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