La Barba en Colombia Días Cinco y Seis
Friday was when things really got going. Our driver and Coocentral contact, Yaimy or, Yaimy Lorena Celis Vega, picked us up at the Kahvé hotel after a quick breakfast of huevos rancheros (in this case made of eggs and pink sausage), pineapple juice, pan, and two Americanos. She took us to the headquarters of Coocentral—the second largest co-op in Colombia, with seven locations in the region of Huíla for bean drop off, grading, quality control, agricultural services for farmers to buy, loan and credit services (at a pretty low cost of 1% per month), and various other community programs. Jeremy noted that it seemed their store functioned as a sort of old-western general store where you could go and buy whatever you need and put in on store credit. Coocentral has been around for forty years and has around 100 employees who do everything from coffee quality and grading to credit and loan applications. We met with a few of the key managers of Coocentral and they showed us three videos of initiatives they’ve worked on (videos are always a good visual communication with a language barrier) number one of which is the Mujeres Cafeteras or “women coffeemakers.” It’s a program they’re very proud of—selecting high quality farms run and owned by women and then helping them with the necessary resources to continue to make great coffee. It’s also the coffee we buy.
We took a tour of the offices after the videos. There’s basically a central drop off point where coffee growers or “productores” can drop of their coffee and Coocentral will de-husk it through a small mill or “thresher” as they called it in English, and then grade a green sample and send it to the cupping table where it will be given a score. All, pretty much, in a single day. From there, the coffee will be given a price (marked up 5% or so by the co-op) and then sold to importers and other buyers. Outside the office was a large sign that gave the growing rates for coffee that cupped at a certain level or had Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, or other certifications. Jeremy figured out that this base price was pretty low, somewhere around $120 a lb., pretty much the base of the commodities and fair trade market, and on up. This new coffee arrival will then be marked up again by importers and sold to roasters. Coocentral said they personally only deal with coffee’s that cup at an 80 or above.
We then drove a short distance across town to do a cupping with José, who is in charge of the specialty warehouse where the women’s co-op coffee’s (along with other higher end specialty coffees), are stored and shipped from. The warehouse was cool and adjusted for perfect humidity. José made us a Chemex of the new crop of Mujeres Cafeteras that had just finished harvest in May and spent June drying (the drying process more or less taking thirty days). I had to step up to the big leagues as we began to cup 12 samples of very similar coffees that were all more or less from the same general region of Huíla, and pretty much all the same varieties—Caturra, Castillo, and Colombia. The variance between the coffees was within 1, maybe 1.5 points, which is to say it was hard to distinguish between each of them, (in a good way because they were all good coffees).
These are basically the coffees Jose sorts through and selects from women’s farms to make up the larger crop of the “Mujeres Cafeteras.” Some of these farms are only producing 3-5 bags of coffee a harvest and are blended with other similar women’s co-op coffees. Basically, José is the guy who blends coffee at a green level and finds 8-10 similar micro lots of the Gigante, Garzon, and Pital regions that come to make up the Colombia Mujeres Cafeteras. It was another learning experience for me. How, exactly, the coffees we buy come together at an origin or source level. (I also learned from Claudia and Lilliana in Bogotá that the varieties of Castillo and Caturra tend to hold up age-wise longer than varieties like Typica or Bourbon.)
We went to lunch Friday afternoon at La Floresta with Yaimy, a sort of mini-“resort” restaurant that had a pool and rooms to stay at if one so desired. The food was by far the best meal we had. Lots of meat—chicken, three different types of sausages, some filled with rice and other animals I’m glad I couldn’t understand, steak, pork shoulder, avocado, some corn bread, and fried plantain like-balls I can’t remember the name of. Jeremy and Yaimy got the Arroz Tapada which was a rice covered in fried onions, chicken, and a sort of creamy sauce made of tomatoes and other things.
Then we went on to an afternoon that really made the whole trip. To the campos, or farm.
After lunch, Jaime drove us out of town and into a small canyon, near the end of the canyon, the road turned to dirt and began to get rougher and narrower. We wound up the side of a hill, (I want to say canyon but it’s more like the mountains here keep folding and opening like a the folds of an elaborate flower or some sort of expanding Russian Matryoshka doll. The mountains here in Huíla are made of many steep hills, valley, gorges, streams, and wide-open plains. You could definitely tell we were getting higher, but the land also tended to flatten and then rise-again, as if we were entering a land of never-ending plateaus, summits, and fields all at once. Finally, and really only forty-five minutes from Garzón, we made it to Finca Filadelfia. A family farm run by Lucia, her husband Giovannia, and their kids, uncle, and grandfather, amongst other workers. This was one of maybe 10 farms that contributed coffee to make up the Mujeres Cafeteras.
Giovanni met us with a wide smile. It was raining and foggy and so we could not look at the surrounding country side immediately but instead went on a quick inside tour of their beautiful home and coffee facility. The home was beautiful, sitting on the top of a small point that overlooked the rest of the farms and hills around them. They showed us a two-story gazebo they built out of a bamboo-like material over a small shed. Inside was a box filled with documents that tracked their sales, receipts, rain fall, production, and so on. We drank “aromaticas,” which was a tea sort of drink made with various aromatic plants on the top floor of the gazebo. Then Giovanni showed us the first level below the gazebo where there were a few sacks of dried coffee ready to sell in town, they last they had left, from the May harvest. One major learning aspect or point of “visualization” for me was to learn that most farmers would de-pulp, ferment, and dry the coffee cherries themselves, at the farm, in whatever makeshift way they could—some nice, others a bit more “handmade.” Then they would take the coffee parchment or “pergamino” intact, to the Coocentral mill where it would be de-husked. The mill being the main central point of equipment for most farmers. The pulping machine of Finca Filadefia was no bigger than the BBQ drum I had originally built to start roasting coffee and the fermentation tanks were more or less the size of two bathtubs. One tank for the good coffee, one for the floaters or defective beans that rise to the top of water while fermenting. Finca Filadelfia ferments their coffee, washed process, for 14 hours before taking it to dry in their greenhouse, which was roughly the size of two-medium sized sheds. I also learned that while the main harvest here are September and May, coffee is growing pretty much year round here in Huíla, Colombia.
