Steve Schuh and Louis Nahlik were in Colombia August 1-8, 2016, where they visited our relationship partners in Monserrate as well as a few other places. Here's their recap:
We spent all day Monday travelling from St. Louis to Bogota, with a connecting flight in Houston. Tuesday morning, we woke up and continued travelling, this time from Bogota to Neiva, Huila, Colombia. We visited a brand new dry milling plant there owned and operated by RACAFE. The plant was finished in January 2016. They don’t manage any specialty coffee there yet, but the goal is to move some of the specialty coffee milling from Bogota to here.
After visiting the plant, we drove to Garzon, another small town in Huila, where we walked around the town and ate dinner. We visited a church that was built in 1773, which is just amazing to think about: a huge church in the middle of Colombia that is older than the United States.
On Wednesday morning, we left Garzon and drove to Timana, Huila, where we visited the Asprotimana co-op. Asprotimana is working with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to help farmers and pickers grow legal agriculture rather than illegal agriculture (coffee, cocoa, and fruit instead of cocaine and marijuana). Pickers make twice as much money picking drugs than they do legal crops, so it's hard to convince people to pick coffee without the luxury of being able to offer them more money.
Colombia is also in the middle of peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the guerilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People's Army (FARC). With an agreement between the two, the idea is that many of the farmers that now fight for FARC will return to growing and picking legal agriculture. AsproTimana is also working with the UN on a grant program for ex-FARC members where they give plots of land to farmers that sign the agreement so that they can grow legal crops. This provides another issue though, in that farmers claim to be part of FARC in order to be given the land by the government.
After getting a tour of the warehouse and learning about what Asprotimana does, we held an outdoor cupping, where we cupped a round of specialty coffee from producers in the area and a couple nearby towns and a second round of specialty coffee from single producer lots in the area. There was a really great spread of quality, everywhere from low 80s to high 80s.
We then drove to a restaurant up the mountains where we ate and listened to a wonderful Colombian band. Coffee trees and drying patios lined either side of the road heading up and down the mountain. There appeared to be more trees than people to take care of them, but we were told that most trees had farmers that owned and took care of them. After lunch, we drove back down to Timana and had a coffee in a cafe.
After coffee, we drove 2.5hours to La Plata, where we would spend the next few days. We got to La Plata pretty late Wednesday night. After arrival, we went and ate dinner at KrustyBurger, a very American-ized burger joint with every menu item named after Simpson’s characters. The food wasn’t great, but the experience was so great.
Thursday morning we woke up in La Plata and walked to SENA to cup. SENA is essentially a tech school where they teach Colombians different jobs, one of which is coffee. So we had students helping us with the cuppings. We started with a calibration cupping with a number of Colombian coffees to get the cupping team on the same level. We then did 2 rounds of the Monserrate competition coffees. Good range from 81-90 scores. There were some really great coffees on the table and some just okay coffees too. We then took a lunch break.
After lunch we cupped two more rounds of Monserrate competition coffees. The last round was the best. There were some really great coffees on the table. Lots of citrus notes overall, good berries, good chocolate and sweet notes.
Friday morning we had breakfast and visited RACAFE’s Buying and Sorting Center in La Plata. All the Monserrate coffees (along with a number of other coffees from the region) come through here before being sent to Bogota. We even saw bags from Elcy Causaya and Oscar Medina. RACAFE sends a truck about every 10 days to pick up the coffee. The farmers used to deliver directly to Bogota, but since there were other buyers in La Plata willing to pay the farmers immediately, RACAFE decided to open a buying center there so they could get access to the farmers they otherwise would not have gotten access to.
Coffee in the mill is about 16 days off pick: 8 days of drying at the farm, plus the days in transit or at the mill. At the mill, samples of each bag are taken and sorted. They take 250g samples, remove the parchment, and hand sort the beans. This determines the quality of the whole bag. The farmers are then paid based off this quality assessment. All producers are paid via their bank account. No cash is passed which is safer for everyone involved. Over 98% of the coffee that comes through the mill meets the quality requirements. Otherwise it is just sold as regular Colombian Excelsio, and the producer is not paid the premium.
After visiting the sorting mill, we walked back to SENA to cup the final round of the competition. These coffees were all really really great. There was one phenol in a cup, which hurt that coffee, but otherwise the coffees ranged from 85 to 88 points. We got to see the final numbers, but we didn’t know who the producers were until the next day.
