Long overdue, I am finally putting my notes down to paper from my trip back in June 2008 to Colombia. Just in time because the 2008/2009 La Golondrina recently arrived in our warehouse. It is hard to imagine that I was in Colombia just over six months ago helping to work out details for this year's La Golondrina, and six months later the fruits of what we worked on have now just become a reality. Talk about having to think ahead. Before I go into details of my trip back in June, I feel a little back-story is in order.
For three years, we have been working very hard with the producers of La Golondrina, always with the goal to source the best coffee we can in quality and sustainability. This means the coffee has to taste amazing first and foremost. The producers also need to believe in farming as stewardship of the land and in Counter Culture as a long term partner. Three years ago, when we first heard of producers in Colombia who were dedicated to quality, certified organic (a rarity in Colombia), and working with an amazing exporter, we knew this was going to be revolutionary. There was only one catch: the first year we were only able to purchase 10 percent of what we wanted to buy from the organic producers of La Golondrina. While this was a setback, we supported the farms by buying all we could and started talking about the next year. In the time between the first and second year, the producers worked on getting more farmers involved and worked on many projects to improve quality. And, it worked. Last year was better than the first, and we were able to buy almost 3 times what we had the year before. However, it was still much less than we were hoping for. Again we started planning for the 2008/2009 harvest, and again the producers worked even harder to get more farmers involved and to improve quality. This brings the story to about June 2008, when I arrived in Popayan, Colombia.
For a long time Director of Coffee and co-owner Peter Giuliano has been telling these stories of many days travel, 10-hour car rides, and driving on the side of a cliff to get to the farms of many of the producers we work with. So I almost feel left out when a less-than-4 hour flight to Bogota, another quick 45 minute flight, and stroll through the smallest airport I had ever seen, placed me in the heart of the coffee town Popayan.
Driving through the streets of Popayan with Giancarlo Ghiretti, one of the founders of Virmax – our exporting partners in Colombia – we started making our way to their warehouse and cupping lab. Looking down the streets as we drove through Popayan it is hard not to notice all the stark white gorgeous buildings. It is also hard not to notice there are no streetlights downtown directing the chaos of motorcycles, taxis, cars, vendors, and bicycles. At one time I counted 7 motorcycles driving all parallel to each other down a winding tiny road. From that very first drive I knew I was going to like this city.
When Giarcarlo and I arrived at Virmax we were greeted by Leonardo Henao, who oversees the lab and warehouse for the coffee being received from producers in Popayan, and Diego Bustos, the lead cupper. I knew a lot about how Virmax worked before I came here, but seeing it is whole different story. Giancarlo walked me around and started to take me through the process of what they do and how it all works. He showed me the storage room with hundreds of bags of coffee – stacked almost to the ceiling – every bag catalogued with different information. Once I finished admiring the many coffee bags, he showed me the cupping room – equipped with sample roasters, moisture meters, and, of course, tons of glasses and spoons to slurp coffee all day. Then I was taken step by step through a day's work – literally.
Producers start arriving pretty early in the morning, bringing their coffee still in parchment, by means of car, truck, and bus – whatever way they can. (Fridays actually tend to be the busiest due to better public transportation.) Once the coffee is brought to Virmax it is weighed, checked for moisture, screened, sorted for defects, and then meticulously sample roasted. Once it is roasted, generally within an hour or two it is set up to be tasted along with the all the other coffees that were submitted that morning. This is what I was waiting for: tasting coffee. Diego, Giancarlo, and I went through more than 15 coffees that were submitted that morning and began to rate them. Right from the start I knew some of them were going to be spectacular, one of them I will talk about in a particular. At the end of the cupping, Diego and I compared notes and gave the coffees a score. The ones that were good – scoring above an 86 on a scale of 0-100 – were accepted and would become part of La Golondrina, or if they were from another producer group would become part of someone else's lot. If the coffee was very good – scoring above an 88 – again, they were accepted and were noted to be paid a premium. If the coffee was outstanding – scoring above a 92 – these are lots that would become potential microlots and paid a very, very high premium. During this time it is important to note that the producers that brought in the coffee have an opportunity to taste the coffee alongside Diego, Giancarlo, and myself and talk about it so there are no misconceptions about the score the coffee was given. After the tasting, all the notes are put into a database and the farmers are given the information on their coffee. Based on that information, money is transferred that day often times in cash right there on the spot to the producer. Within a few hours time, coffee was brought in, quality checked in many different facets, tasted, and then paid premiums well over the market price … all right there, that day. For me, this was a truly remarkable system, and they were gracious enough to let me be a part of it.
