To finally pick a coffee cherry off the tree and taste the inherent sweetness that should be found in your cup (cliché as it may sound) gives an entirely new understanding and appreciation for the farmers, roasters and baristas who are able to maintain the true characteristics of this wonderful seed throughout it’s long and complex journey. Great coffee should not be unpleasantly bitter, it should not need sugar, and it should not be insulting to pay as much as you would for the cheapest glass of wine on a menu.
I learned so much during this week, but nothing more important than just how little I know. Though I experienced many things on this trip, it was only a few farms, in a couple regions, of one country out of many, that produce coffee in different ways, in different parts of the world. After finally visiting origin, I now feel like I know less than I ever have—which is more of a reason to keep learning.
After five days of immersive education at coffee farms, labs and mills, the remaining two days of my trip were reserved for experiencing some of the non-coffee related highlights in Colombia. To wrap-up a long week of travel and learning, I was excited to relax on the beach with new friends, enjoy a few bottles of Aguardiente & dance the night away in moonlit clubs. I spent the weekend visiting cultural landmarks and enjoying a few restaurants in Bogotás lively food scene—complete with belly dancers, burgers & beer.
At the beginning of the year, I made it a goal of mine to visit origin in 2012, but I had no idea it would be through such an incredible opportunity as this one. I can’t thank the Colombia Coffee Hub and the FNC enough for this experience.
Marcela, Camillo and Michael were incredible hosts, answered all my questions (no matter how controversial the answers may have been) and were genuinely fantastic people to be around. Also the media team—Lina, Jorge and Sebastién who did their best to avoid awkwardness while filming my every move for a week. This journey would not have been the same without all the lovely people who were a part of it.
In the coming year, there will be more origin journey’s featured on the Hub, including another (like mine) to be given to a lucky Hubber. So if you haven’t joined yet—it may be one the best decisions you’ve ever made.
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.
Late last night we arrived in Bogotá for a good night’s rest before spending the next morning in the city. Michael met me in the lobby of the hotel and we walked a few blocks to the Federation of National Coffee Growers (FNC) headquarters to meet with Marcela and learn more about their work. While we gathered to talk, an employee who makes coffee for the office came through and delivered us our first cup of the day—nice perk.
The FNC was founded in 1927 as a private non-profit organization to represent all coffee growers in Colombia. Every coffee farmer in Colombia (560,000 of them) is a defacto member of the FNC, and farmers with at least 1500 coffee plants can become Federated. A Federated Member receives voting rights, a national coffee grower’s ID and direct deposit for their coffee sales, but every grower has access to the FNC and its resources.
All of the representatives at the FNC are democratically elected in national and local elections, with a 68% participation rate—higher than governmental polls. In November of each year, new policies and goals are presented and voted on by representatives before being implemented.
For every pound of coffee sold in Colombia, six cents goes into the National Coffee Bank. The coffee bank funds all of the FNC programs, ranging from the research at Cenicafé, productivity and sustainability programs, quality control, and the coffee purchase guarantee—one of the most interesting things I learned on my visit.
The coffee purchase guarantee program ensures that all coffee is purchased from farmers for the current market rate, no matter the quality, to prevent farmers from falling victim to weather or other quality catastrophes that may ruin their crop. However, if the quality of the coffee isn’t high enough to be exported, the FNC absorbs the loss and works with the farmer to solve future problems.
After learning more about the FNC, I stepped across the hall to the Almacafé lab where a library of green coffee from all around the country is received, cataloged and quality tested, much like at the El Agrado lab I visited on day 2.
After meeting the lab technicians, I sat down with Camilo for a cupping that included coffee from the north, central and southern regions as well as defects that included past crop, over-fermented and Phenol. I had never specifically cupped defects before, so it was really eye opening to experience just how bad coffee can be when growing or processing problems occur—which are usually filtered out before they reach consumers.
Following our cupping session, we crossed the street to Juan Valdez Café, one of the 120 locations found throughout Colombia. When we arrived, Ronald Valero, the two time runner-up in the Colombian Barista Championship, was there to hang out and make us some lovely espresso. Ronald is now the head trainer for Juan Valdez as they work to improve the quality of their coffee, baristas and service.
Juan Valdez Café is owned by the FNC as well as about 20,000 coffee grower stake-holders. The project was started in 2002 as a way to showcase Colombian coffee within the country and has since begun to expand with locations in Chile, Peru and the United States. Royalties from the Juan Valdez brand, which is owned by all of the Colombian coffee growers, are paid into the National Coffee Bank benefitting all of the growers.
Recently, some of the cafés have begun offering home brewing classes and tasting events with customers a well as placing an emphasis on the differences of taste found in each Colombian region. The cafés rotate the brewed coffees each week to highlight different parts of the country and introduce variations in taste to their customers.
It was great learning more about the FNC, the work they do and the progress they’re trying to make. Colombia, until 2008, exported about 11 million tons of coffee each year. But recently, because of unrelenting rains combined with an increase in coffee rust and other pests, the yield has dropped to about 8 million tons. With 33% of the population relying on coffee for their livelihood, there are just as many social reasons as there are economic reasons to make sure the coffee industry remains healthy and strong.
Before catching an afternoon flight to Santa Marta, we stopped by Amor Perfecto, a local specialty coffee roaster who recently opened a beautiful new café and coffee lab following the World Barista Championship in Bogotá—more on that in a separate post.
