Sourcing for coffees in this vast country is always an enjoyable experience despite the long and arduous flights that amount to 3 days stuck in planes and airports. This year, we did a pit stop in Frankfurt en route to Bogota. During the layover, we managed to do a quick cafe hop in this German capital to check out some local roasters. Similar to other European cities, specialty coffee is growing here in Germany. We managed to grab some caffeine fix at The Brewing Society, Hoppenworth & Ploch, as well as Bruhmrkt. As roasters, we are always curious to try out other international roasters, especially at times when we happen to have roasted the same coffee. It gives us an insight to the different approaches each roaster would have on a particular green coffee. The caffeine fueled us up for the next 12 hour leg to Bogota. (*Note: This is a long post, so fuel up!)
Having visited Colombia the past 4 years, Bogota has always been a transit stop where we hop on to a connecting flight to Popayan. We had never stepped out of the airport until this year, when we intentionally planned a day trip into the city. The specialty coffee scene seems to growing rapidly in this bustling capital of the 3rd largest coffee producer in the world. Usually when we travel to coffee origins, it is hard to find a decent cup of coffee, which is ironical as these countries produce amazing coffees which are exported around the world. We did our homework and visited these cafes which roast their own beans. The cafe scene is vibrant and we tasted some delicious brews at Cafe 18. While many locals still frequent the big chains, like Juan Valdez, there is a trend of more specialty-focused cafes as the demand for better coffee increases.
This year, our trip was highlighted by a special event, which was the wedding of our good friends, Jairo and Juliana. Jairo Ruiz, one of the co-founders of Banexport has been a dear friend since we started sourcing from Colombia. We are extremely honoured to have been part of their special day. We had no idea what to expect in a Colombian wedding, except there will be plenty of booze and salsa. It was one wedding to remember, never had we attended a matrimonial ceremony with so much music, dancing, karaoke, aguardiente (anise-flavoured liquor) and fireworks on the dance floor!
After a heavy night of boogie that lasted into the wee hours, we took the following day off to give ourselves and everybody some well-needed rest. The following day, we started with 2 rounds of cupping at Banexport's office to have a preview of the new harvest from Cauca before heading out to visit some producers in the surrounding towns within Cauca. Over the years, Banexport has worked with countless small producers, helping many to improve the coffee quality. They spend valuable resources, both financial and time, to form a community of like-minded small producers, who want to make a sustainable living out of growing better coffee. The goal is simple, better coffee = better prices = better livelihood and eventually a brighter future for the producers.
One of them is Hugo Trujillo. His farm, named Finca Las Orquideas, is situated in Caldono. The farm is about 3 hectares located about 1500 metres in altitude where Hugo is growing Castillo, Colombian varietal and Yellow Colombian varietal. Hugo is currently selling his coffees to cooperatives and some to Banexport. It is unusual to meet a producer less than 30 years old. While he is young, Hugo has grand ambitions. He has been working with Banexport to improve on his coffee quality. With some technical advice from Banexport, Hugo experimented with the way he processes his coffee after picking. He has been doing double fermentation in his wet mill for some of the micro-lots, meaning fermentation in a "hopper" (tolva), then in a tank. This processing method is currently being implemented by some small producers at lower altitudes. According to Banexport, the cupping scores have been generally 1-2 points higher compared with the traditional fermentation method.
The second producer we visited was Señora Cenaida Flor, whose farm is called La Esperanza, located in the town of Santa Barbara in Cauca. Cenaida is new to specialty coffee, but we can see there is much potential. The coffee trees are spaciously planted in neat rows. She grows Castillo and Colombian, and has recently acquired some seeds of Maragogype from a friend. She will experiment growing this "elephant bean" varietal which can potentially increase her income in future years if this project becomes successful. From the conversation, we understand that Cenaida is keen to pursue growing more specialty coffee (micro-lots) in her farm, but she will need the support from Banexport in providing technical advice. It is encouraging to see her determination in improving the quality of her coffees and we hope she will persevere to make it happen.