On my third day in Popayan, after two days of cupping, sorting, and roasting, I was picked up by Liliana Pabón, and we headed to see some of the producers of La Golondrina. Before I talk about going to the farms, this would be a good time to talk about that spectacular coffee I mentioned above. It turns out that coffee is from none other than a producer named Nelson Melo, and as you probably guessed, his wife was the one showing me around the farms. Nelson and Liliana are not only producers of amazing coffee from their farm Las Acacias, but Nelson is the President of the group of producers we work with, and Liliana is very active in helping maintain organic certification and meeting any other needs the farms may have. Before I even left North Carolina, Peter and Producer Relations & Sustainability Manager Kim Elena Bullock both talked about Nelson and Liliana as having an unstoppable drive for producing and helping to produce great coffee, and I was about to experience that first hand. Liliana was happy to show me around, but she also had a lot of work to do, so I was about to get a whirlwind farm tour.
Within two hours I was able to visit five farms, where Liliana was asking other producers how well underway the harvest was and if they were having any issues this year. During that time, I was getting an overview of some of the improvements from the year before. One of the major improvements was that every farmer in La Golondrina received a small grant to build new drying facilities for their coffee. Before, the farmers were drying their coffee on cement patios, which is good for quality but not ideal because in Colombia it often rains during the harvest. What would happen is that the producers would be picking coffee when all of a sudden it would begin to rain, and they would have to run and clear the patio of any coffee that was drying. Now, every farmer has covered raised beds, so they no longer have to worry about rain, and the quality of drying is better, as well.
Besides the great drying racks, many producers including the famous Hipolito Pacheco (pictured at left) – who you may recognize from our Counter Culture Direct Trade pamphlet – and a great farmer named Jesus Fernandez talked about their plans for the future and expanding. On both of their farms not only had they really committed to better quality practices over the last year, but they believed in what they were doing so much that both had planted hundreds of new coffee trees.
Every farm I had to the chance to visit was truly beautiful, well-managed, and seemed to have infinite potential. I was sad to have to leave the farms but I knew there was more coffee to taste, and I only had one more day in Popayan, so it was back to the cupping lab for me.
When we got back to lab we had 12 more coffees to taste without knowing what they were, and little did I know this was going to be one of the most important cuppings I would do my entire time there. We started smelling the fragrance of the coffees, evaluating the aroma, and then cupping around and around the table until we had slurped all the coffees till they were cold. Three of the 12 coffees proved to be some of the best I had tasted all week, making me very excited and anxious to see what they were. The first coffee of the three I really like was citrusy with a good body, and was revealed as a coffee from northeast of Popayan in Canoas. The second coffee tasted slightly fruity with notes of cocoa was from La Plata in Huila. My favorite on the table however, tasted like, honey, peach, and mild citrus, with notes of caramel and cocoa, and just so happened to be revealed as being from Popayan. And in particular a small compiled lot from the producers of La Golondrina!! This moment really made the trip for me, and showcased all the hard work that the producers have been putting in. After one more day of tasting great La Golondrina coffees, I was back on a plane to North Carolina but with a whole new understanding of La Golondrina and the producers who make it possible.
Once back, and armed with what I learned and tasted in Colombia, the Counter Culture coffee department came to the conclusion that, based upon the last three years of quality, the commitment to being stewards of the land, and with the right leadership in Nelson Melo and Liliana Pabón, we would commit to buying coffee just from the organic producers in Popayan this year!
And a side note: during these last five months the organic producers came through 100 percent this year, producing insanely good quality, but not only that, we were able to purchase for the first time all the coffee we wanted for 2008/2009!