On the third day we left from Pereira and drove for an hour along the scenic “coffee highway” on our way to Chinchiná. Today would contrast yesterday’s fun on the farm with a more microscopic view of coffee at Cenicafé, the Colombian National Research Center—one of the world’s largest coffee research labs.
Sitting atop a mountain in the west Andes, Cenicafé is a beautiful research campus where a large team of scientists, engineers and agronomists work on programs that range from genetic mapping, coffee processing technology and biodiversity preservation. I had the pleasure of meeting with several of these brilliant minds who shared way more knowledge than I could absorb in one day, but I was introduced to new concepts and perspectives I had yet to consider in my understanding of coffee.
We began the morning meeting with Dr. Huver Posada, who talked about the Denominations of Origin program. The DO program is tasked with mapping chemical markers within coffee from all around Colombia to determine specific environmental traits that contirbute to certain qualities of Colombian coffee.
Using an infrared spectroscopy machine, Dr. Posada can test samples of coffee to capture and catalog data that includes levels of caffeine, acidity, sugars and many other chemical compounds. This information can be used to not only determine expected qualities based on where a coffee is grown, but it can also be used to authenticate a coffee’s origin.
Next we met with Dr. Alvaro Gaitán who gave us a tour of the campus and several labs while discussing Cenicafés genetic improvement program. One of the many projects by Dr. Gaitán and his colleagues include mapping the genome of various coffee species to study and compare gene arrangements. This allows them to clone the agronomically beneficial genes and try to develop solutions to problems that plague farmers, such as leaf rust and the coffee berry borer.
While enjoying your morning coffee, the last thing you probably imagine are shelves filled with cloned plant specimens and labs experimenting with beetle killing fungi. However, Cenicafé is where these scientific explorations of coffee take place to ensure that future generations of Colombian coffee farmers will still have their livelihood, should unmanageable pests and disease threaten their crops.
After lunch I met Gloria Lentijo who works in the Biology Conservation Department at Cenicafé. She shared some of the work being done to study, understand and conserve the incredibly rich biodiversity in Colombia without sacrificing the farmer’s productivity.
This department works with farmers to promote eco corridors that connect forests and vegetation patches on farms as well as how to properly use shade in regions where its needed. They’ve also cataloged hundreds of species of insects and wildlife that can be found throughout the country, which is also used to educate school children.
This information is shared with farmers in several ways, but one of the most interesting methods is through community bird watch groups created to foster appreciation and pride in the conservation of Colombia’s natural habitats.
Next, I got to meet Dr. Rodrigo Sanz, an engineer who worked on the Becolsub, a technology developed by Cenicafé that I was eager to learn about in person. The system was developed to speed up coffee processing, minimize contamination and use less water. While the traditional washed process uses about 40 liters of water per kilo of coffee, the Becolsub uses less than 1 liter of water per kilo.
The system consists of a standard pulper, driven by belts instead of a hand crank, that is connected to a “demucilager.” The demucilager is a small silo filled with knobby gears that spin at high RPMs. The depulped seeds travel up through the silo with a small amount of water and are washed clean of the mucilage—without having to ferment for the standard 12-18 hours. The expelled beans are ready to to be dried moments after the cherries enter the machine. I would have liked to cup the same coffee processed with both methods to see if there are any significant differences in the taste, but that would have required more time than we had available.
This method of washing coffee is becoming more prominent in Colombia and similar systems are being used in other countries as well, but the coffee is generally labeled as “washed processed.” I’d be interested in learning more about the Becolsub’s effect on flavor development—if any—as well as seeing more coffee labeled specifically with this processing technique out of sheer curiosity.
Before leaving Cenicafé, I spent the afternoon exploring the varietal research collection that features row upon row of varieties and hybrids that include plants from the Arabica, Canephora (Robusta) and Liberica species of coffee. It was incredible to see how drastically different coffee plants could be from one another. From the strikingly tall Liberica trees to the bushy Timor and the spindly Bourbons. A truly great experience.
Dr. Posada met back up with us in the field to discuss cross-pollination and to talk about the development of Castillo. This variety, formerly known as Colombia, is a product of cross-breeding Caturra with Timor varieties to develop a coffee that’s resistent to leaf rust with a high yield and short height that contributes to easier harvesting.
I often hear people suggest that Castillo doesn’t produce good coffee, but my experience during this trip found that to be an exaggerated stereotype. I had great coffees that were both Castillo and Caturra grown in Colombia. Just as one can find good and bad Caturra or Bourbon, there is also good and bad Castillo to be found.
After seeing trees that have been decimated by leaf rust on some of the farms I visited, it’s easier to understand the farmer’s needs to address the problem however they can. While quality may be of upmost importance to roasters, baristas and consumers—the ability to grow coffee is of greater concern to the farmers.
As we rode along the winding roads to the airport, I watched the passing towns and thought about the immense depth of scientific research and development found behind the humble coffee bean. People frequently toss around a statistic stating that coffee is the second most traded commodity after oil, if so, one should assume there is an industry of research behind it—I just never considered how advanced it might be until now.
The energy and resources that the FNC and Cenicafé have invested into its coffee industry is impressive to say the least. I know that each origin has it’s own unique issues, but many of the solutions I’ve experienced here are interesting, inspiring and definitely worth studying in a greater capacity. Next stop, Bogotá.
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 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.