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Trip Report Colombia: Part 2

Zack Burnett

Words and photos by Zack Burnett

Flying.

Flying.

We left Bogotá for Armenia before first light.  Armenia, a city of about 300,000 people, is located in a part of Colombia known as the Coffee Axis.  The Coffee Axis is made up of the Caldas, Quindío and Risaralda departments and is famous for growing and producing the  majority of Colombian coffee.  The hills around Armeina are loaded with coffee and the town is home to many coffee mills and exporters.  We are in town to cup dozens of coffees with our exporter, Azahar, for a couple of days before heading out to meet growers.

Cupping coffee.

Cupping coffee.

During our time in Armenia, we identified four lots of coffee that we were interested in purchasing.  Most of the coffee we buy is sold in small amounts, called lots, for our purposes these amounts generally range from 5 - 30, 150 lb bags.  Whenever possible, these coffees are traced back to a single farmer.  At times, though, single farmers may be too small to produce one lot and their coffee is blended with others to create a single offering.  All of the coffee we buy in Colombia is traced back to specific farmers.  

Loading coffee for transport.

Loading coffee for transport.

Three of the coffees we purchased were from a region named Huila in southern Colombia and one was from the Meta region.  Much of the Meta region is covered in plane but there is one lone mountain separated from the Andean chain where coffee is grown and a small group of growers is producing some nice coffees in this area.  They are very small producers and many of their lots are only one to two bags.  In many areas of Meta coca is still one of the main cash crops being produced.  Because speciality coffee has recently been introduced to the area as an alternative to growing coca it's especially exciting to cup some nice coffees from these producers.  Most people growing coca do so out of necessity because of the limited opportunities available to make a living in other types of small-plot agriculture.  Speciality coffee, with it's generally higher return per hectare, can offer a sustainable living to farmers with the proper terrain and the desire to work inside the law.  The Meta region is still fairly unstable and we were only able to purchase one bag from this group so after two days of cupping we decided to forgo a trip to Meta and hopped on a plane to Neiva, the capital city of the Huila department. 

Coffee buyer in Garzón.

Coffee buyer in Garzón.

From Neiva we drove two and half hours to Garzón.  Garzón, a city of 80,000 people, is the agricultural hub for central Huila.  It sits in a valley between the Central and Eastern ranges of the Colombian Andes at around 2,700 feet above sea level.  We will make Garzón our base for the next couple of days while we visit with farmers in the surrounding area.  

Rio Magdalena.

Rio Magdalena.

The first morning in Garzón, we leave for Finca Salamina, the farm owned by Euripides Aldana.  Finca Salamina lies about an hour east of Garzón on the western front of the Eastern range of the Andes.  Leaving Garzón and heading into the hills, the dryness of the Huila region that we have passed through becomes much more green.  Driving up to Don Euripides' farm the lushness of the landscape surrounds us.  A whitewater river runs along the lefthand side of the road through a misty valley surrounded by deep green hills full of coffee and tropical vegetation.      

Euripides Aldana

Euripides Aldana

On the cupping table in Armenia, Don Euripides' Finca Salamina lots really wowed us.  We found sweet notes of vanilla and honey along with fruited tones of cantaloupe, fig, apple and purple grape.  A very sweet and elegant coffee.  Euripides is an impressive man.  At 91 years old he's twice as strong as many men half his age and is still very involved with the coffee production on his farm.  He's been a coffee producer for his entire life and he bought Finca Salamina in 1964.  The farm sits around 5,200 feet above sea level and it boarders a natural reserve called Páramo Miraflores.  The reserve creates a micro-climate on much of his land that results in slower photosynthesis and ripening in his plants.  His coffee cups like it has been grown at a much higher elevation due to the slow rate at which his coffee ripens.  

Euripides.

Euripides.

