A really pretty one eared doggie at a coffee farm in Tolima.
Fresh crop Colombias are in at Dogwood so I guess it's about time to do a brief recap of my first trip there, which was last July. We've been buying from the same growers for a little over two years now and as Colombia has now become the country with the second most volume for us, it was time to visit. My trip started off pretty miserably… I left my card in an ATM and had to have someone speed to the airport to bring me a handful of cash. Ridiculous. For all the time I spend being neurotic about trips—what to bring, what not to bring, preparing myself for social interactions and the pressure of making huge purchasing decisions based off my tongue, I still seem to have something go terribly wrong every other trip. This particular trip had already been rescheduled from March when we had to cancel because of the Colombian coffee growers strike (read a pretty good summary of the situation here.) The low coffee prices have been extremely difficult for growers, and in the past year the cost of production has dipped below the price that growers can sell their coffee for. It’s not good really for either end of the market—and the strike last year in Colombia is a clear sign of the seriousness of the situation.
Just a nice view from the farm of one of the producers of El Meridiano.
Colombia has quickly become one of my favorite countries for coffee. The coffees are bright, bursting with pungent fruit, sometimes softer with sweet toffee flavors and really great complexity. These are some of the flavors that are sought after in good Colombian coffee, but are generally not what people who are new to “specialty” coffee expect. Colombia is one of the largest producers of Arabica coffee in the world, and with volume always comes a lot of variation in quality. The National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia has done a pretty good job getting Colombian coffee on the mind of coffee drinkers all over with the familiar image of Juan Veldez and his mule. The words “100% Colombian” can be quite meaningful to consumers, and words like “excelso” and “supremo” sound fancy (these words simply denote the bean size, sometimes associated with quality, but most certainly not always). Colombia is a recognizable country to consumers. While our customer base tends to be pretty inquisitive and eager to try new things, our coffees are constantly being presented to people who have barely looked past their can of foldgers, people who sometimes haven’t thought once about where coffee comes from or how it gets in the can. Seeing the word “Colombia” on a bag of pricey coffee seems more inviting to a newbie than “Burundi” or “Sulawesi”. I think that we’ve surprised a lot of customers with the coffees we offer from Colombia and I’ve gotten numerous emails from folks calling them out as their favorite coffees. If you’re interested in our current offerings from Colombia check out the El Meridiano from the ASOCEAS growers association in Tolima, or Nodier Andrade from his farm El Mandarino in La Plata (coming soon.)
Music for cupping Colombian coffees.
The first few days we visited producers from the ASOCEAS growers association, contributors to the El Meridiano coffees. Getting to and around Tolima is difficult and takes a long time. The roads aren’t super great, or barely roads at all in some cases, and going a short distance can take a long time even in a well-equipped vehicle. The part of our trip in Tolima involved a lot of getting up to leave at 4am, falling asleep sitting up in the car, and head-slamming against the window repeatedly due to a lot of boulders, potholes, and a driver that liked to jerkily slam on the brakes over and over again. We made just a few farm visits over a couple days, spending some good time at each farm—but also spending a lot of time moving really slowly on the roads.
Sliding rooftop drying in Tolima, Colombia.
Small producers in Colombia take the entire process into their hands, doing all the wet processing on the farm, finished down to the dried parchment stage (one step before dry milling and the final product that a roasting company like us receives). The producers we visited in Tolima had small de-pulpers and fermentation tanks (enough for one day of picking on a small farm), and covered, raised drying beds as well as sliding rooftop patios. A typical, corrugated metal roof of the house slid away to reveal patios with rows of drying coffee. I think this method is pretty slick, as it saves space, as well as allows immediate protection for the coffee when needed (rain, wind, coffee munching swooping hawks… just kidding).
Coffee plants were in all different stages on these farms, some plants were red with cherry, some were blooming, some were doing both at the same time! I took a lot of romantic, close-up photos of flowering coffee plants. I don’t get to see coffee flowers very often, since I’m mostly travelling during the harvest, but in Colombia different things are happening all the time. Some producers harvest year round, some have the common two harvests per year, and some just have one. Lucky for us, the groups we buy from have two harvests—the main harvest and a second, smaller harvest sometimes called the “fly crop” or “mitaca”. These crops don’t always fall at the same time and vary from region to region.
Our exporting partner in Colombia, Virmax, is our main connection to these coffees. Virmax operates small warehouses in various parts of each region, equipped with a cupping lab and a highly skilled cupping staff. When producers bring their coffee to sell, the coffee is milled, roasted, cupped and scored—and the producers are paid depending on the score—higher prices for more quality. The coffees are put into different lots depending on quality. If a coffee is exceptional, it is kept separate as a micro-lot. Micro lots are sent to Virmax’s main lab in Bogota and cupped again to confirm the quality. Those samples are then sent to a roaster like us to be approved or rejected as a micro lot. Each lot that is brought by a producer to be cupped is one day’s picking. The amount of work and attention to detail varies, depending on the producers’ goals and motivation. The premiums that are added to exceptional coffees can make a huge difference to producers, but it takes extra work and time to produce great coffee. The El Meridiano lots are made up of about 58 producers. Some of them produce “micro lots” and some of them consistently produce A, AA or AAA quality lots. If producers choose to sell all their coffee with Virmax they could likely have coffees that fall into all of those categories. Throughout the course of the harvest, cup quality tends to build and then slope downwards again, the center of harvest being the best, usually. It’s important to understand that even though a producer may have really exceptional “micro-lots”, they still have a whole lot more coffee to sell. If we’re only buying a tiny percentage of their crop that we think is the best—are we really doing all that right by them? Part of being a small coffee buyer (as in, buying small amounts—though I do have a lot of thoughts on how my stature affects things, har har) is collaborating with other small coffee companies, and knowing that the best thing for most producers is to sell as much of their crop as possible. Exclusivity is a dumb goal for small companies if it doesn’t make sense for the person you’re buying from. During this trip, I met producers that sold microlots to other buyers on the trip, and also contributed coffee to the larger lots that we buy. Nodier Andrade, a producer we buy micro lots from, contributes coffee to larger lots of other coffee companies. It’s kind of interesting to see those different coffees serving different purposes, and to learn how those different levels of coffee affect the producer. There’s still more to learn, of course. Looking forward to visiting again.
Check back for some more photos and specifics on the trip to the Huila region and our visit with Nodier Andrade.
Outside the ASOCEAS warehouse in Herrera, Tolima.
Pretty looking bags of parchment coffee.
A really swell turkey guarding the coffee plants at one of the producers of El Meridiano.
A really adorable Colombian puppy in a box.