RNY on Location: Colombia January 2016

In January 2016, a group of RNY coffee traders, including Camilo Yubank, travelled to coffee farms in Colombia.  Camilo sources and maintains strong relationships with our partners in Colombia in order to obtain new and exciting coffees year after year.

On location at Colombia coffee farms

Although we arrived in Colombia near the end of the harvest season, our hosts Pedro Echavarria and Leo Henao from Pergamino Exporters, were very thorough.  They walked us through every stage that a coffee bean endures before it is delivered to roasters. Pedro’s mission aligns with ours at Royal NY.  A mission to ensure delivery of high quality, specialty coffee directly from coffee farms in Colombia.

Our trip was over six days and divided between the three departments of Colombia: Antioquia, Cauca and Huila. The first half of the trip in Antioquia was primarily based around the Santa Barbara Estate. We also visited the San Pascual coffee farm on our way to the wet mills that make up the estate. Since Royal NY offers coffees from these farms, it was important to meet the producers and learn about their processing methods.

Specialty coffee fermentation tank at the San Pascual Farm, Antioquia

Fermentation tank at the San Pascual Farm, Antioquia

San Pascual Wet Mill

At the San Pascual wet mill, we saw that they are not only processing washed coffees. They are also experimenting with naturals, currently producing about one container worth of coffee a year. Pedro mentioned that good naturals rely on the quality behind it, which speaks to their reputation for quality assurance. The hot, dry climate has expedited the time it takes for naturals to arrive at the optimal moisture content. They have been drying in about 8-10 days, when in reality it should take up to 4 weeks for naturals to dry. He is continuously experimenting and looking for new ways to improve the quality that will translate into a better cup for the consumer.

Picked specialty coffee cherries at La Camellia in Santa Barbara Estate, Antioquia

Picked cherries at La Camellia in Santa Barbara Estate, Antioquia

A difficult harvest for coffee producers

Many factors, including high temperatures and the coffee borer beetle, la broca, have made this past harvest harder on not only the producers, but the exporters as well. In order to protect against insect damage, it is imperative to pick all cherries off the ground and pick them before they are overripe. Producers at Colombia coffee farms are constantly monitoring their harvest to ensure that they do not lose a large amount of beans to the broca. Pedro instills the importance of quality in his daily conversations with producers, and he is expanding this effort by hiring staff who can travel to different farms and mills to provide producers with workshops on how to prevent coffee rust and insect damage.

Pedro Echavarria of Pergamino on a specialty coffee farm in Colombia

Pedro Echavarria, Commercial Director for Pergamino/Santa Barbara, talks about the importance of quality.

On the way to explore the rest of Santa Barbara Estate, we visited a small nursery. As we stood 2000 meters high in the mountains, we enjoyed the beauty of the scenery beyond us, while learning about the careful planning that takes place when planting coffee trees. Caturra and Variedad Colombia are planted in these nurseries, and they require 20% humidity in order to germinate. These seedlings need to be watered consistently to maintain this moisture level, and once they sprout their second pair of leaves, they are ready to be taken out and planted. It takes six months for a seed to be planted as a coffee tree and 2-3 years for that tree to become productive. Then, after about seven months, a bean will sprout. It is crucial to take these timelines into consideration when planning for future productivity.

Specialty coffee seeds sprouting at the nursery in Santa Barbara Estate, Antioquia

Seeds sprouting at the nursery in Santa Barbara Estate, Antioquia

Agua Linda

After visiting the nursery, we enjoyed some coffee at a farm called Agua Linda, which translates into beautiful water. Here we watched as a producer raked cherries in the sun. As we took pictures and asked him about his daily routines, he joked and said, “I hope it doesn’t rain right now! All of my hard work will have to be done all over again tomorrow!”. During the harvesting season, this farm provides sleeping accommodations in a dormitory that holds up to 40 workers.

Specialty coffee producer at Agua Linda, in Santa Barbara Estate.

Producer at Agua Linda, in Santa Barbara Estate.

Santa Barbara Dry Mill

The following day we visited the Santa Barbara dry mill, where they process and prep naturals and washed coffees for exporting. Once the parchment arrives, they pull a sample and cup to check for defects and quality, which is the same process we follow at Royal NY. There are two separate machines at this mill: one for washed beans and the second for natural/dry processed beans. The mill for washed coffee works by friction, pushing the beans together until the “pergamino” or parchment, along with the silver skin is removed. After milling, the beans are separated by size in a density machine. The beans then enter a chromatography machine where a high resolution image determines which beans are defective. This machine is pretty amazing because we did not come across one defect while we cupped twenty different lots!

Specialty coffee cupping at Pergamino Exporters, Santa Barbara Estate Dry Mill

Cupping at Pergamino Exporters, Santa Barbara Estate Dry Mill (Antioquia)

Specialty coffee density Machine at the Santa Barbara Dry Mill

Density Machine at the Santa Barbara Dry Mill

We spent the remainder of our trip in Cauca and Huila.  Both are located in the south-western part of the Colombia. First we drove through Huila and met Gabriel from La Plata Association. Gabriel invited us into his home, introduced himself to everyone and gave a short speech on his association.  He spoke about how he motivates the producers to focus on quality rather than quantity.