After this it really started raining so we hunkered down on their outside patio and drank coffee while we traded our company histories. They had owned the farm for fifteen years and grown up in the region. I showed them our bag of La Barba coffee with the “Coocentral” and “Mujeres Cafeteras” labels. They were excited and wanted to take a picture of the bag, but they got ecstatic when I mentioned that perhaps one day we could put their name, Finca Filadelfia, on the bag. I sincerely wanted to but I also wondered if I had just made a false promise that might not work for whatever reason.
Once it stopped raining and we had taken some more photos, we walked around the farm. A few coffee cherries were ripe so I got to handpick ripe coffee cherries! They showed us their Caturra variety of plants and the various fruit trees growing alongside the coffee plants—banana, guava, tangerines, avocadoes, and oranges. Seriously, these trees just grow and produce fruit like crazy.
“Venden este fruta?” I asked.
“No,” they said. It’s for us. The fruit was primarily for household consumption. God, what a life.
We then walked to the other side of the farm where some new coffee seedlings were being cultivated. I learned that while coffee trees can grow fairly high, up to fifteen-twenty feet, they are often cut short or, pruned because prime-picking height is 5-6 feet. Most of these trees are growing on hillsides with a 60 degree incline and so anything like the use of a ladder is out of the question. Sometimes the hills are so steep the harvesters basically need to be roped in to pick them. Miraculously, the sun came out along with a rainbow and we could now see for miles around us. A plethora of farms, plantations, and fruit trees stretched around us. We could see all the way into the valley where we drove into Garzón along the Magdalena River. This region of Huíla sandwiched between the Oriental and Central Cordilleras of Colombia.
After this quick farm excursion, we went back to the gazebo where the ten-year old daughter, outfit in the apron of a barista, made us cappuccinos. I remarked on the smell of the leftover pulped cherries, sweet, but not particularly bad, an infinitesimal amount of fruit flies buzzing around the fermented and rotting fruit below us after it had been pulped and was now awaiting to be transformed into mulch, and they said yes, it’s a strange smell, but you should see when the coffee trees are ripe, their white flowers giving off the most beautiful smell. Jasmine and hibiscus, I knew, the entire hillside and homestead lit with this floral, sweet goodness. And in that moment I hoped heaven was something like Finca Filadelfia, drinking cappuccinos while overlooking a wide, beautiful valley, the smell of white coffee flowers permeating the air.
As we left, they gave us, not even joking, an entire bag filled with tangerines, bananas, avocadoes, and a bag of freshly-dried coffee with the parchment still on. I told them I would return soon and I hoped this was a promise I could keep.
The next morning we visited the main “plant” of Coocentral where they dry, sort, mill, and package the coffee. Coocentral has large fermentation tanks for farmers that don’t ferment or dry the coffee themselves which are then transported to a large tent. The drying area was split into various swathes of coffee based on quality, “calidad,” underneath a large white tent. The whole area looked like a Japanese feng shui garden, the beans with the parchment or (permigano) still on, and all spread out and continuously combed through by a large rake-like thing. The main “technician” of the plant told us how the plant provided opportunities for the farmers to work in the sorting, milling, or drying areas to help pay back credit or to help with any services they themselves would need from the plant.
“Es un buen ejemplo,” he said.
“Si, es la verdad.”
We then went to the milling and sorting area. Milling or hulling is the mechanical process by which the parchment is removed from the coffee bean and is one of the only steps that requires large, mechanical equipment and so most of the coffee in the region is sent through here. For farmers who do the fermenting and drying themselves on their own farms, the beans are sent directly through the mill, where it is milled three times and sorted a few times more. What comes out is green coffee devoid of any parchment, dust, or cascara. It was very cool to see this process in person. Sort of like getting a brewery tour, the equipment all so tall and loud.
The coffee is then sent on a conveyor belt where one person sits and does a last sorting—picking through any missed beans or outside items that may have ended up in the green. The coffee is then shot up through another set of tubes where people stand ready with a grain pro or burlap bag to weigh and package the beans. From here, the coffee is shipped via camions or trucks to the ports, where the coffee is then loaded on a container and shipped to it’s final destination. Here in Garzón Coocentral has it’s own cafes and own roaster, and so we popped over to their roasting facility where we saw their small cupping area, a beautiful 25 kilo Probat, and bagging/grinding area for the roasted café. The entire area was immaculate.
Now, finally, here, we had reached the end of the coffee supply chain.
We had seen all the various processes, where it is delivered to me the roaster or you, the consumer. Thus wrapped up the coffee portion of our trip to Colombia. Now it was on to some “termales” (hot springs) before we drove back to Neiva to catch a flight back to Bogotá.
Tomorrow, we are hoping to go see Monsterrate, a cathedral on the top of the hill overlooking Bogotá you need to take a cable car to get to, and perhaps we’ll visit the famous “Meseo del Oro,” (museum of gold) as well, and the barrio of La Candelaria where there are tiny European streets and excellent food and drinks, but if we don’t, that would be just fine with me. I am very happy with what we have seen and done thus far. And I can’t wait to come back, next time hopefully, not as visitors, but as friends of the various farmers and fellow coffeemakers we have got to know (and are already friends with on Facebook).
Espero que voy a volver pronto!