Small Batch on the road

Colombia – November 2015

With the delicious La Espada y El Guamo from Nariño currently on our shelves and in our hoppers and with two more great Colombian coffees about to hit the stores we thought this would be a good time for Al to re-visit his sourcing trip to Colombia last November and tell you a little more about these great coffees and this re-born specialty origin….

Flying in to Bogota for my first ever visit to the South American continent I was immediately hit by the modernity and Europeaness of Colombia’s capital city Bogota. While Central American capitals like Guatemala City and San Salvador have an increasingly American feel, Bogota had a more old world vibe of hustle and bustle for the 24 hours I spent there before linking up with Sam Langdon from our friends Caravan Coffee Roasters. Then it was a short flight the following morning to Armenia, the capital city of Quindío; one of Colombia’s lesser known but very important coffee growing Departments.

We flew into Armenia on the morning flight and after hooking up with Raw Material and Azahar coffee, the importers and exporters respectively that we work with in Colombia we headed straight for their impromptu cupping lab in the beautiful garden of Helena Adentro, a charming bar and restaurant in the market town of Filandia just outside of Armenia. Owned and operated by Colombian/Kiwi husband and wife team Alejandro and Jade, Helena Adentro is something of a hub for the Raw Material team providing food, sustenance and a great cupping space in the heart of Quindío’s coffee region.

Cupping outside at Helena Adentro

It was straight down to business cupping through a ton of offer samples from producers old and new to determine our travel itinerary and who we would visit. After hatching a plan of action we headed up to the nearby farm El Fenix that Raw Material recently purchased and are developing into a bastion of specialty coffee in the area. El Fenix is a typical Colombian farm that harvests small amounts of coffee almost year round and processes their coffee on site in a tiny wet mill and drying area. This is a style of production we would see at almost every farm we visited in Colombia and is very much at odds with every other coffee origin I have visited.

Due to its huge range of regions and microclimates Colombian coffee is being harvested somewhere in the country all year round and most farms have a minimum of two crops per year. In just about every other producing country there is one single, large harvest each year (Kenya and a few other countries have a smaller secondary harvests called fly crops but generally coffee harvests once a year). This means that farms and co-ops only have to employ pickers for around three months of the year and need high volume wet and dry mills that also only operate for around three months a year.

Colombian producers typically have small farms somewhere between the size of a Central American estate and a typical African smallholder farm. They usually have a small wet mill and tiny area for drying coffee that is usually on the rooftop of the farm buildings. The skillset, experience and work ethic required to process coffee to a high quality on this small scale is pretty mind blowing compared to what I had seen in other parts of the coffee world and is testament to the work these Colombian farmers put in year round.

Before this trip my knowledge of Colombia as an origin was pretty scant. Considering it is the world’s fourth largest producer of coffee behind Brazil, Vietnam and Indonesia up until the last few years we had only bought a very small amount of Colombian coffees. There are two reasons for this; firstly in the early years of Small Batch, Colombia was in the midst of a very bad outbreak of Coffee Leaf Rust Disease or ‘Roya’ that is currently badly affecting areas of Central America. In brief, Leaf Rust is an airborne fungus which kills coffee fruit and can be spread very easily by the wind, humans or animals carrying air borne spores between plants. Between 2007 and 2010 Colombian production was affected massively by the disease and high quality Colombian coffee was incredibly hard to find.

Alongside this, the history of coffee production in Colombia did not necessarily align with our goals for sourcing and selecting coffees. The Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia, the FNC, is a non-profit national body that oversees all coffee production and exports from the country. Opinions are very much divided on the FNC’s influence on Colombian coffee. They have worked tirelessly to create a brand and protect the integrity of Colombian coffee. If you have ever seen the iconic image of a moustachioed Juan Valdez and his burro adorning everything from coffee cups to professional cycling teams then you will understand their reach and scope. For many years because of the small holder nature of Colombian coffee farming they advised farmers to produce low risk, medium quality and generic coffees that could be sold for profitable if not outstanding prices. Traceability, microlots and single estate coffees were hard to come by as coffees were blended together to produce commercial quality, generic regional blends.

In the years since the Roya problem and with the steady growth of both the specialty coffee industry and more direct trading relationships between roasters and farmers we have seen an explosion of high quality, traceable coffees and a wider range of processes and varieties coming out of Colombia. The FNC has relaxed it’s stance on these coffees somewhat and appears to be more open to the specialty market while still trying to protect the interest of all its farmer members.

