Winding through the Eastern Ranges of the Colombian Andes every bend reveals glimpses of a lush verdant landscape dotted with houses, many with soft, gold rooftops.
On closer inspection, this yellow reveals itself to be not tile, but neatly raked beds of washed coffee beans in parchment, drying in the sun.
Welcome to Colombia…..
Home to over 500 000 coffee producers, the vast majority of whom work farms of less than 3 hectares each, Colombia is made up of 32 separate regions, known as Departments.
In November 2017, we travelled to origin to meet with the growers and see for ourselves exactly what makes Colombia such a giant of the coffee world.
The first non-European nation to have its export given a Protected Geographical Indication by the EU – putting it in the same category as Champagne – the Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia is recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. Serious business!
Our journey starts just a few hours from Bogota, up in the green mountains and valleys of the Cundinamarca Department.
It’s harvest time and Merlo’s Q-Grader and Head of Operations is travelling with our friend Charlie from FTA Food Solutions to stay at La Palma y El Tucan, a coffee farm and innovative coffee processing hub to see the coffee growing process firsthand.
Named for the Wax Palm and Emerald Toucan, two rare native species found on the farm, La Palma y El Tucan has a strong ecological and community bent.
We visited the greenhouses and agroforestry projects and were surprised to see not just the coffee varietals we expected, but food crops such as beans, corn and bananas alongside avocados and walnut.
As the founders explain, coffee producers have got to eat! When we think about sustainability, we usually think of things like water usage and reducing waste, but it’s vital to sustain the families too.
The trees on the farm are carefully selected and raised, before the ripe cherries are hand-picked at optimal ripeness.
Processing is done on site and they have a partnership program with local producers to help share the knowledge and techniques within the community.
The farmers working together in this way may seem counter-intuitive – shouldn’t they be in competition with one another? – but the simple truth is that when the farmers in the region improve together, the reputation of their region is enhanced. And everyone benefits together.
This attitude extends to environmental practices, the farmers are proud custodians of their ecosystems and work to maintain and improve the farms so that the unique and special micro-climate of this area is around for future generations.
We meet up with Marco from Sweet Latitudes to get down to business tasting coffee. Sweet Latitudes are Coffee Curators, which means they travel through the Departments collecting samples of exceptional lots of coffee to bring to buyers like us.
We cup lots from all over Colombia, tasting everything from sweet, high citrus to creamy, chocolate flavours. It’s a sensory overload, with so many beautiful coffees on the table, but there’s one we can’t stop going back to. Finca Los Aguacates is from Sandona in the Narino Department, down in the Southwestern corner of the country.
The aroma is sweet and complex, with dried apricot and caramel coming through. The sweetness persists in the cup, with tangerine and butterscotch flavours. And the flavours persist and deepen as it cools. This is the one!
We manage to secure the entire lot and leave the Cundinamarca Department happy and excited to share it with everyone back home.
From the green hills to the grittiness of industry, it’s time to check out the business of coffee in Colombia. Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia or FNC runs a tight ship, and we’re visiting the port to see a small slice of the operation.
The FNC are the representative body of Colombian coffee growers and their influence extends through several arms.
That picture of a coffee farmer and his mule that marks the coffee inside as 100% Colombian? That was the FNC.
And for the record, though fictitious, his name is Juan Valdez and his mule’s name is Conchita. And soon we’re surrounded by him, as we head into the point of departure for Colombian coffee.
Before it’s allowed out into the world, the coffee has to be assessed for quality.
And the port bustles with trucks, workers loading and unloading around the clock as thousands of sacks of raw green coffee beans make their way from the Departments to be checked and sent off.
Samples are taken and roasted before being brought into the cupping room for quality control.
The FNC are world leaders in coffee research, creating a database of each Department, and using Near InfraRed Spectroscopy to create a recognisable fingerprint of the coffee grown in each.
They can tell if there are substitutions and work to ensure that the Colombian coffee brand remains strong and trustworthy in the international coffee market.
The Colombian coffee industry is worth trillions of pesos and supports millions of Colombians. As we said earlier, serious business.
There is still room for the art of tasting and each roasted sample passes under the noses and palates of a team of coffee experts who check for sweetness and cleanliness and that each sample is free from defects.
Only once the crop receives this tick of approval can it be cleared to leave the country.
We jump in as observers and join the tasters at their work. It’s a far cry from the romance of tasting up in the mountains with the farmers, but the importance of the work is clear.
There is a rigor and seriousness which, combined with the scale of the port’s operation, leaves us in awe.
It’s been an amazing trip and though we were sorry to say goodbye, we are grateful to our companions and hosts Charlie, Marco, Olam International, everyone at La Palma y El Toucan and the Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia.
And we’re proud to offer Colombia Los Aguacates as our May Bean of the Month.
Whether you choose con leche (with milk) or tinto (black), we hope you enjoy it! Salud!