As we continued along the path Colombian coffee takes before reaching roasters around the world, we arrived to a mill owned by Almacafé. In Colombia, coffee farmers sell their coffee with the parchment (a thin crumbly skin) still on the beans. So after coffee is sold, it’s delivered to one of several large mills throughout the country and stored in clean, moisture-controlled warehouses to await the final steps of processing and export.
The parchment coffee is periodically checked for quality throughout its stay, to ensure nothing has gone wrong while it has been stored. When it’s time to be hulled, coffee lots are pulled into a silo through a labyrinth of conveyor belts and tubes, like a loud and dusty version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
From this point, the coffee moves incredibly quickly through a series of vibrating screens and wind tubes to clean the parchment coffee from debris, sticks, stones and any other foreign objects that may have found it’s way into bags. When the coffee has been cleared of debris, the parchment is milled off and the naked green coffee begins an intense, multi-tier sorting process to separate the coffee into more homogenous groups.
Beans are sorted based on their size, density and weight by a process of air blown up through a series of slanted trays. The smaller, lighter beans become airborne, jostling them into a high position on the screen. The beans are then separated by slats of wood sending them onto designated tracks according to their characteristics. The coffee goes through this process several times to ensure thorough sorting.
Once the coffee has been shaken and separated physically, they zip down a more technological belt where light spectrometers spot and remove beans with color defects.
The coffee then pours onto a moving table where rows of women identify and pick out defects that have eluded all other measures. This finely sorted coffee is then placed in one last silo before its bagged for roasters, cupped again for defects and sent to port.
After leaving behind the drone of the mill, we emerged from the cool shaded warehouse to the immense heat of coastal Colombia. Outside, we were greeted by our fantastic driver, who kept the mood light and the reggaeton beats heavy, as we traveled the last few winding miles to the port of Santa Marta.
As we approached the shipping yard, I eagerly watched the colorful towers grow above the van’s windows. Throughout my life, I’ve lived in several port cities and always had a fascination with shipping containers and their structural impressions left on the horizon of the harbor. But until this point, I had only viewed them from outside the shipyard’s fence and I was excited to finally explore one from the inside.
Upon our arrival, we donned FNC hard hats and began to trek through the container canyons to the central warehouse where coffee awaited export. No matter who is exporting the coffee, FNC requires all of it to be checked for defects and quality. All coffee must meet certain criteria (12-13% moisture level, minimum defects, no insect infestations, clean cup, no foreign odor, Excelso screen size, uniform color) to be allowed to leave the country and maintain a minimum standard for all Colombian coffee.
When the coffee has passed its final round of quality inspection, it’s loaded into a container one of several ways, depending on the buyer and destination. While most green coffee is shipped in 60-70 kilo sisal bags (about 250 per container) it can also be loaded into 500 kilo bags, or giant bladder-lined containers that hold 21 tons of coffee.
While we were at the warehouse, I saw one of these bladder-lined containers being filled. Each individual bag of coffee destined for that container had to be cut open and poured on to the conveyor belt leading into the box. It would take the small team of men about 2 hours to fill the container with 21 tons of coffee.
Following our tour of the warehouse and another Almacafé test lab, we were treated to a better view of the whole operation from the top of a loading crane. After traversing more corridors through the towering stacks, we took turns squeezing into a tiny elevator that lifted us high above the makeshift city below. As I stepped onto the platform, I stopped to gain my balance as the crane swayed and vibrated with the operator, who was lifting 25 ton boxes into position underneath us.
The view was a tremendous one, offering the rare and delightful opportunity to watch ships sail off in the distance, carrying coffee to your favorite roasters.