The last producer that we visited is El Naranjal, a farm that came in #10 in the Best Cup Cauca 2016. It was also the lot that we successfully bid and won, allowing us to share the fruits of Martha and her husband, Luis Alberto. After a quick tour around the farm and understanding the processing of the harvests, we presented the couple with a bag of their coffee which we roasted to share with them. The coffee has finally come one complete circle after they were grown, picked, processed in the farm and shipped out to us in Singapore, we were able to roast this awesome coffee and share them with our customers around the region, and they can also get to taste the fruits of their labour. It was quite a heartwarming moment..
We got to know a new friend during this trip, Aldemar Sarasti. Aldemar has been working with Banexport for 1 year and his role is to provide technical advice to the small producers. He is extremely knowledgeable as we hear him dispense information about the type of fertilizers, the type or nutrients the plants would need, and what trees/alternative crops the producers can grow to help maintain the farm. He had been most patient in driving us around, acting as our local guide. We departed Popayan and headed towards another coffee department of Huila. Driving across the Purace National Park, we were occasionally hypnotised by the landscape in this vast country. It was almost a 6 hour journey before we reached Pitalito, located in the south of the Huila department.
This visit to Huila was much anticipated because we had planned to meet Elkin Guzman from Finca El Mirador. We have been corresponding with Elkin via email and Whatsapp when we wanted to understand more about the techniques involved in the way he manages his family farm. Elkin is a young producer, who studied agricultural engineering in Popayan at the university of Cauca. He has been instrumental in the development work within the farm. 6 years ago, he started to collaborate with Banexport in developing new processing methods to improve the cup quality. With Banexport's support Elkin uses Finca El Mirador as a test bed to try out different approaches to cultivation, harvesting and processing. He had also joined the Banexport team as an agricultural engineer so that he can help other producers in the region with his experience.
After a quick cupping at the Banexport's office/coffee lab, we set off to Finca El Mirador. Last year, we won a small lot in a silent auction from this farm and we were naturally very excited to finally visit. At the farm, we met Elkin's mother, Señora Fanny Vargas. While Elkin manages most of the cultivation, harvesting and processing work at the farm, Fanny oversees the quality control within the wet mill (beneficio) and the drying of the coffees. Elkin gave us a brief overview of the farm. Currently, he grows Caturra, Castillo, Colombian, Catiope, Mokka, Tabi, Bourbon and Typica with some orange Bourbon in the pipeline. Most of the coffees are processed as honey or natural, with a small portion of washed processed. Cherries are harvested when the Brix level is at least 20 degrees. Understanding the genetics of the differental varietals have helped Elkin to decide on which fermentation methods to use for each varietal. For example, the fermentation process for Caturra and Bourbon is different compared to the Castillo, Colombian, Tabi. For the former, he does dry fermentation with Day 1's picking of the coffee cherries, then he adds Day 2's picking, so this is one form of "double fermentation". Elkin explains that the micro-organism is more active on the 2nd day, so less time is required to ferment Day 2's pickings. The pH level and Brix of the dry fermented coffee is measured to decide when to send the coffees for washing. For some other varietals like Castillo, Colombian and Tabi, there is another form of double fermentation which involves 2 stages: 1st stage in a tolva ("hopper") and 2nd stage in fermentation tanks (similar to what we saw in Cauca at Finca Las Orquideas). Elkin explained that such varietals have lower sugar content genetically, so fermenting in a funnel-shape tolva helps to increase fermentation and hence higher sweetness. The length of the fermentation depends on the environment and temperature. There was also some insights to how he is experimenting with carbonic maseration and freezer method of fermentation. Such methods are at the request of some of his clients who are looking to achieve a certain cup profile with these experimental methods.
