January 2016 Trip to Colombia

As a new trader at Royal Coffee NY, I was able to explore major coffee producing regions in Colombia. I attended my first trip with Camilo Yubank, who sources and maintains a strong relationship with our partners in Colombia in order to obtain new and exciting coffees year after year.  Being able to witness the steps a coffee undergoes as it transitions from seed to cup serves as the best educational experience, as opposed to learning about these procedures from books or secondhand stories.

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 and walked us through every stage that a coffee bean endures before it is delivered to roasters. Pedro’s mission is calibrated with Royal NY; to ensure delivery of high quality, specialty coffee.

Our trip was scheduled for six days that we would divide between 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 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.

               Fermentation tank at the San Pascual Farm, Antioquia

At the San Pascual wet mill I learned 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 cherries at La Camellia in Santa Barbara Estate, Antioquia

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

On the way to explore the remainder of the Santa Barbara Estate we visited a small nursery. As we stood 2000 meters high up 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 a total of six months for a seed to be planted as a coffee tree and 2-3 years for that tree to become productive. It then takes seven months for a bean to sprout. It is crucial to take all of these timelines into consideration when planning ahead for future productivity.

         Seeds sprouting at the nursery in Santa Barbara Estate, Antioquia

After visiting the nursery, we enjoyed some coffee at a farm called “Agua Linda” which translates into “beautiful water”. Here I was able to witness a producer raking cherries in the sun. As I 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.

                       Producer at Agua Linda, in Santa Barbara Estate.

The following day we visited the Santa Barbara dry mill, where naturals and washed coffees are processed and prepped 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 enter a density machine where they are separated by size. 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!

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

                  Density Machine at the Santa Barbara Dry Mill

The rest of our trip was spent in Cauca and Huila, which are both 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 and how he motivates the producers to focus on quality rather than quantity. During our stay, we would be visiting producers from two sub municipalities that were actually part of the coffee we cupped at the Santa Barbara dry mill.

                                  Gabriel from La Plata Association

We all jumped in three trucks, eager to meet everyone from La Plata and 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 and believe me, we definitely needed it to get up those steep mountains! We all 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, and 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, but origin trips allow you to visit the producers who provide the coffee you are serving to your customers.

                         Producers from La Plata Association, Huila

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 and 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.

                                 Depulper at Eduardo Lizcano’s Farm

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 Nogal” 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. I was also introduced to a new variety which I had not heard of before, Tabi. This variety is obtained by crossing Typica, Bourbon and Timor hybrid

                  Finca Nogal, San Antonio – Alfonso Pillimue & Family

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, Cauca

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!

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. Until next time Colombia!

Brittany Amell

Anthony Chango