La Barba en Colombia 2017 // Día Uno y Dos
When my alarm first went off at 4:30 a.m., I was sure it was a mistake. Why would I have set an alarm for 4:30 in the morning? But of course, I nearly instantly remembered, this morning I was going to Colombia. After five years of roasting coffee, I was finally headed to see coffee grown at origin! The growing, processing, milling, hulling, and fermenting I had read and Google Image searched all about, I would now see in person. My wife picked up my friend and La Barba Coffee Financial “consultant,” Jeremy Cox promptly at 5 and then we headed to the SLC airport for our 7 a.m. flight.
Despite only four hours of sleep the night before, I couldn’t sleep on the plane and instead spent some time reading, writing, and watching the film Patriot’s Day with Mark Wahlberg. This movie was my sole American act of patriotism, as today was of course, July 4th, and honestly, I was happy to be travelling outside the country. Since we had a five-hour layover in ATL, Jeremy took me on the MART to downtown Atlanta where we walked around the Olympic Park and had lunch at Waffle House. The streets were empty, nearly deserted, and Atlanta had a strange Walking Dead/feeling of poverty and isolation to me, until remembered it was the 4th, and hence this relaxed Southern capitol of Georgia must have been enjoying the hot day indoors and out of their offices.
As we waited in the ATL airport for our flight to Bogotá, I was surprised when a group of ten young LDS missionaries sat down next to us. Were they following us from Utah? Along with the missionaries in the airport were a handful of Colombian nationals, scores of youth groups, backpackers, and many Asians.
We arrived to Bogotá around 9. On the flight I fell asleep for an hour before watching the movie War Dogs. A driver named Rafael picked us up and took on a short, fifteen-minute drive to the Holiday Inn in Bogotá. After our bags were unpacked I went outside to smoke a cigarette, took the elevator back upstairs, and promptly fell asleep.
The next day we woke up and had breakfast. Queso, jamon, aguas frutas, café, y pan. Desayunos de America Latina son mi favorito! It was cloudy and overcast outside but not quite raining. From our hotel window we could catch a glimpse of the sprawling urban center that was Bogotá, all situated in a wide valley with tall green hills that rose sharply just outside the city. Thousands of tall, brown brick buildings looking like Legos. The city of Bogotá sits at an elevation of 2,000 M or 8,000 feet, which Jeremy and I were both surprised to learn. I knew the city was high, but not this high.
We then took a short drive to the Bogotá Sustainable Harvest offices where we met Claudy and Lilliana, the two employees who run the office in Bogotá. Claudy is the coffee quality manager there (calidad de café) and roasts all the green samples (muestras) from the farms and co-ops of Colombia, grades them and sends them to the SH offices in Portland. Lillian is in charge of the supply chain. We did a cupping with them where we cupped some coffees from various regions of the country—Tolima, Cuaca, Huila, Nariño, and a Mexico, and they gave us an overview of both the country of Colombia and the work Sustainable Harvest does around the world fostering direct buyer relationships. Claudy told me she does 1-5 cuppings or “cataciones” each day.
One of my main purposes for this trip was to better understand both the supply chain of coffee and to see in person the various processing, milling, hulling, drying, and so on, coffee undergoes at a farm. Talking to Claudy I learned that there were only three regions in Colombia that focus on organic coffee, those in Tolima, Cuaca, and up north above Medellín.
Why? I asked. For the most part, she said, regions in Colombia are focused on productivity and have well established infrastructure alongside systems of fertilizers and growing practices they’ve been doing for many years. This does not mean they are crop-dusting coffee plants with Monsanto GMO’s of course, but are using a combination of natural fertilizers and pesticides to help keep the yields up and the diseases and insects away. I think this is one thing us Americans are poor at understanding, though we like to divide things into different groups—such as Pure organic vs. GMO/Monsanto when there’s a lot of space in between. However, that being said, my favorite coffee on the first cupping table was a Fair Trade Organic from Tolima that I want La Barba to buy next. It had a nice bright juicy green apple acidity.
After a quick lunch of some fresh juices and Colombian crepes at a Centro Commercial down the street, we returned for another cupping where we tasted some Gesha’s from the up ad coming Cuaca region along with some other coffees in Huila. Claudy and Lilliana then took us to a friend’s café called Café 18, where they roast their own coffee. It was a swanky café in a brand new building underneath fancy apartments. They had a three-group Simonelli alongside Chemex’s for pour-overs and a hand-pressurized manual espresso device called Trinity made in Australia. The espresso, a blend, was very good and had a coca-cola like flavor.
We then went out for dinner at Parque 93 for sushi. The park was nice, well-lit, and it felt like we could have been in any metropolitan city in the world.
Día Tres y Cuatro
Thursday we took a quick one-hour flight to Neiva and then it was a three-hour ride to Garzón where we’d be staying for the next two nights. Garzón was the biggest city near the main coffee producing region of Huíla, with a hotel near Coocentral—the co-op we’d be visiting in the morning.
