Visiting Huila, Colombia. August 2016 September 02 2016
We just returned from our annual sourcing trip to Colombia to meet with Azahar Coffee and visit producing partners. Azahar is a specialty coffee exporter from Colombia, working with dry mills and coops around the country to search out the very best microlots. We had a really successful relationship with Azahar last season, and we had high expectations this season as well. We cupped through 55 lots and decided to purchase the top scoring 14. Most of the coffees we picked this year are coming from the regions of Huila, Nariño and Valle de Cauca. The average coffee farm in Colombia is 5 hectares (10 acres). Given the size, we often end up purchasing the entire harvest from a farm.
After cupping in Armenia, we flew down to Neiva, where we planned to travel through the region of Huila for a few days, visiting some of the farms we are buying from this year.
Luz Dary Polo Piaz, mother of 3, has been working in coffee for 13 years, first on her ex husband farm, now her own. She bought Finca Esperanza one year ago, a 2 hectare coffee farm. She built a new raised, covered drying bed and a new upper soaking tank. She built and cultivated this farm to produce specialty grade coffee. She did soil testing and fertilized specifically for its needs. She also picked more carefully, harvesting only ripe cherries. Finca Esperanza is a success story. A single mom deciding to take a chance and invest in a small coffee farm to make a future for herself and her kids. We paid her 61% more for her coffee than she would have gotten selling it to the local mill for commodity. If she can keep producing coffee of this quality, the price will go up from there. Her coffee tasted like panella, berries and white pepper.
Buena Vista, in the Santa Maria municipality, is the most beautiful farm location I’ve ever been to. Justo Pastor Sepulveda owns the farm, managing it with the youngest two of his 8 children, Marko and Juan David. The farm is at 2100 meters above sea level,15 hectares in size, growing 6 hectares coffee, as well as Granadilla (sweet passion fruit), frijoles (beans), and aguacate (avocados). They live off the profits of coffee. This is their first year selling to Azahar, not because their coffee hasn't always been this good but because they didn’t know people paid for quality like this.
We took a partially washed out mountain road to the farm, 1hr above the town of Santa Maria, which itself is difficult to get to from our home base in Neiva.
Justo has owned the farm 25 years, but planted coffee only 10 years ago. They used to grow Frijol only. The farm is so steep, all the coffee is planted a dangerous grade. So they built a depulper in the middle of the the crop, and then ship the depulped coffee across the mountain in a Garrucha, or suspended cart, which I rode in and thought I might die. Following the Garrucha, they do a 24hr fermentation in the tanks, given the higher elevation, and dry it for 5-8 days on raised, covered beds. Their coffee tastes like melon, stone fruit, grape juice and raspberries.
I have seen so many high elevation coffee farms in the mountains, and it seems so few sell to specialty. I have heard several people say this is their first time or they didn't know people would pay them differently for it. They were just trying out specialty, as one farmer said, or their coop recommended the coffee to Azahar. Most farms just harvest and dry their coffee and sell it to the local mill for commodity pricing. The idea that roasters like us will pay a high premium for their crop is still a new idea to a lot of the farmers, and they are as excited as we are. What Azahar and we are hoping to see is that they can keep up the consistency from year to year. Every farm processes and dries their own coffee, so there is plenty of room for error. But there is education available on the ground level, and now they know that we are willing to pay for it, I hope we will continue to see more and more excellent coffee coming from Colombia.