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.
I finally arrived in Colombia yesterday and my week long trip to origin has begun. I hope to make up for the lack of recent posts with some great content this week as I learn about and explore Colombian coffee at its source. I just wrapped up my first day and it was incredible as well as exhausting. I’ve posted a few photos from the day here, but there will more content and videos of the week over on the Colombian Coffee Hub.
After waking up at 4:30 this morning, our team took a flight from Bogota to Armenia where we loaded into a van and stopped at a nearby café for breakfast (huevos rancheros & lulo jugo). With full bellies and acquaintances made we headed to our first destination, Café San Alberto in Buenavista.
San Alberto was the largest farm we visited today and was very well groomed with a refined infrastructure in place. There was a beautiful terrace and coffee bar with a full-time barista to look after visitors and provide us with the farm’s finest coffee.
Francini prepared lovely examples of both Caturra and Castillo varieties of coffee for us in a press pot and Chemex, which were enjoyed along with the breathtaking view.
Afterwards, we toured the farm and visited the nursery where I got a close look at seedlings in various stages. The first 60 days of the coffee plant are surprisingly slow growth, followed by a fairly rapid increase in size over the next 6 months.
Next we visited two smaller farms, El Reposo and Jalisco. El Reposo, was purchased 12 years ago by Gloria and her husband after coming to the area to visit family. They enjoyed their visit so much, they purchased a couple hectacres and moved from the city to take on the life of coffee growers.
El Reposo was also visited by competitors from the 2011 World Barista Championship, who each planted a tree to be named after them. It was great strolling through the rows to find familiar names beside plants overflowing with cherries about to ripen.
At Jalisco, I visited the rooftop patio and it’s rolling roof, a contrast to Gloria’s raised beds inside a covered shelter, as well as a quirky veranda with table sets made from stump wood—the trimmings of cultivated coffee trees.
When our afternoon at the coffee farms came to an end, I rode on the back of an old Jeep Willy with a few sacks of coffee to be sold in Pijao. At the selling point, I learned how the coffee is weighed, checked for quality, and its final price calculated for the farmer. This particular lot received a bonus for being extra high quality—a way to incentivize continued progress and education among farmers.
The evening ride back to Armenia was dampened by rain and the grey evening light made it hard to stay awake as the sights of small Colombian towns passed by the window. Upon arriving to our lovely hotel, I relaxed with Camilo and the rest of the team as we talked about our day—I can’t believe it’s only the first.
Just over 6 months ago, I wrote about a website called the Colombian Coffee Hub that launched a new space for coffee lovers to share and learn about coffee, specifically about coffee in Colombia. They began by following Tim Wendelboe on a journey to origin as he learned about different processing methods and varieties being grown in Colombia.
When the Hub launched they announced the opportunity for active Hubbers to win a trip to Colombia for a chance to experience origin and share their journey. I’m more than honored to have won the first trip and stoked to share my journey with Hubbers & DCILY readers. I’ll be learning about the process from plant to seaport and meeting some of the growers and researchers continually working to produce better coffee.
There will be videos of my trip posted along the way on CCH, just sign up to follow along—as well as more opportunities to win a trip of your own. See you on the Hub.
This fantastic mini-documentary from Olympia Coffee and Vortex Productions captures beautiful imagery from three countries of origin, including Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala while discussing topics that range from coffee sourcing, transparency, and the importance of building relationships with producers.
The 8-minute long film should compliment your next coffee break perfectly.
Great video by Stumptown from a recent sourcing trip in Colombia. Enjoy!
Over the last several months, Stumptown has continued filming coffee farmers in their element. The latest in our series of Source Trip Films features Colombian coffee producers and the intense relationship between growers, the coffee and their communities.
I’ve posted a lot of videos lately, but they’re all fantastic and serve as great reminders of how complex coffee is—not only in taste—but the effort it takes to fill your cup.
This latest video from JJ Bean Coffee Roasters in Vancouver begins with a montage of beautiful b&w photos from an origin trip to Guatemala earlier this year. After returning home, it follows the green beans to the cupping table, through roasting and into a cup.
Relatively few people in North America have any knowledge about where or how coffee is made. It is easy to think of coffee as simply a tasty drink made from ground “beans”. However, there is much more to coffee than that, and we wouldn’t even have those beans (which are actually the seeds of coffee cherries) if it were not for the hard work of farmers and workers on coffee farms around the world, as well as the tasters, roasters, and baristas who transform the green beans into the drink we know as coffee. At JJ Bean, we wish to honour the entire “journey of coffee”, from crop to cup, as well as the many people who work tirelessly to bring us that coffee.
This video is a trailer for an upcoming [now available] book called Coffee Story: Ethiopia, published by Ninety Plus Coffee. The book, written by adventure author Majka Burhardt and photographed by father & son duo Travis and Helmut Horn, tell a variety of stories about coffee and it’s role in Ethiopian culture. With Ethiopia being the legendary birthplace of coffee, there is a lot of history and folklore weaved into the culture and this book is meant to share some of it. It should be an enlightening read for any coffee lover.
Ninety Plus Coffee works with producers at origin in Ethiopia and Panama to develop and implement new packing technologies and other system-related solutions to help source, develop and export some of the highest quality coffee from these regions. You may be unknowingly familiar with them if you’ve ever tasted a Nekisse, Amaro Gayo or Hartmann Honey. The site’s blog reads less like that of a coffee exporter and more like the travel journal of a romantic, experiencing the wonders of a beautiful world.
Along with publishing the upcoming book on Ethiopia, Ninety Plus also offers a sensory spoon handmade from ancient silver coins in Ethiopia as well as the opportunity to become part owner of an Ethiopian Gesha Farm. The company has a very unique and refreshing approach to sharing their business with the rest of the industry.