+44 (0)20 7202 2620

The challenges of coffee suppliers in Colombia

After our visit to the coffee suppliers of Costa Rica it was time to fly to South America to the land of Juan Valdez which, by the way, is everywhere in Colombia!

As soon we got to Bogota, we felt absorbed by the size of the city and its wonderful blend of old and new architecture and its vibrant culture. We stayed overnight in Bogota and very early in the morning headed south to the department of Cauca Valley, one of the most fertile valleys of the country. Here, we moved from the lowlands passing by sugar cane plantations to Caicedonia, a small town in the mountains where Granja Esperanza has one of its warehouses and coffee laboratories. From here, we had to jump on a Willy’s jeep to go up higher to the Margaritas farm. The terrain was very rough and dramatic. On this farm, we saw so much happening; it was like being in a coffee garden with small parcels of Geisha, Red and Yellow Bourbon, Pacamaras, Maragogype and Laurinas green coffee beans – coffee heaven! Of course, all of them are blended in a shade grown environment. We were very impressed by the care and attention which are given to all varietals.

The pickers have been trained to collect just the ripe cherries to ensure the best quality. After that, each single varietal is processed separately on special tanks designed to gently wash the green coffee beans. Due to the nature and ethos of the business, a lot of work has been generated in the area, especially during the harvesting season as the picking is done in a very strict and particular way to ensure the best quality possible. We are very lucky to be able to bring some of these beautiful coffees into the UK, which we cupped on the 6th December at the D R Wakefield selection room. Report to follow on that soon.

Heading south past the armed guards

Our next destination was farther south towards the Cauca department. The first thing you notice along the road as you get to Popayan from Cali is the presence of armed forces everywhere. This region of the country has been badly affected by an internal conflict between the guerrilla groups and the government forces for more than 50 years. It seems that the parties involved in this conflict are trying to put an end to their differences and currently they are trying to negotiate a peace treaty. We hope and wish that they reach a successful agreement.

When we thought we had seen enough armed people, we had to think twice when we arrived in Caldono for our visit to the indigenous cooperative that we deal with. The first thing that strikes you when you get there is the number of army personnel in the area. There are checkpoints everywhere and photographs are not allowed for security reasons but somehow we managed to take some videos and pictures! We have been dealing with this group of coffee suppliers for many years but due to the problems with the crop in the past three years we could not get enough coffee for the UK.

Things have changed and coffee has been planted at a very fast pace in the whole department which is becoming the 3rd biggest green coffee bean producing area in the country. In the past two years the Federation National de Cafetaleros (FNC), the body in charge of managing the policies of the coffee sector, has started a very aggressive programme to recuperate the coffee output of the country.  There is a big debate about the strategy used by the FNC to replant and replace the new and old coffee areas with the varietal called Castilla. This varietal was developed to be resistant against roya which is one of the main diseases attacking coffee and a big problem in Colombia that back in 2008-2009 together with some extreme weather patterns nearly devastated the whole crop. As we have been informed by many farmers, the FNC is promoting just the Castilla varietal, which comes with a support package including technical assistance, fertilisers and credit. There was a feeling that this is not the right way forward as it is not taking into account individual farmers who are and have been good at producing other varietals such as Caturra, Typica and Colombia, among others. These farmers felt that they have no choice about their own livelihoods unless they have the means to grow coffee without the support of the FNC.

In Cauca we had the chance to say hello to other groups with whom we have a good relationship and in particular to Cosurca which now has made some alliances with some of the indigenous groups of the area to increase their offerings. Cosurca is one of the first associated groups to actively challenge the government policies on development. It has sent a strong message to the armed groups of the area that they wouldn’t abandon or replace coffee planting for coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine extraction. Currently, things have improved tremendously for them to the extent that they have been able to build their own dry mill, which also provides a mill service to some smaller and local coffee suppliers. We were very pleased to see them growing and hopefully we will be able to bring over some of their best coffees.

The point we were making about varietals became more apparent when we visited La Marienala estate. Here we met Hernan, a resourceful and forward thinking man who is the owner of the estate. The majority of his estate, about 110 hectares, is planted with only two coffee bean varietals – Caturra and Costa Rica 95 at between 1,650 and 1,800 metres above sea level. All the plants were looking healthy and full of cherries due to the care, attention and innovative ways that Hernan manages the green coffee beans. He and his team put so much emphasis on the nutrition of the plants, even investing in research which has already given them a breakthrough and soon they will be marketing a new super fertiliser that they’ve created themselves. All the green coffee beans are processed in their own farm, which is a common thing for most of the coffee suppliers in Colombia. Then the parchment is sent to local dry mills to be processed and prepared for exporting.

Time to fly to Bogota

It was then time to fly to Bogota and the main feeling we had was a strange combination of gratitude and happiness to leave the Cauca safely. From Bogota, we drove about 5 hours through the Andes mountain range, crossed a river and climbed some hills to get to Somondoco in the Boyaca department. What a contrast it was from the rest of the areas we visited.  Here, things are done in an artisanal and traditional way, where you can find mainly the typical coffee varietal among oranges, lemons, bananas, yuccas, beans and even chickens, cows and other plants and animals, which are part of their diet. Here coffee is just seen as another product which hopefully will provide when the others fail or the other way round. We have selected coffees from this area for its distinctive cup profile, which is mainly attributed to the typica varietal and their low input production system which is nearly all natural.

It had been an exciting and mind opening trip which reminded us about the complexity of the coffee world and that the knowledge and experience you have is never enough. You keep learning and get fascinated by the way farmers find innovative techniques to adapt produce and process the varietals that the market is demanding to get a particular cup profile. At the same time, you see others getting left behind by factors like internal conflicts, poor infrastructure, low education levels, lack of credit and low access to technology. We returned to the UK with a clear understanding about the provenance of the coffee, their importance to the locations, environment, varietals, techniques and knowledge applied by each individual farmer to produce coffees with unique characteristics and cup profiles.

Also, not forgetting the business we are in is about keeping good relationships and a good sense of humour, so yes, we had a couple of beers along the way with our friends. Adios!