We walk Euripides' land with him and discuss his processing and drying methods.  He takes an old-school, yet intentional approach to producing coffee.  Many producers we buy from have more calculated and science-based method but proof is in the cup that the skills Euripides has developed over the decades of producing coffee serve him well.  After nearly 80 years of working with coffee he has developed a feel for what he does and his methods have produced one of the higher scoring coffees we've cupped in Colombia.  He tells us that he knows how the coffee wants to be treated and that he does what comes natural to him on his farm.  Euripides chalks a lot of his success at growing great coffee up to luck but it's not luck.  Eight decades of practice, an intrinsic ability to keep happy plants and produce nice coffees, and a well positioned plot of land are the keys to Euripides' success.  This is our first year working with Euripides and we are very excited to bring his coffee on to our offerings.  After an afternoon an Finca Salamina, we say our goodbyes to Euripides and head back down the mountain for Garzón.  

Chiva bus in Garzón.

Chiva bus in Garzón.

The next morning we are headed to see two more producers near the town of Pital on the eastern front of the Central mountain range.  The drive up into the mountains on this range is much drier than the drive to Euripides'.  Sandy soil, cacti, low trees and scrub make up the landscape. The paved road ends about an hour outside of Garzón.  Leaving the pavement, the trip turns dusty.  We drive another hour or so into the mountains before the dry landscape turns more green.  Sitting on the leeward side of the mountain range, this area is usually dry, but this year the area is also experiencing a severe drought.  The rivers along this road are all just about dry.  We pass vultures surrounding livestock, dead of thirst.  Three hours after leaving Garzón, we arrive to the first farm of the day.  

Finca La Candela

Finca La Candela

Finca La Candela is owned by Jorge Antonio Falla.  The farm sits at 6,200 feet above sea level and is planted mostly in Caturra.  We meet Jorge and his brother Freddy at their wet mill located on the farm.  Jorge, Freddy and a handful of other family members built the mill and use it to process coffees from multiple farms all owned by members of the extended family.  The mill is new and very clean.

Wet mill at Finca La Candela.

Wet mill at Finca La Candela.

Talking with Jorge it's apparent that he's passionate about what he does.  He tells us how his love for coffee is what drives him to do his very best and to keep progressing every year.  We speak with Jorge about his processes and his vision.  He wants every year to produce better coffee than the last and to institute more technology in his, already meticulous, processes.  

Jorge (right) and Freddy (left) Falla.

Jorge (right) and Freddy (left) Falla.

Jorge has benefited from his desire to produce a great product.  His coffee demands higher prices than many of his neighbors and he and his farm are beginning to gain recognition in the industry.  His goal is to work with a handful of quality focused roasters around the world and for the people who consume the product that he grows to know where and who it came from.  It's exciting speaking with Jorge as so many of his thoughts on coffee are directly aligned with ours.  

Jorge Falla

Jorge Falla

We pluck ripe coffee cherries from a few trees and eat them while walking the farm and Jorge asks how his coffee tasted back in Armenia.  We tell him it was silky and floral toned with notes of peach, dulce de leche and apple.  Jorge smiles, "ah durazno", and his eyes show his satisfaction with what he's produced.   With that, we shake hands exchange contact info and promise feedback once the coffee arrives stateside.  We are looking forward to introducing you to Jorge's coffee later this winter.  You're gonna love it!      

Falla family farms.  Finca La Candela is at bottom center.

Falla family farms.  Finca La Candela is at bottom center.

From Finca Candela we wind our way through more dirt roads, countryside and small towns known locally as "veredas".  These veredas are made up of clusterings of small homes, a church, a general store, maybe a bar and a tejo court.  The area is rural and many of the local people survive through sustenance farming and small commercial agriculture.  After 45 minutes of driving we arrive at Finca El Higuron.    

Vereda Minas, Pital.

Vereda Minas, Pital.

Alvaro Sarrias owns Finca El Higuron.  The farm has an average altitude of 5,575 feet above sea level and is planted mostly in Caturra.  Parts of El Higuron are the steepest coffee plots we've ever visited.  The farm extends on either side of the main road and on one side of the road coffee is planted up to the top of a very steep hillside that reaches 500 feet above the vereda below.  The hillside where the coffee is planted has got to be at a 60 degree grade.  The dirt is loose and dry and parts of the hike we pull ourselves up with our hands and feet.  

