulated through careful control of these processes. We see how the use of drying patios remains even when it has been proven that they pose a great risk of crystallization of the bean or nonuniform drying at the least.
The above are just some examples of practices that operate within a particular context, and have been inherited from generation to generation. Apparently, we keep the ways of yesteryear because as we learn from our elders, we think that if it worked for them, surely it will work for us. For many it is not easy to change the “chip”; to reassess the conditioning that we all have, and to leave our comfort zone to explore the unknown dimension. Innovation is a necessary act of bravery.
However, today the context is different! The input costs for producing coffee are disproportionately higher, and volatilization in the international price of coffee is overwhelming. Climate change presents new challenges (new rhythms, new pests). Advances in science give us a new understanding of things and opens up new possibilities, while technological advances accelerate all process and information saturates us at an unprecedented rate.
The consumer seeks new experiences around their everyday life and producers are obliged to seek differentiation. Although conventional coffee still accounts for over 75% of worldwide trade, this high-production, high-input model where the coffee has no face nor origin nor destination is giving way to a model where the control of costs is the priority; Today, very few companies have the financial might to support the model of large volume coffee production. It seems that the only way out is to change the mindset of the vast majority of coffee growers and buyers alike –the way in which they process and pay for coffee– from a focus on the quantity, to a focus on a good quantity of quality coffee, remembering that at the end of the day coffee is sold not only for its flavor, but also because coffee humanizes and emotionally links a world disjointed from hyperglobalization.
Therefore, at La Palma & El Tucan, we bet on innovation. Here, there is no mambo jambo; we understand that the possibility of maintaining long-term, close relationships with those who promote and enjoy our coffee depends on us being able to standardize our processes. Though there will always be slight biological variation because they are living processes, we know that those who buy our coffee need consistency.
So, from the moment we conceived this project, we sought to implement new genetic varieties, we took on the task of knowing everything we could about our terroir, we began to evaluate the adaptability of new botanical varieties, and we understood what our environmental conditions brought to our farm. We dove into processing at the mill. The coffee cherry that they pick for quantity, we test for quality and performance at each stage of processing. For consistency and to build performance indicators, we study and integrate the advances of other disciplines and other production chains.
To fulfill our purpose, we have standardized new ways of fermenting coffee to modulate sensory profiles, and provide a different experience for buyers. We are pioneers: we seek solutions to new problems because we realize that we could not expect new and better results replicating the solutions of yesteryear.
This is not to assert that the traditional way is evil, but that it is to be evaluated and integrated to face the challenges imposed by a change in the context in which the tradition was designed. We believe it is a historic duty to investigate, study, be interdisciplinary, and integrate new approaches.
The radical purism has no place in this world of constant change. It is okay to respect the traditions and ways of old, but these should be integrated and adapted for new contexts. No extremism: we must find a balance. Let’s open our minds, jump into the void outside of the comfort zone, and along the way discover a new coffee paradigm.