As soon as got into Neiva, the clima, or climate, changed. We were hit with a burst of warm dry hair as we stepped off the plane. Whereas in Bogotá it was 60 degrees and cloudy, here, a ways south, it was 80 degrees, warm, balmy, and nearly tropical. We drove through the towns of Neiva, Hobo, and Gigante alongside the Magdalena river, passing crops of rice, tobacco, and cotton (and apparently, some hot springs). The mountains or, cordilleras, in the area and along the river were not quite what I was expecting. The hills were green, brown, and red, with a certain ruggedness to them, even some exposed rock.
As we drove, I spoke in Spanish with our driver, Jaime, who works for Coocentral, the second biggest co-op in all of Colombia. Jaime’s entire family was in the coffee business and she had grown up in Garzón and spent her entire life in the region besides going to the university for a degree in agriculture.
“Ha trabajado por Coocentral por seis años,” she told me. While we drove Jamie told me about the coffee cultura of Colombia and I asked her about the harvest, certifications, and other coffee related things, as her and I kept repeating to each other “Que?’ “Que?” “No entiendo.” I could actually speak with more ease to Jaime than the people in Bogotá. As is the case with most cities, the pace of life, including the rate of speech, was faster in the city, than here. Immediately everything in Huila, felt slower, more relaxed, tranquilo. As we drove further it began to rain and the road started to climb up a steep, twisting mountain pass over sketchy bridges, more what I had in mind for a coffee-producing region.
“What do you think about certification?” I asked Jaime, because it was one part of her job (I think) working on the certifications of various farms through Coocentral.
“I think they are good,” she said, “But sometimes it is difficult to get the farmers to implement the necessary steps. They don’t always understand why, which is why part of our job is to help with education.” (I am translating here from my very poor Spanish so forgive me if this is not 100% correct.)
“Hay es, muy, come se llama? Distancia de los tostadors y los cafeteras sí?”
(There is much distance between the roasters and the growers)
I spent some of the drive in silence pondering the coffee chain, thinking about how many steps we’ve taken to shorten and collapse this distance between growers and consumers, and yet the cynical side of me wondered if we rich Americans or Westerners or Japanese or Australians were still merely using this coffee grown by so many different humble hands, to win competitions and awards and make names for ourselves in buildings where our mere rent cost more than many of these people could fathom. It can be a sustainable, relational, productive system for all and yet unfortunately, business can also be exploitative if not downright indifferent.
I almost fell asleep but we soon arrived in Garzón, where we parked beneath the Kahvé Hotel. In the garage were bags of fertilizer, grain, and “chemicos” available for purchase—just one sign that we were now in the heart of Huíla and coffee country. We parked and grabbed our bags. Outside the hotel, tienditas hung with strips of meat and motos sped by alongside stray, unsprayed dogs, chickens, and vultures. Finally, I thought, I am back in the chaos of the developing world. Yet we then walked inside into a very modern hotel. A large photo of a white coffee blossom adorned one wall by the reception with various other coffee adornments scattered throughout the lobby. This was Kahvé Hotel, owned by Coocentral and apparently a very swanky place for coffee buyers and industry professionals to stay at while they explored or worked in the region. There was even a nice Kahvé café attached, equipped with a polished Simonelli Arduino on bar, and a chemex, siphon, French press, and Japanese cold brew machine on the counter. I was feeling very tired, but Jaime ordered us three Americanos and it began to wake my tired body up, but not quite enough, and so I once I finished my Americano I ordered a cappuccino as well.
I don’t know if I had travelled to more touristy places in the past, like in Mexico and Costa Rica, but here so far in Colombia, hardly anyone spoke English. I was used to coasting by in the past, only needing a few phrases and words to get me around ,“Donde esta el baño” and such (though I could understand and speak a little but more than that). But here I was left to do my best to speak and understand the language fluently with Jaime and the hotel operators. In the States I would have bragged to white people that I was almost fluent, here though, it was more like 50%. I was having trouble holding in-depth conversations with folks about coffee processing and Colombian culture. I also had to learn the certain linguistic phrases that are different from other Latin American countries. For instance, most Colombians will say “Ciao,” instead of the more Mexican, “Adios.” They also like the word chevre, which means cool. I also like the word chevre. I think I’m going to use word all the time now. Chevre?
I’m pretty sure we were the only white people in Garzón. We stuck out instantly as we walked down the street to find a place to grab some food—both of us with our white skin, Jeremy six-foot one, me with a beard and tattoos. One thing was for sure, there would be no sushi in Garzón, which was just fine with me. Here was traditional comida de Colombiana. We found a small place called “Don King” that served fried pollo y papas—six pieces of fried chicken with French fries along with a liter of coke, all for $18,000 Colombian Pesos, or around $7 USD.
Then we went back to our hotel where I went to bed early to prepare myself for a big day in the morning. Another picture of a coffee flower hung above my bed and I fell asleep to the sound of dogs barking on the street.