From the top.

From the top.

Following Alvaro up, it's obvious that he's made this daily hike for years.  He's quick, the altitude doesn't faze him and he never loses his footing.  The lot our coffee comes from sits at the top of the hill and once to the top we are beat and it takes a good while to catch our breath.  It's hard to imagine anyone navigating this terrain with 50-100 pounds of coffee cherries on their back.  We ask Alvaro about this and he agrees that it's very difficult.  Alvaro pays his harvesters an incentive to pick coffee on his farm because he knows it can be difficult to find people to work in such demanding conditions. 

Coffee cherries.

Coffee cherries.

At the top of the hill we check out the coffee and speak with Alvaro about his plants, growing and harvesting methods and about the drought in the region.  When he asks what we think of his coffee we tell him it's beautiful and smells like flowers while tasting like pie spices and orange cream.  We admire the view from the top before heading back down the hill for the Sarrias' home.  Our legs are on fire as we come out of the hills and walk down the relatively flat dirt road.     

Photo time.

Photo time.

We arrive at Alvaro's home where his wife and oldest daughter greet us with fresh fruit juice.  They are obviously amused by our ragged looks after the tough hike.  Alvaro, on the other hand, isn't winded and hasn't broken a sweat.  Alvaro's wife prepared lunch while we walked the farm.  We all take photos together and speak a bit about where we are from and what we do and then join the Sarrias' family for lunch.   Roasted chicken quarters, rice, black beans, plantains, yucca and fruit juice make the meal.  Mrs. Sarrias is a good cook and everything is beautifully prepared.  We speak a bit more during lunch, the mountain stream that runs behind the house muffles our conversation.      

Mr and Mrs. Sarrias

Mr and Mrs. Sarrias

After lunch we say our thank yous and good byes and then begin the two hour drive back to Garzón.  As we drive it starts to rain for the first time in months.  

Chiva.

Chiva.

Our time in Colombia was not only extremely productive, it was a whole lot of fun.  We are very excited to bring you some really beautiful coffees from three producers we are just beginning to purchase from along with some stellar offerings from some of our first direct source partners, La Palma y El Tucan.  We really hope that you will enjoy all of these coffees over the coming months.  We look forward to developing all of these relationships over the years and to continuing to offer you all some absolutely stunning Colombian coffees.   

Trip Report Colombia: Part 1

Zack Burnett

Words and photos by Zack Burnett

Lake Guatavita.

Lake Guatavita.

In August we spent a week in Colombia catching up with some producers we've been working with in Cundinamarca for the past few years, La Palma y El Tucan, and also to developing some new relationships with producers and suppliers in other regions of the large county.

After landing in Bogotá we find a taxi at the airport and drive east for an hour or so in rush hour traffic into the city center.  Bogotá is an incredible city of around 8 million people located on a high plateau at over 8,000 feet above sea level in the Colombian Andes.  Mountains towering over 10,000 feet mark the eastern boundary of the city.  It's nice coming to Bogotá in August.  The sweltering Florida heat is replaced by the cool weather of such a high altitude.  Sunny, 65 degrees with a low of 45.  As much as we'd love to explore the many districts of Bogotá, this time it's just a layover for an early morning departure to the farm.

Colombian farmland.

Colombian farmland.

It's a Sunday morning and after a full Colombian breakfast we are on the road to the La Palma y El Tucan farm and processing mill.  The Bogotá city center gives way slowly to business centers then industrial zones and then finally the country.  Leaving the capitol we drive down from the plateau and then back up into picturesque, pastoral mountains.  The roads are great and winding as hell.  The views on either side are unbelievable.        

Zipacón.

Zipacón.

We pass mostly through countryside before stopping in the small farming town of Zipacón for a snack of corn cakes and a sweet oat smoothy.  After passing several more small agricultural towns and a bunch of empty countryside and farmland we arrive at the La Palma y El Tucan farm.    

La Palma y El Tucan farm.

La Palma y El Tucan farm.

