After spending an evening at the lovely La Navarra Hotel in Armenia, Quindio I woke to another grey, wet morning. We ate a hardy breakfast of arepa, a flat bread covered with cheese, fresh fruit and hot cocoa, before heading to nearby El Agrado, one of Cenicafé’s regional research farms.
Upon arrival, our group was led towards a forest of bamboo that reached high above the trees, forming shelter from the rain. Inside was a circular grove outlined with teak lutyens benches that overlooked a porcelain brew bar set upon a bamboo table. Marta, the farm’s resident barista and head of its quality research lab, talked about the importance of proper preparation and sharing that knowledge and experience with farmers to help them better understand the end product of their coffee. She then brewed a Chemex for us all to share before we headed out to do some work.
Today was dedicated to learning more about the coffee growing process step-by-step. After spending the previous day at several farms, it was time to get my hands dirty and experience each of the steps throughout the process.
I began with a bag of Castillo coffee seeds in their unmilled parchment state. Castillo is a hybrid variety of Caturra designed to be resistent to leaf rust, a fungus that’s become a growing problem for coffee farmers in Colombia. The nursery bed was nothing more than a garden box filled with wet sand, where seeds would grow roots and their first pair of leaves during the next 60 days.
Taking my first handful of seeds I began to cautiously sprinkle them as if I could consciously place each bean as it landed. After being encouraged not to worry about uniform spacing, the blank sheet of sand became speckled at a much quicker pace. When the bed had been saturated with enough coffee seeds, I used a bamboo roller to level the seeds before spreading another centimeter of sand over them.
After planting my own seeds, we moved to a couple of beds that were further along in the process. After about 30 days, the seed itself is pushed up from the sand on a stem, while a system of vertical roots begin to take hold. By 60 days, the first pair of leaves develop and the tiny plants are transplanted from the bed of sand into cylindrical bags filled with soil and organic material.
The cylindrical bags and their new inhabitants are grouped together and set aside to grow for another 6 months, where they’ll grow to be about 12 inches high and develop roughly 6 pair of leaves. At this time, the plants will be strong enough to be transplanted to their permanent places in the field.
Arriving to the plants new home, I cleared away any brush, sticks and weeds and dug a hole deep enough to receive the column of starter soil—making sure the base of the plant rested level with the surrounding earth. I took the fill dirt I had removed from the hole and mixed it with about 1/3 compost, made of decomposed coffee cherry pulp, before refilling and packing the hole, making sure there were no pockets of air left in the soil. Then I moved on to my second plant.
While it took me about 30 minutes to bury my first two plants, a real farmer can plant hundreds of new trees in a day. I imagine with a bit more practice and a more flexible pair of jeans, I could increase my productivity exponentially.
Once my plants where in the ground, they would have another year of maturation before the first flowers would arrive, followed 8 months later by the first coffee cherries.
I also learned a bit about fertilization, which consists of spreading nitrogen and phosphorus pellets around the base of the plants when the soil becomes off balance. The rest of the growth cycle involves continued management of soil health and preventing leaf rust and other pests that may destroy the plants.
In Colombia, the coffee cherries mature at different times, and many farms are on steep and uneven terrain, so once cherries begin to ripen they are picked by hand as needed. The farmers concerned with the highest quality will sort the harvested cherries again to make sure only the best ones are being processed. Tanks of water are are also used to separate the bad cherries which will float to the top, while the others sink.
When the ripe cherries have all been gathered, it’s time to process them. Colombia’s primary method of processing is washed, either with fermentation tanks or the Colombian designed Becolsub (or eco pulper). Once the beans have been separated from the cherry (depulped), they are left covered with a clear jelly-like substance called mucilage. In order to remove the mucilage, they are left to sit for 12 to 18 hours while microorganisms in the mucilage dissolve the sugars. This part of the coffee process is one of the most sensitive and can lead to defects that affect the taste if done improperly.
Once the proper fermentation time has elapsed, the coffee beans are washed clean and dried to reach a moisture level between 10–12%. Drying is done with the sun on patios or raised beds, and in some cases with mechanical heated silos. The silo I saw on this visit was powered by burning dried coffee parchment, a waste product from the mill. After the parchment coffee has dried to the proper moisture level, it’s bagged, taken to the nearest selling point and checked for quality.
Following our morning of work in the fields, we washed up and headed to the El Agrado lab, where Marta gave us a tour of the facilities and talked about the quality tests run on coffee sent to them by farmers. These tests help diagnose problems they can help resolve as well as discover farmers producing great coffee who they can learn from. I also looked at physical examples of green coffee defects and learned more about their causes.
After working my way through the coffee process this morning, it was about time to taste the resulting product. Marta had prepared a cupping with 5 coffees from different farms in the Quindio region, both Caturra and Castillo varieties. While each of the coffees were very nice, two of them stood out as definite favorites. Most surprising to me though, was how different these coffees could taste when all of them were from the same region. The complexity and nuance of coffee continues to amaze me.
With the most exciting and information filled part of the day coming to an end, we headed off to the Colombian National Coffee Park for a late lunch and some relaxation. The Parque Nacional del Café is a sprawling theme park that shares the culture and process surrounding Colombian coffee, as well as being home to several roller coasters and go-carts. Although the weather wasn’t the best for water rides, we strolled around the park and took in the view before heading to our hotel in Pereira.
Today was the most informative of my trip, which I don’t necessarily attribute to the amount of information received, but through the process of learning by hand. This helped me absorb what I learned and apply a level of physical effort to the knowledge itself. The romantic idea of being at origin was punctuated by the reality of how much work goes into growing coffee and the intensity of the labor involved. The most important thing I’ve learned so far at origin, is that everything I’ve learned has an asterisk.