After explaining in-depth the different fermentation techniques, Elkin then led us to where he dries the parchment. There are 5 types of drying methods used in Fincal El Mirador:
- Traditional: plastic, transparent roof, with 2 layers of drying beds; minimal ventilation resulting in high humidity and temperature,
- Open ventilated beds without plastic roof; lower temperature,
- Similar to 1) but with blue coloured roofs and 2 layers drying beds; cooler temperature than (1),
- African raised beds in shade and
- Traditional plastic cover with some ventilation, single layer drying bed (biggest area for bigger quantity coffee); parchment are moved every hour.
Elkin has one of the cleanest drying beds we have seen as we were pleasantly impressed by how his workers change to clean slippers before stepping onto the drying beds to rake the parchment.
For natural processed coffees, the coffees are spread out in a thin layer first, then when it drops to a certain moisture level, the coffees are moved closer together to form a small heap. This is to reduce the rate of loss of moisture which protects the cell structure when drying. Natural coffees usually takes about 25-35 days to dry fully. As they are more difficult to mill, so Elkin is trying a modified way of drying, which involves 2 stages: drying the naturals as usual naturals to a certain moisture level, afterwhich the beans are soaked in water for it to expand a little. The coffee cherries are then depulped and dried again. This method leads to a cup that taste like a natural processed, but benefits from easier milling.
We learnt so much from Elkin as he walked us through his farm and his beneficio. As the whole session was explained in Spanish, we probably only absorbed half of the knowledge he was sharing, but nonetheless, it was extremely educational and valuable. Our visit ended with a simple home-cooked lunch together with Fanny. This is true Colombian hospitality! We chatted more over lunch, sharing some history and background about Singapore and Nylon. While Finca El Mirador receives many international visitors, we're pretty sure we are the 1st Singaporeans here....
We concluded the visit by expressing our gratitude to Fanny and Elkin with a bag of Finca El Mirador coffee roasted by us. It was about 1 year ago when we first got to taste coffee from this farm and we are glad we finally met the wonderful people behind this beautiful coffee.
We returned to Pitalito and did another few rounds of cupping. The harvest period in Huila is different from Cauca, with the main harvest starting in October and ending in December. There are parts of Huila with mitacas (small harvest), and we had a preview of those available. Coffees from Huila seem to be more diverse in varietals compared to Cauca. We were excited to try some varietals which are new to us, such as Tabi and Ombligon. Tabi is a hybrid variety obtained by crossing Typica, Bourbon and Timor Hybrid. It was developed by Colombia’s Coffee Research Institute (CENICAFE). Ombligon, according to Elkin, is a mutation of the Colombian varietal. The trees grow well at high altitudes and is quite productive. The cherries are bigger in size compared to Colombians, with pointed ends. We also cupped samples from Finca El Mirador which included some naturals and honey-processed coffees. After shortlisting some potential lots, it was time to head back to Popayan.
During the journey back, we chatted with Aldemar about his work at Banexport and his aspiration of owning a farm like Finca El Mirador in future. Coffee farming is a long term commitment and with threats of climate change, there would be challenges and uncertainties for future coffee growers. We hope that there will be a pool of the younger generation of coffee producers to continue with cultivating specialty coffee within the country. In order to encourage them to carry on with coffee farming, the industry has to provide the right financial incentives and technical support as well as know-how to drive it forward.
Arriving back in Popayan, we did a final day of cupping at Banexport for coffees from Cauca. Slurping through all the samples, we picked out a few that caught our attention. Besides finding the coffees we like, we also spend time catching up with our friends at Banexport about updates on recent development and what is in their pipeline. For us, this form of in-person communication is the most effective way to maintain and strengthen relationships with partners. It is the reason why we continue to make time to travel the distance. It's not only for coffee, it is the connection with these incredible individuals that builds the foundation of what we do.
It was another amazing trip to Colombia. Lovely coffees, great food, incredible people. We will be looking forward to the fresh crops of Colombians end of the year.