We last visited the farm around two years ago.  At that time much of the farm had recently been planted in coffee.  The small shrubs of a couple of years ago have grown considerably, many stand around 6 feet tall and bushy.  Felipe Sardi and Elisa Madriñán, the owners of La Plama y El Tucan planted the whole farm in heirloom varietals of pure arabica coffee.  The plants on the farm are absolutely beautiful and so healthy.  

Super healthy SL-28 coffee trees.

Super healthy SL-28 coffee trees.

You can tell at first glance that this coffee was planted with intention and is looked after with care.  If you've ever grown an heirloom plant varietal, whether it be tomatoes, carrots or roses, you will know that these pants are more prone to pests and disease than their hybridized relatives.  But people continue to grow these old varieties of plants because the products are almost always higher than that of hybrids.  Coffee is no different.  To get great results out of heirloom coffee it takes great care in planting and maintaining the farm.  Lower yield makes it necessary to command a higher price per pound, so the quality has to justify that.  Diseases and pests pose a great risk if the coffee is not cared for.  It's risky but when you love your land and plants as much as Felipe, Elisa and the rest of the La Palma y Tucan crew clearly do, the risks are mitigated and the rewards are distinctly phenomenal.     

Coffee blossoms.

Coffee blossoms.

After widespread plant disease affected Colombian farmers in the late 1970's the majority of Colombia is planted in what are broadly termed "Timor hybrids", such plants are arabica and robusta species of coffee that have been crossed to increase yield and resistance (robusta) while maintaining a nice cup quality (arabica).  Theoretically these plants pose less risk for farmers while allowing them to produce more coffee.  The problem is that these coffees are oftentimes not treated to the best agricultural practices or harvested properly.  For the most part they do not produce as nice of a cup as pure arabica varietals.  But the heightened disease resistance and larger yield are not usually disputed, so in recent years many producers have looked at more ways to increase the quality of the cup from these cross-species coffees.  We'll discuss more on this later, but we've found in some recent cuppings that some producers have "cracked the code" on producing excellent timor hybrids.     

Cabin at La Palma y El Tucan.

Cabin at La Palma y El Tucan.

After a hike through the property and into the fields, we are shown our cabins.  Traveling to source coffee will put you into all sorts of sleeping arrangements.  These range from the back of a truck or rooms that lack windows, power and running water to peoples homes and sometimes western-style hotels in cities.  Whatever the situation, it's always welcomed and appreciated at the end of a day.  And being invited into someone's home to share coffee, meals and rest is one of the most special experiences we have in this wonderful industry that is specialty coffee.  The cabins at La Palma y El Tucan have to be one of the most unique experiences in coffee travel.  These elegant cabins are situated right in the coffee fields and are being made ready to receive guests from outside the industry.  Coffee enthusiasts will soon be able to sleep among the trees and have the full farm experience.  Read more about that here.     

Walking the farm.

Walking the farm.

After settling in we have a dinner of caldo gallina, rice and beans, avocado and Poker beer.  Nectar aguardiente for a night cap and off to an early sleep to wake early so we can cup coffees and visit other areas of the farm and the processing mill.   

La Palma y El Tucan wet mill.

La Palma y El Tucan wet mill.

The wet mill and cupping lab are situated across a river from the cabins.  It is a nice walk down through the farm and across the river to the other side.  There are distinct micro-climiates that can be felt when walking through the land.  We visit the wet mill before cupping.  Wet milling in coffee is the stage where the coffee seed (bean) is removed from the coffee cherry.  La Palma y El Tucan are experts in coffee processing.  

Floating cherries and measuring Brix.

Floating cherries and measuring Brix.

Felipe and Elisa process all of their coffees according to the specific flavor profile they are looking for in the cup.  They experiment with progressive fermentation methods (the method in which the sticky mucilage is removed from the coffee seed) that create distinct cup profiles for all of their coffees.  The La Palma y El Tucan coffees are routinely the most mind blowing coffees we taste every year.  These coffees are wild while at the same time showing restraint and nuance.  They all possess such a resonant sweetness and complexity along with mouth filling body.  A lot of this can be attributed to perfect picking and sorting of coffee cherries and then the scientific processes they develop and implement at the wet mill.  

