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How did Colombian coffee become a global standard?

Colombia was quick to understand the potential power of marketing in coffee circles, and it leveraged this to make its coffee the standard in the eyes of the world. In 1958, Juan Valdez was born.

The legendary Juan Valdez

Juan Valdez is a fictional character invented by Colombia’s coffee-growing federation, the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia (FNC). In creating Juan Valdez and his mule Conchita, the goal was to promote Colombian coffee via all kinds of advertising media, comparing 100% Colombian blends with coffee blends of mixed origin. Over time, Juan Valdez became a Colombian icon, and Colombian coffee likewise became all the rage in the United States. Finally, after hammering home slogans like “100 Colombian Coffee” and “Mountain Grown Coffee”, Colombia and its coffee earned a special place in the imagination of coffee-drinkers around the world. And they’re still just as popular!

The FNC, primary architect of Colombia’s success

The FNC was created in 1927 and has played a leading role in the prosperity of Colombia’s coffee-growing industry. The organization is unique, its size and complexity being unmatched anywhere in the world. While a number of countries have organizations engaged in coffee exports and promotion, none are involved in as many different fields as the FNC.

Initially created to defend coffee farmers’ interests, this private non-profit organization is funded through a tax levied on all coffee exports. Colombia is the world’s 3rd-ranking producer, so of course the FNC is very well funded. It is owned and managed by its 500,000 members, making it an enormous bureaucratic machine: it has to be, in order to work. While it is naturally heavily involved in everything related to finance and marketing, it also has a profound commitment to communities throughout the country. Building roads, schools and hospitals, as well as investing in related infrastructure: all of this makes it a major player in the country’s overall development.

 

A major player, but sometimes divisive

Not everyone in Colombia likes the FNC, and it has vocal critics. Some in the industry accuse the FNC of putting quantity ahead of quality. We’ll talk more about this in another blog; suffice it to say that the FNC has a research division, called Cenicafé, which works to create disease-resistant coffee varieties (through cross-breeding, for instance). The centre’s latest creation, Castillo, has been faulted for favouring quantity over in-cup quality. Unfortunately for its detractors, in the current context of climate change, diseases are spreading faster and more resistant varieties will soon be an unavoidable necessity.

Another point of contention touches us coffee-drinkers more closely. In the course of its efforts to promote Colombian coffee over the last near-century, the FNC created the terms “Supremo” and “Excelso”. It is vital to understand that these terms refer to bean size, not particular characteristics. The problem with these labels is coffee traceability. Coffee sold under these names may come from many different farms and be blended before being mechanically graded. These terms thus have no qualitative meaning and can provide no guidance when you’re buying coffee.

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