Miguel from El Fenix and Matt from Raw Material preparing a honey process coffee

I don’t know anywhere near enough about Colombian coffee to have an educated opinion on the FNC, it is a very divisive issue with coffee buyers and Colombian producers, but it seems to me that while it may be slow to adapt, the Federacion as a non-profit organization does work in the interest of its farmers. In the midst of the Roya crisis the FNC invested significant amounts of money and research into developing rust resistant varieties such as Colombia and Castillo that have spurred the resurgence of Colombia’s coffee industry and are now being planted across Central America to fight Roya there.

So with a lack of production and a history of middling quality, Colombia had not really been on our buying map until a few years ago. This was the reason for my journey, to come and learn about the country and find some great coffees that would arrive in the UK at a time of year when interesting fresh crop coffees are hard to come by.

So back at El Fenix… The Raw Material guys have purchased the farm firstly to provide themselves with great coffees but also to develop as a processing hub for the area. They plan to build a much larger wet mill on site that can purchase cherry from neighbouring farms and process their coffee for them saving the farmers this costly and time consuming task. With the help of Miguel Fajardo who is managing El Fenix they are also developing honey and natural processes that are relatively new to the area. The farm is a still very much a work in progress and it will be a few years until we see harvests from El Fenix but we certainly hope to have some great coffee from Miguel and his team one day.

Finca La Coca, Quindío

The following day we set off to visit some of the farms that had been standouts for us on the cupping table including farmer David Barrios’ stunning and beautifully run farm Finca La Coca. Sitting high in the hills above Armenia, La Coca is a natural bowl that shelters the coffee from the high winds of the area. David owns another larger, slightly more commercial farm but it was evident in talking with him that his real passion is for the high quality coffees he grows in much smaller quantities at La Coca. David grows a ton of varieties here, mostly red and yellow caturra, red and yellow bourbon, mundo novo, typica, a little pink bourbon and some Castillo.

It was great to spend an afternoon at La Coca with David, he is a softly spoken, laid back guy who drove us down to the farm in his vintage Land Cruiser and cracked us beers at the end of the day. He has a quiet passion for his coffees and the environment he works in. He told me that he decided to purchase La Coca because it has a 200-year-old forest that has never been cleared to cultivate crops. David loves this forest it’s his favourite part of the farm and he spends his free time walking his dogs there and eating picnics. He said he will never plant coffee there as he couldn’t imagine cutting the old trees down and was genuinely upset when he told us of one that had fallen in a storm last year.

La Coca harvests at a later time of year than the other farms we visited so his coffees have not arrived yet but we are really looking forward to welcoming them later in the year.

David Barrios

That evening we visited Gabriel Lopez at his farm La Gitana just outside of Armenia. Gabriel’s farm is very low lying and has much warmer temperatures than farms like La Coca. Because of this Gabriel has become quite a specialist at producing natural coffees. High quality natural process Colombian coffees didn’t really exist until a few years ago. Until recently the FNC would not allow any coffee to be exported that was not fully washed as they sought to maintain the integrity and quality of the ‘Café de Colombia’ brand.

It is still tough for farmers to export natural or honey processes but the FNC is starting to open up to these coffees, recognising the growing market and demand for them. La Gitana is home not only to coffee: Gabriel actually grows more plantains than coffee and the farm also houses the brewery of Cerveceria Continental, a craft beer business Gabriel runs in conjunction with Miguel from El Fenix. The worlds of specialty coffee and craft beer are closely intertwined the world over and nowhere more than at La Gitana! Gabriel even gave us some coffees to cup that had been fermented with beer and champagne yeast. We very much hope to have more to report on these next year.

Gabriel and Miguel at La Gitana

The following morning after a few too many of Gabriel and Miguel’s beers we spent the day in Azahar’s roastery and cupping in lab in Armenia, working our way through samples from the southern region of Nariño where we were headed the following day. After a brief overnight stop in Bogota where we were lucky enough to eat at the amazing Salvo Patria, we were straight back on another plane (people fly a lot in Colombia) to Pasto, the capital city of Nariño. On the flight we encountered a local celebrity in the form of Felipe ‘Pipe Bueno’ whose youtube videos helped pass the next few hours in the back of a pick up truck as we made our way out of the city and into the coffee lands.

Nariño has a completely different landscape to the rolling green hills and tropical forests of Quindío. Situated in the southwestern corner of Colombia on the border with Ecuador, Nariño is much more rugged and mountainous, the northern foothills of the great Andean range rise and fall steeply and I have never been anywhere with such a huge range of temperatures. We would be on a hill top at 2,500 metres above sea level teeth chattering and within twenty minutes be in a steamy, humid valley floor shedding clothing quickly.

