Coffee Producers in Colombia: Thriving, Not Just Surviving

Only once before had I been to Origin, and on that trip I got to see one farm and one mill. I was excited about the prospect of this trip to Colombia as I was going to see a lot more; and all jam-packed into a few days.

Day 1

I met Paul and Ana. Ana grew up in Colombia and in agriculture, although not coffee; her family has been involved in sugar cane farming for generations. They both lived in Australia for quite some time, but when Ana needed to go back to Colombia, Paul needed something to do. Coffee farming was something he was interested in, so he started looking into it. A lot of people told him not to bother – it was expensive and you didn’t make a lot of money from it. It would seem a lot of the Colombian farmers are in a position where they are not thriving; just merely surviving. He didn’t take that advice, instead investing in a farm in the Risaralda region, near a little town called Salento. On our drive up to the farm we saw the agriculture change from sugar cane to plantain to coffee, and the altitude went from 1200masl to 2000masl; the altitude that his farm sits at. Paul, along with the original owner Ricardo, have been working at changing the way things are on the farm; they have committed to 100% organic farming. It’s not an easy feat – especially with the Colombian Coffee Federation prescribing the exact opposite. Not through fault or purposeful misguiding, but through a genuine fear that organic farming is risky, and with coffee being a major economic source, it is important to protect that.

We met our friend and guide Nelson, who drove a bright blue Jeep, jumped in and away we went. Nelson, along with a lot of Jeep owners, operates as transport for farm workers and locals, sometimes squeezing as many as 35 people on one Jeep. Nelson also works at the farm, Finca Don Paul. As we were climbing to the farm, we could see the Tatama National Park. Tatama stretches three states, from the farm to the Pacific coast. It has a lot to do with the prime position this farm has. Firstly, it has a clean and consistent source of water. Just above the farm is an aqueduct that was built by the coffee federation, which draws water from Tatama and delivers it to the farm. Agricultural land considered ‘good’ would have 4-5% organic matter. This farm has 8-9%, giving the soil good drainage, access to nutrition and a perfect growing condition for the plants.

On the drive up, Paul explained to me some of his methods. First, he makes a bokashi. It’s a traditional way of creating compost. He gets indigenous microorganisms from the base of bamboo trees; a local and rich source. These are then mixed with worm oil (produced on the farm), whey and molasses. Once the fermentation has occurred, they can then be multiplied with water. From there, the bokashi is mixed with any organic waste (food, clippings, used cherries) and ground rocks for a rich source of minerals. This method creates a rich compost that can be used on the farm and creates a very nutritious fertilizer for the plants. From what I could see, it was working. The trees for the most part looked very healthy, and the fruit was plentiful. Paul and Ricardo are also battling brocca (bean borer) with neem; natural oil derived from the plant. They are finding that continued use of neem is not only deterring the brocca, it is also killing them and stopping them from reproducing.

After a tour of the farm and eating copious amounts of fruit growing on the farm, we sat at the farm house, ate some lunch and I made a coffee for everyone. Whilst sitting at the farm house you can see the area, on top of the house, where they dry the coffee after it is processed. This form of drying is common in the area. The roofs on the houses literally slide away from the house on rails to expose a drying patio. Before drying, there are two small fermentation tanks that Ricardo uses to process the coffee. The set-up is small and personalised, aiding in a truly farm-only single origin coffee.

In the afternoon we drove to a farmhouse in Chinchina; where we were to spend the next two nights. A little stop in Santa Rosa to pick up some chorizo for breakfast and we were set. For the record, Colombian chorizo is less oily and smokier than a Spanish style chorizo. It is delicious!

Day 2

In the morning, we drove into the main town of Chinchina. This is a bustling dedicated coffee town. There are six large dry mills here, receiving coffee from around the town, preparing and sorting, and bagging for export. We started at the La Meseta Dry Mill which is one of the biggest mills in the town. La Meseta started out as a small family operation in 1983 when a collective of coffee farmers was started, to help increase the prices and welfare of local farmers. Starting with 10,000kg of coffee, six of the family members now run various parts of the business, and from 10,000 bags of coffee in 2003, they exported 496,000 bags in 2015; that’s almost 35 million kilograms of coffee. Just standing there, you could see the mass volume of coffee coming in, ready to be sorted and leaving in bags ready for export. Whilst there, we could see the schedule of trucks due for the day, which was eight. That’s eight trucks carrying 20 – 30 tonnes of coffee per truck. It’s a serious operation with a family focus. La Meseta can produce any quality coffee in any volume at the touch of a button.

