Deciding which coffee variety to plant is one of the most important choices a coffee grower makes. In Nariño, Colombia farmers generally choose between Caturra, which is considered to have excellent cup quality but is highly susceptible to diseases including coffee leaf rust, and Castillo, a newer hybrid created to maximize yields, disease resistance and quality.
Castillo has been widely promoted by the Colombian Coffee Federation; approximately 2.4 billion Castillo trees have been planted since 2008. Since its release, however, U.S. specialty coffee leaders have called into question Castillo’s cup quality. Until now, no rigorous, independent analysis existed to guide decision-makers about what coffee variety to plant, promote and buy.
A rigorous comparative sensory analysis of Castillo and Caturra would inform decision-making at multiple levels and provide insight about the impact of coffee genetics, or variety, on quality traits.
In 2014, samples were collected from 22 farms growing both varieties under similar agroecological conditions. They were harvested and processed identically and strictly separated throughout the harvest and post-harvest processes. Samples were evaluated by coffee buyers from some of the most important coffee organizations in the Americas, and by trained sensory scientists using the WCR Coffee Lexicon.
In Nariño, Castillo can be good. Very good. In fact, there was no statistically significant difference in overall cupping scores between the two varieties (average score: 86) or the rate at which they fade. But this doesn’t mean they are the same: The Lexicon analysis revealed that good Castillo tastes fruity but not citrusy, with notes of dark chocolate and roasted nuts. Good Caturra tastes floral with notes of cocoa and caramel.
The results strongly suggest that cup scores and sensory attributes were more correlated with environment and management than variety. In Nariño at least, growers interested in quality premiums may achieve bigger quality gains through improvements in soil fertility, shade management, harvesting and post-harvest practices than by choosing one variety over another. The rest are likely better off farming Castillo, which offers significantly higher yields, disease resistance, and no inherent difference in quality.
The results have major implications 3 key levels:
The Colombia Sensory Trial was the first rigorous scientific study to apply the WCR Lexicon and prove its value. Cuppers failed to generate statistically signficant separation between the scores they gave Castillo and Caturra, but the sensory analysts using the lexicon in establishing a statistically significant difference between the qualitative descriptors associated on the one hand with good Castillo–well managed, harvested and processed–and those associated on the other with good Caturra.