The town of Ancuya, Nariño

This climate is great for growing coffee and the farms situated at around 1800m experience 10 degree swings from day to night which allow for the slow and steady maturation of coffee cherries and controlled development of sugars within the fruit that give the coffees great, complex sweetness. The area is mostly farmland with every valley containing a small market town improbably perched on a hillside with humble shops and giant colonial churches.

One such of these towns was Ancuya, the centre of the local hat making industry and our first destination. We had cupped a coffee we loved from the CAFÉ-OCCIDENTE co-operative who operate across Nariño and this particular lot was made up of smallholder farmers around the town of Ancuya. Farmers who contribute to this top grade blend have to have their lots pre–approved for quality by the co-operatives Q Graders and we were all so impressed with the quality of the coffee that we were a little taken aback when we found out it was a co-operative lot from over one hundred different producers.

Meeting of CAFÉ OCCIDENTE co-operative members in Ancuya

We were lucky enough to be travelling with the head of CAFÉ-OCCIDENTE, Francisco who was headed to Ancuya to conduct their monthly co-op meeting with all 160 members present. These meetings are a chance for the co-op leader to update the members with news and the state of the market, but more importantly for the members to address problems and issues they are having.
Some of the issues tackled during the meeting were the prevalence of Broca this year (Broca is the Spanish name for the Coffee Borer Beetle, a pest to coffee crops worldwide), how to use parabolic dryers properly, why running the wet mill is a job for a professional “not your brother, your girlfriend or whoever is around” and the price Nespresso is currently buying for.

Nespresso are a big buyer of coffees from Nariño and actually pay a pretty good price for the more commercial grade coffees. In every buying station you visit in Colombia there is a price board displaying the current prices the FNC is paying for various grades and premiums. In the picture below from CAFÉ-OCCIDENTE’s buying station in Sandona the current market price is displayed in the top left hand corner. On this day it was 725,000 Colombian Peso’s (around £170) per carga of coffee (125kg). To the right you can see the premiums added for Rainforest Alliance or Nespresso certification or the Regional Nariño designation.

Price, as ever, was the biggest issue discussed at the meeting in Ancuya and the farmers explained that producing the quality of coffees needed for our specialty blend costs them significantly more than for standard grade coffees. Through Azahar we agreed to pay 1,000,000 pesos per carga, a significant increase on the market and premium prices, and a sustainable and profitable price for everyone involved. This kind of commitment is necessary if we are asking producers to go the extra mile for this quality of production. They were stoked with the price and we are super happy with the coffee we now have here in the UK making up 40% of our Goldstone Espresso blend. This was a really special day for me. To sit in on the meeting, talk to the farmers, understand their challenges and start what I hope will be a long and mutually beneficial relationship around a great coffee was amazing.

The last stop of the trip was to Franco David’s beautiful little farm, La Espada y El Guamo. Guamos are a local tree that produces white, fluffy, protein rich beans known as ‘ice cream beans’. This was another coffee we had absolutely loved on the cupping table and it turned out to be a real gem of a farm. Situated in the El Tambo area back towards Pasto the landscape changed again and the earth here is a vivid red colour very reminiscent of East Africa’s coffee lands.

Entrance to La Espada y El Guamo

Franco’s farm is very isolated, it’s only accessible by a 45 minute drive down a dirt road, yet weirdly you can see the Pasto airport from the farm on the other side of a huge ravine and the Galeras volcano. Franco and his wife Maria were incredibly warm and welcoming, as soon as we arrived Maria frog marched me into their kitchen and served me coffee from the farm, roasted over their open fire, brewed through the traditional ‘coffee sock’ and sweetened with a ton of sugar. The farm itself is very small but beautifully and diligently maintained.

Franco grows a lot of plantain and guamo to sell as cash crops and because of this all of his coffee is grown under shade. This is something we always look for and is standard practice in Central America and Africa but is less common in Colombia. Franco grows only 100% Colombia variety, one of the rust resistant varieties the FNC developed, and although Colombia does not have a great reputation for taste, Franco’s care and attention, the great climatic conditions of his farm and all the natural shade made this my favourite coffee we cupped on the trip. We agreed to pay Franco 1,200,000 pesos per carga for his coffee and have agreed to buy as much of this quality as he can produce at this or a higher price next year. Franco is really happy that his hard work is being recognised and that there is now a real market for coffees of this quality. He told us how he plans to upgrade his wet mill this year and refine his processing technique that will only make his delicious coffee even better.

Franco, Maria and their granddaughter

This was a really cool trip as Colombia was almost like a brand new origin to us. With no pre-existing relationships the cupping table was like a blank canvas that allowed me to hone in on the coffees I liked the most. I’m so happy that those coffees have all led to the start of great relationships that can be developed and grow over the next few years.