Sometime in the coming weeks we are releasing a limited coffee from Colombian producer Nodier Andrade, which has consistently been one of my favorite coffees for the past few years. Each lot we buy has had some variation of pungent red fruit flavor and a brightness that rivals that of Kenyan coffees—but my favorite quality of the coffees from Nodier is the complexity. From the first sip of the hot brew to the last swig an hour later when the cup is cold—there’s a depth of flavor that makes the whole experience of the coffee amazingly complete.
Last summer was my first trip to Colombia, and first opportunity to meet Nodier after buying coffee from him for several seasons. The lots we received were consistently great, but it’s always awesome to have the great things you suspect are happening on the farm confirmed.
View over Finca El Mandarino, near La Plata, Huila.
Nodier’s family farm, El Mandarino, is located just outside the town of La Plata, in the Huila region of Colombia. We visited Huila after a few days in Tolima, the region just north of us, where the El Meridiano coffee we buy comes from. I wrote a little bit about the visit there in this blog (ßClicky). La Plata is a nice little town of about 60,000 people. The first night we were there the local fútbol team was playing, and later in the night as I lay awake in my bed scratching gargantuan bug bites I received from a farm walk the day before, I found out that the local team had won. High volume celebration continued on the streets into the night.
The next morning we woke up and had breakfast of bread, fruit and terrible coffee at a café around the corner—then headed out to farms. Many of the roads in Huila (at least the ones we took) were incredibly nice—a stark contrast to our mornings in Tolima, where we’d wake up at 4am to drive not very far for a long, long time really slowly and over lots of boulders. Here, we easily zipped along mountain roads, looking out of the back of a truck to where we came from.
Eventually, we reached dirt roads and after a while, parked and walked up a hill to meet Nodier at his farm nearly 1900 meters high—a great altitude for growing coffee.
The mill, he says, is fully functioning about three years now, though he has been working the land for more than a decade. He told us it took him a while to figure out the right amount of fermentation time, drying time and set up to understand which combination gave him the means to produce good micro lots. Weather and micro climate can deeply affect coffee processing, and over years of visiting producers now I’ve learned that there’s really no specific answer for how things should be done.
El Mandarino has about 10,000 trees—95% of which are Typica and Caturra varieties with a small 5% of Colombia—a lower cup-quality variety that is part robusta—created to combat coffee leaf rust and other diseases. In addition, Nodier has a small nursery of Caturra and Typica plants to add to the farm in coming years.
For processing, he has two small, tiled fermentation tanks. The tile is helpful in keeping the tanks clean, and provide little surface area for seeds or other debris to get stuck and create off flavors in a batch. The cherries that are picked each day are floated in water provided from a stream about 500 meters up to remove any low density coffee, leaves etc. After pulping, the coffee is fermented (the natural process that breaks down the attached mucilage from the cherry) in the tanks for varying amounts of time, depending on the weather. Fermentation times can sometimes reach up to 24 hours—which seems like a long time, but with certain weather and climate conditions that is what it sometimes takes.
After the fermentation is complete, the coffee is dried on beautiful covered and raised beds for approximately 18 days. Slow, sheltered drying helps the coffee through a gradual drying process, which is key in maintaining quality and longevity of the coffee. The coffees are organized into separate days of harvest and processing. Each day is cupped in La Plata and the highest scoring lots are kept separate and sent to us to cup at Dogwood. We approve the lots and pay premiums on the one that score exceptionally high. For the past few years we’ve only bought “micro-lot” quality day lots from Nodier, however, as we’ve grown to know the coffee and appreciate its quality and value we’re setting up to start buying more coffee from him—including high scoring lots that don’t necessarily get singled out as “microlots.” There’s a whole other topic here to discuss, but in summary—we want to have a partnership with a producer that makes sense on both ends, allowing us to have exceptional coffee to roast, while being able to guarantee some volume for the producer.
In addition to coffee, Nodier also produces some panela, which is sugar cane juice that has been cooked down and is used as a sweetener. The sugar cane is crushed with this squeezer, which is normally powered by a horse or donkey etc., but instead we just used human power so we could see the process and drink some of the sugar cane juice, called guarapo in Colombia. It would taste pretty good with some gin and a little lime!
We ate lunch with Nodier and his family, wife and son, and then moved on to meet with some other neighboring producers that contribute to lots of coffee with him. I really appreciate the obvious care he puts into his work, and the amazing coffee that results from it—but I always feel like I fail to communicate that the first time I meet someone. Through first acquaintance awkwardness and horrible Spanish that I’m generally afraid to use anyway, I try to share my interest and gratitude. From my experiences so far, I do know that this becomes more natural the next time, and the time after that, and pretty soon you’re riding on the back of a four wheeler with the guy to look at a coffee tree planted on the other side of the farm… (just kidding, only sometimes). Longevity and sustainability of a relationship is how we make these things grow and develop, and we plan on pursuing that with our new friend Nodier in the years to come.