We spent the afternoon walking around the mill, seeing the operation. As the truck arrives, there are around 200kg of coffee taken for sample. They use a hydraulic arm with a giant needle that pierces the bags from top to bottom at any position of the truck and draws samples from each bag as it is inserted. This means they can draw a sample from anywhere on the truck, whereas previously, this could only be done from the outside bags. From there, they sort that 200kg into size and quality, checking for defects and tasting the coffee, so they know exactly the coffee they have received. They have a SCAA Certified lab and a Q Grader, cupping for quality along with a QA team checking all the parts of the green. From there, the coffee is removed from the truck into a grate in the floor so that it can go into processing.

First is sorting for size, moving the coffee from a screen size of under 14 through to over 19. This allows them to create whatever quality the buyer wants with blends of sizes. A Colombian Supremo will have 95% of green coffee that is above a screen size of 17. From there, the coffee goes through a series of laser colour sorting. How many times a green bean passes the laser will be up to the quality wanted from the buyer. You can get some amazing accuracy from these machines with a few passes. There basically isn’t anything La Meseta can’t provide – from commodity coffee, right through to the smallest gesha micro lots. I think one of the best things about La Meseta is their treatment of people and farmers. They pay well, care for the workers and are committed to continuing the growth of the industry.

In the morning, Rolando Vigoya from La Meseta took us for a tour of two farms that were owned by La Meseta – Finca La Guamerra and Finca La Berlin. There was a lot of coffee… a lot. You could see coffee as far as the eye could see. The main varietals seen were Castillo, Colombia, Cattura and Catui. It was awesome to see coffee on such a grand scale, and it was then the understanding of the importance of coffee to a region like this was realised; we need to look after these people. The farms have 13 full time employees that receive health care, accommodation and above award wages. In harvest, this workforce grows to around 300; normally nomadic Colombians that travel around from place to place to find work.

Day 3

This time, we left the farmhouse in an opposite direction. Manizales was our destination, to meet Jorge Correa – owner of Cafe Postal and a few farms growing a whole range of varietals. We started at an amazingly impressive wet mill. Jorge’s background is engineering, so having a thirst for improvement, Jorge has put a lot of thought into the future of processing coffee from his farms. He has just completed six insulated and sealable stainless steel fermentation tanks with a water jacket surrounding each. In the corner of the room, there was a refrigeration unit to control the temperature of the fermentation tanks. This means Jorge can set the temperature to stop, start, slow or quicken the fermentation at any stage of the process. Along with control over temperature, the tanks have sealing ability. This gives control over oxygen levels, meaning the processing can be aerobic or anaerobic. At this stage, I was like a kid in a candy store; very excited with the opportunities of coffees that could come from here. Onto the drying, Jorge’s wet mill has drying machines that dry coffee with ambient air. This is different to most farms that are using heat to dry, which if not controlled properly can damage the coffee.

Onto the farms, and Jorge had a stretch of varietals spread over a large amount of land. Red bourbon, yellow bourbon, yellow Colombia, red Colombia, Catuai, gesha and a maragogype/gesha hybrid. This larger picture shows the range of amazing coffee Jorge has at hand and along with the processing this makes the opportunities really exciting.

This trip for me changed my view on Colombia. Whilst I’ve tried some great coffee from Colombia and seen a couple of unique things coming from Colombia, I thought, for the most part, that Colombian coffee was pretty basic. I saw some things, met some people and experienced a very contradictory Colombia. It opened my eyes to some really awesome potential, and I am very excited to try and share some of the coffees I saw.

Paul Asquith
With 15 years already spent committed to coffee, Paul's passion is for digesting the endless possibilities and knowledge surrounding coffee flavour development. After winning the Australasian Grand Barista Championship in 2012, Paul knows just how good coffee can be and the important role everyone plays, from grower to Barista, in developing and nurturing flavour. Captivated by coffee’s agronomy, Paul is excited to be part of a generation passionate about improving practices on farms and seeing growers produce outstanding coffee. Paul holds a pivotal role within our team. Working side by side with our cupping panel, roasters and trainers, Paul’s focus is on refining our coffee program to ensure it honours the remarkable flavour diversity coffee has to offer and supports best practice at each and every stage.