Words and photos by Zack Burnett
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.