Gabriel from La Plata Association in Colombia

Gabriel from La Plata Association

La Plata

We all jumped in three trucks, eager to meet everyone from La Plata.  We couldn’t wait to talk to them about the amazing job they are doing with their coffee! As we took off, our drivers came to realize that only one of the three trucks had 4×4.  Believe me, we definitely needed it to get up those steep mountains!

Because of this, we decided to travel up the mountain in the truck with 4×4.  Picture twelve people on a pick-up truck!  This was definitely nerve-wracking, yet hilarious at the same time. Our driver kept joking around saying, “Oh don’t worry, in the past decade I have only heard of three cars driving off the mountain”. His humorous approach to the situation definitely made the drive more enjoyable.

Once we made it safely up the mountain, Gabriel introduced the producers to everyone.  There, we were able to discuss price structures, plant varieties, quality and feedback on cupping profiles. Producers were curious to know if we believed that Caturra was the best variety to grow in Colombia. Some think it does result in a better quality cup, although the yield might be lower than other varieties. This moment was significant; having the producers, exporters, importers and roasters all under one roof, sharing a meal. It’s rare to have the opportunity to trace down a product to the roots.  Our origin trips allow you to visit the producers who provide the coffee you are serving to your customers.

Specialty coffee producers from La Plata Association, Huila

Producers from La Plata Association, Huila

Visiting Eduardo Lizcano’s Colombia coffee farm

We visited one farm owned by Eduardo Lizcano. Royal Coffee NY purchased a Colombian Excelso Huila from Eduardo. His lot produced a vibrant, fruity aroma, with some lime and honey notes. We were all curious to ask him how he arrived at such a complex coffee.  Surprisingly, he informed us that he was not doing anything special to the fermentation process. Pedro mentioned to us that it could be attributed to the hot and dry climates that have been affecting Cauca and Huila. The cherries are being picked at their peak ripeness because the heat and altitude are allowing the cherries to develop more sugars, resulting in a sweet, fruity profile.

Specialty coffee depulper at Eduardo Lizcano's Farm in Colombia

Depulper at Eduardo Lizcano’s Farm

Visiting Alfonso Pillimue

Later on that night, we arrived at Alfonso Pillimue’s house in San Antonio. Here we were welcomed with a warm meal and a hospitable environment. Across the street, there is a bodega where producers from La Plata, Cauca deliver their coffee in parchment. These bags are weighed and then samples are drawn from each lot to send to the Pergamino staff. Producers receive an outright payment at the bodega and then they receive their premiums at Asorcafe in Pedregal which is a sub municipality within Inza. Premiums are extremely important to create a better life for the producers. We are not just paying for good coffee, we are helping them invest in better improvements for their business and families.

After touring the bodega, we went on a short hike to visit a small farm that belongs to Alfonso’s sister. Finca Nogala is a gem with much more to offer than just coffee; she has a garden with beautiful purple flowers, some tomatoes, an area set aside for sugar cane processing, and a man-made pond for the ducks. They also introduced me to a new variety which I had not heard of before, Tabi. This variety is obtained by crossing Typica, Bourbon and Timor hybrid

Alfonso Pillimue & Family specialty coffee farm Finca Nogal

Finca Nogal, San Antonio – Alfonso Pillimue & Family

Asorcafe in Pedregal

After our hike, we returned to Asorcafe in Pedregal to do some cupping. It was interesting to see their methods for ruling out coffees and choosing which lots would be blended and which ones would stand alone. After hearing from the roasters, the members of Asorcafe were surprised to learn that we enjoyed the acidity from one of the San Antonio lots, which had a brown sugar, lemon profile. Typically they would blend a lot like this with a sweeter coffee because they imagined that the acidity could become astringent. They might experiment with that particular lot and try offering it alone, as opposed to throwing it into a blend.

Asorcafe in Cauca, Colombia

Asorcafe, Cauca

Specialty coffee producers overlooking landscape in Colombia

View from the top of the mountain in La Plata, Huila. The producers felt that we all should stop to take in the view, and I can see why!

Until next time, Colombia coffee farms!

Colombia, the largest washed coffee producer in the world, is a well-recognized and influential country when it comes to high quality coffee production and I am grateful for being able to visit this country as my first origin trip. Their problem-solving attitude, paired with the various improvements made in infrastructure, on farms and in the mills, has allowed Colombia to prevail and prove that they can continuously deliver coffee with one objective in mind: quality. I admired the spirit and enthusiasm I encountered with every producer from La Plata and Asorcafe. I left Colombia with a better understanding for the specialty coffee industry which can only aid and improve my future engagement with customers.