Felipe checking the drying beds.

Felipe checking the drying beds.

The folks at La Palma y El Tucan are as meticulous with the drying of their coffee as they are with the wet milling.  These guys nail this process and this results in coffees that really shine for months after harvest.  

Drying beds as seen from the wet mill.

Drying beds as seen from the wet mill.

After visiting the met mill, we make our way to the cupping lab to see what this year's harvest has resulted in.  We have been purchasing coffees from a program that La Palma y El Tucan run called "Neighbors and Crops", for the past 3 years.  With this program, La Palma y El Tucan purchase coffee cherries from their neighbors and process them at their mill.  The purchasing model for coffee has many differences in every county we visit.  In Colombia, farmers usually sell parchment coffee (coffee that has been wet milled and dried) to co-ops or private buyers.  The growers are responsible for processing their own coffee.  There are positive and negative aspects of this model, just like with every model, but many small farmers can struggle with processing.  

Cupping coffee.

Cupping coffee.

When Felipe and Elisa set up La Palma y El Tucan they decided to change the traditional model of coffee trade in their area.  They started buying cherries from growers who's land is situated in ideal areas for coffee production.  They trained a team of harvesters to harvest the coffee to their standards and they began processing coffee cherries in experimental ways to add value to the coffees that were already being produced in their region.  The farmers who are part of the program, most of which are over 70 years old, get paid a good price for the cherries that are grown on their farm and they no longer have to worry about hiring and overseeing people to harvest and process their coffee.  The resulting coffees as we've already mentioned, are spectacular!  We purchased two lots of coffee from La Palma y El Tucan this harvest.  They will show up on our offerings later this winter and if you've been in the shops, you may have had a chance to try a sneak peak of one of these coffees already.     

Lunch!

Lunch!

We have lunch after cupping and then head back to Bogotá.  We say goodbye to our friends, until next year, and prepare to leave for a the city of Armenia in the Quindio department in the morning. 

Check back for part 2 soon!

Guatemala Trip Report: Part 3

Zack Burnett

Words and photos by Zack Burnett.

Sample Roaster

Sample Roaster

From Cobán we fly back to Guatemala city to roast and cup the samples we had picked-up from producers during our trip so far.  We will be cupping at Su Beneficio, a dry mill located in a suburb of Guatemala City.  The mill houses a cupping lab where hundreds if not thousands of lots of coffee are cupped each harvest as well as advanced machinery for milling, sorting and bagging coffees from all over the country.  This is where the coffees we buy will  be prepared for exportation.  We cup around 70 coffees from Huehuetenango, Cobán, Acatenango, San Marcos and Fraijanes.  There are several coffees from Huehue that impress us along with some offerings from Don Beto in Fraijanes, a farmer we have work with in the past.  We end up buying three lots from 3 Huehue producers; ASODIETT, a co-operative coffee from Todos Santos, Finca El Limonar from Rogelio Aguirre Ovalle in La Libertad and Finca La Esperanza from Aurelio Villatoro in Hoja Blanca.  We are interested in 2 lots from Don Beto and we plan a trip to his farm for the following day.         

Drying patios at Don Beto's Finca San Patricio el Limón 

Drying patios at Don Beto's Finca San Patricio el Limón 

It's a pretty quick drive from the city up to Don Beto's farm right outside the town of Palencia.  After navigating the congested traffic of the city, the road slowly gives way to a semi-arid countryside.  It's very dry this time of year in this part of Guatemala and the countryside of rolling golden hills looks similar to that of rural Central California.  The climate changes noticeably as we near Don Beto's farm and the land starts to look more green.  We arrive at Finca San Patricio El Limón a couple of hours before dark and Don Beto is at the wet-mill to greet us.     

Raking coffee.

Raking coffee.

Don Beto is excited to show us improvements he has made on his farm since we last visited.  We quickly jump in his truck and begin a tour of his 150 acre farm.  Don Beto is an energetic man and he is constantly looking for ways to increase the quality of his already very good production.  One of the reasons we look to continue working with Beto aside from his great coffee is the fact that he is always looking to progress in everything he does on the farm.  This includes keeping detailed notes on processing so he can improve his methods every year, planting varietals that are well suited to his land and possess great cup qualities, and implementing smart methods and technology into his farming methods.