After lunch, we drove up to Monserrate, Huila, Colombia. We’ve seen many pictures from the town, and heard lots about it. But none of that does the place justice. It’s about 45 minutes outside La Plata, and it is just beautiful. We drove up with two representatives from RACAFE, Ivan and Estefania. Ivan is RACAFE’s resident Agronomist, and helps the communication with the farmers in Monserrate and other communities. He stopped the car numerous times to say hello to almost everyone we were passing in the car. Estefania works in Bogota for RACAFE as a quality control representative. She helped us with translating.
The first farm we visited was Elcy Causaya’s. She and her husband, Manuel, own about 3.25 hectares of farmland. There is 1 lot higher up the mountain, and 4 lower down. Their house sits on the street, and their drying patio and farm sit directly behind it. Elcy manages and controls two of the lots in the farm, and Manuel manages the rest. They three varieties they grow are Caturra, Catuai, and San Bernadino. The care they put into their plants shows. Their farm is so beautiful. They have chickens running around, orange trees, mandarin trees, corn, beans, and other crops. When planting new trees, they let the trees develop for 2 years before starting to harvest them. They then harvest the trees for 4 years before replanting. They also rotate crops when replanting in order to replenish the soil. Coffee trees can grow for a very long time. But the quality of the cherry degrades over time, so the fact that Elcy and Manuel replant every six years is terrific.
After saying our goodbyes to Elcy, we went in search of Oscar to visit his farm. We drove through town, and down and up the hill a little ways, and eventually found Oscar’s mother, Omaira Quintero, and his sister, Marta, who is married to Diego, another farmer in town. Marta told us that Oscar is actually in Bogota right now working, but she showed us around her drying patios and farm. Omaira asked us if we wanted to visit her farm too, which of course we did, so we followed her down the hill a little ways to her house and farm. Omaira told us that Oscar is in Bogota working in order to buy more land and that she was managing the farm while he was out. At their farm, they only grow the Castillo variety. They have a total of 1500 plants on 3.5 hectares. Their two lots are split almost evenly, one being right by Omaira’s house, the other being a little further up the mountain. She then invited us into her house to have snack of Coca Cola and some vanilla cake. Her hospitality and warmth was so amazing. She welcomed us into her home and told us a little bit about herself and her family She is the mother of ten children and her husband left her some years ago. She raised ten amazing children on her own, so incredible, especially given the circumstances. Kaldi’s will be buying two of her children’s coffees this year. Following our visit with Omaira, we drove back down to La Plata for the night.
On Saturday, we drove up to Monserrate in the morning where we watched the Cupping Competition Ceremony where RACAFE and Atlas Coffee presented all the farmer with an award and presented the top 10 with awards and prizes. Our very own Elcy Causaya got 7th place. Afterwards, we talked with Elcy and Manuel and their daughter for a while. They sent their daughter to school to become an agronomist. She hopes to one day return to Monserrate to help with the community, but there is hardly an money available to do that, so until then, she is working in Bogota. Elcy and her daughter were very interested in how we ensured quality once the coffee reached us, which is incredibly humbling. They put so much care into their plants and essentially hand over the reigns to us to ensure the consumer gets to enjoy it. The best we can do is not screw it up.
After talking to them for a little while, we played our annual futbol match against some of the kids of the farmers. The 5 on 5 match ended in a gringo loss 8-5. Steve Schuh shined in goal in the second half. After eating lunch, we began the long journey back to Bogota.
On Sunday, we visited a RACAFE dry milling plant in Bogota. The plant has 2 separate milling operations. Edgar is the operations manager there. The mill is 14 years old and can produce around 80 70kilo bags per hour. They process mostly coffee from Huila here, including coffee from La Fragua, Asprotimana, and Monserrate. The coffee travels from Monserrate to the sorting and buying station in La Plata then to this plant in Bogota. The coffee is sorted by size, density, and quality. The plant is extremely loud and big, but it’s an awesome sight to see.
They have a new color sorter there that can process 120 bags per hour. The old ones can do only 4. The machine takes a photo of each bean and a little shot of air shoots out any that are discolored.
After visiting the mill, we went to a coffee shop in town called Catacion Publica, went to lunch, walked around the market in Bogota, and visited another coffee shop, Azahar.
Monday morning we woke up and began the long travel back to St. Louis, where we will see the coffees from the competition in about 3 months.
The experience was unreal. It was eye opening and humbling. How we, in St. Louis, can receive coffee from a farm 9 hours outside of Bogota is unbelievable, let alone how we can keep the coffee separated by producer, and keep the quality that we know and love from Monserrate year after year.