New coffee land.

New coffee land.

We check on lots that we purchased the past year to see how the harvest is coming along this year.  Beto's plants look healthy and the coffee fruit tastes sweet.  His farm has largely escaped a disease called coffee rust has terribly affected coffee growers throughout Central America for the past couple of years.  It's a tough disease to manage and it can be detrimental to the health of the plants and the livelihood of coffee farmers.  Beto, however, has done a great job of controlling the disease on his farm with proper planting practices and plant management.  We climb in altitude as the drive takes us through the farm.  At the highest point Beto is preparing land to plant more Pacamara coffee trees.  He has terraced the land in rows and has also installed drip irrigation on this piece of land.  The terraces will allow more nutrients to be kept by the coffee plants rather than running down the hill.  With drip irrigation, something very uncommon on coffee farms, Beto will be able to control how much water his plants get through the dry season.  The soil has been prepared on this lot using natural amendments to enrich it's health and Beto has spaces the trees comfortably apart and planted shade trees throughout the lot.  Proper plant spacing will create happy plants and will help Beto continue to control plant diseases on his farm.  

Cherry delivery.

Cherry delivery.

The tour of the farm ends back at the wet-mill.  The day's delivery of cherries has arrived just as we do.  Tonight the men will be processing red and yellow bourbon.  We watch as three men unload bag after bag of cherries into the tanks at the top of the mill.  

Coffee cherries.

Coffee cherries.

The cherries are unloaded at the top and moved with recycled water through channels first to a floating tank where the undeveloped and over ripe cherries will float to the top along with leaves and sticks and the ripe coffee cherries will sink.  The "floaters" are separated and the ripe coffee gets sent to the de-pupler."

Don Beto and the float/separation tank.

Don Beto and the float/separation tank.

After the ripe cherries are depulped, the mucilage covered seeds are sent to the fermentation tanks with water through PVC pipes.  The coffee at Don Beto's farm is wet-fermented, which means the coffee seeds will soak in the fermentation tanks with water for an amount of time until all of the mucilage covering the seeds breaks down.  This time can vary depending on weather.  Cooler weather necessitates a longer fermentation time and the fermentation will occur in a shorter period of time in warmer weather.    

Wet mill.  Fermentation tanks in foreground.  Density sorter and de-pulper in background.

Wet mill.  Fermentation tanks in foreground.  Density sorter and de-pulper in background.

Beto closely monitors the fermentation process as it greatly impacts the quality of coffee in the cup.  Over fermentation can result in vinegary or rotten tasting coffee.  Under fermentation can leave too much mucilage on the bean.  This can lead to the mucilage rotting on the coffee as it drys.  This too will result in a rotten fruit taste in the cup.  Fermentation is one of the most important steps in coffee processing.  Average fermentation time for Don Beto is 18 hours.

Don Beto's Fermentation Tanks.

Don Beto's Fermentation Tanks.

After fermentation is complete the tanks are drained and the coffee is moved to drying patios.  The coffee will dry on patios for anywhere between 2 and 3 weeks depending on weather. Proper drying ensures positive flavor attributes will be preserved in the coffee beans.  Improper drying will result in cardboardy, earthy or mildew-like flavors in the cup.  For optimal results, the coffee must be dried to a moisture content between 10 and 11%.   Once the coffee is dried it is sent to a dry mill in Guatemala City.  At the dry mill the coffee will be de-hulled from the papery parchment layer that covers the seed and then it'll be sorted by density, color and by hand.  It will then be bagged and ready for export.  

Don Beto's Drying Patios

Don Beto's Drying Patios

The day ends with dinner at Beto's home with his family.  Don Beto is pround of his wife's cooking and rightly so.  We enjoy each other's company over a meal of grilled steak, rice and beans, plantains, salsa and queso blanco.  After dinner we head back to the city and the next morning head home.