Coffee Origin Trip: Colombia 2020
We arrived in Medellin early on Monday morning. I would have been excited had I not eaten a curious item on the flight in from Panama City. It was called a “ham and cheese bun” but went down as one warm, gelatinous whole. This unfortunate breakfast sent me down a path of digestive upheaval that never righted itself for the duration of the trip.
After driving through the East Tunnel (the longest road tunnel in Latin America) and checking into the ultra-hip Click Clack hotel, we sallied forth to get coffee at a Pergamino cafe. There we met our friend Stephen Hurst of Mercanta (one of our importers) and Pedro Echavarria of Pergamino. Pedro, together with his father and brothers, runs an impressive operation. Pergamino has a number of third-wave cafes throughout Medellin but they also produce coffee at their own farms, and they mill and export green coffee all over the world.
In the afternoon we visited the Pergamino dry mill where green coffees are hulled and sorted to prepare for export. Pedro picked up some amazing sandwiches from a spot nearby for lunch. The Banh Mi with chicharron was insane. Come to think of it, I think I ate chicharron every day of the trip.
On the cupping table, a variety called Chiroso was a favourite for its floral, tea-like qualities. They don’t know exactly what Chiroso is. Some think it is a natural regression of Caturra (or maybe Bourbon). In any case, we loved tasting expressions of it from a few different farms. Some cups tasted of green tea, some of black tea; all were floral.
That night we ate some amazing Japanese fusion with Mercanta and Pergamino folks at Moshi restaurant. The Brazilians among us argued about which Brazilians were the “true” Brazilians. We laughed a lot.
We hit the road early next morning to visit farms. Our first stop was one of Pedro’s family farms, Finca Camelia. Most of the farm is planted with Colombia variety, but there is Chiroso up at the top at 6000 feet. We drank some amazingly fresh orange juice while taking in the breathtaking views.
We stopped for lunch on the way to Urrao for Bendeja Paisa, a huge platter with red beans, white rice, ground meat, chicharon, fried egg, plantain (patacones), chorizo, arepa, and black pudding (morcilla), all washed down with the ubiquitous Aguila beer. Some of us had a stew version of this called cazuela. The combination of this immense lunch and the winding roads to Urrao worked a nauseating devilry upon Jesse (though the chief culprit may have been the generous quantity of aguardiente he consumed the night before).
Our next stop was Finca La Falda in Urrao. We were really excited to see this farm as we had purchased La Falda in the past. After crossing some rough terrain (including a river) in the four-by-fours, we had to get out and walk. The skies opened and deluged wet wrath upon us as we trudged across the valley to La Falda. I learned that my rain jacket was not waterproof. We had to cross a river over a foot “bridge” that was essentially a few pieces of wood strung together with some wire for handrails. Jesse said, “Hey, at least there’s some barbed wire to hold onto if you slip!” The wire is electrified when not in use. Thankfully, we were expected.
After making our way up an eroding clay hill we arrived at the farmhouse looking like drowned rats and met Jose Arcadio Rueda and his lovely wife. There we had a nice cup of coffee, hand ground by John himself, and Jose showed us his operation. He produces 80 bags a year, fermenting his coffee in brand-new stainless steel tanks and drying in a covered greenhouse. The extended fermentation (five days!) may account for the overt fruity notes in Jose’s coffees. La Falda is real success story. The quality of Jose’s coffee has made him one of the most successful producers in the region. Getting back down the mudslide and over the river proved to be problematic for some of us, so we were sent back across by sitting in a cable car meant for transporting parchment coffee across the valley.
That night we ate at a nearby restaurant/store. I had my first arepa with fresh cheese. Certainly not the last! We stayed at a “farm hotel” that night, where the dogs seemed intent on keeping us awake.
Next morning we visited a small producer in Urrao named Frei David Moreno. Frei is part of a group of small producers in Pavon. There are around 45 producers in the area. A really cool thing about Colombia is that most small producers process their own coffee at their own little farms. Like Frei, they have a hand pulper, ferment the coffee in small square tanks, and dry the coffee on a little covered patio. This way each producer has control of the quality of the processing. Frei David has around 4 hectares, 1 hectare of which is planted with coffee. The rest is planted with other things, like lulo fruit. The lulo was sour, but the hot aguapanela (unrefined cane sugar dissolved in water) was very sweet!
On the long drive back to Medellin, one of the trucks drove into an unsuspecting ditch and had to get pulled out by friendly passersby. The driver shall remain nameless. It was all very exciting.
When we got back to the city we were excited to spend an evening of fun with Stephen and his lovely wife Alda. It took us a while to find their place on foot because John and Neto were arguing over the best way to get there. But we finally arrived (sweating), took in the beautiful views of the city from the apartment, ate some burgers, and quickly engaged in a competition to see who could make the best caipirinhas. The winner shall remain nameless.
The next day we were up early for a flight to Bogota. Brandon (relentlessly called “Hollywood” by our team) and Amanda from Royal Coffee (another importer that we work with) greeted us, together with Federico (“Fede”) from Azahar Coffee. Like Pergamino, Azahar operates their own beautiful and successful cafes in Bogota and also mills and exports specialty Colombian coffees. That night Fede took us to an amazing restaurant called Mesa Franca. My “Ronhatten” (rum Manhattan) housed a sphere of crystal clear ice. I think I saw my future in it…
The next day we boarded a small 9-seat propeller plane for Planadas in south Tolima. The view from the plane was utterly spectacular. Green mountains and valleys and rivers for as far as the eye can see. We landed at a military base in Planadas, and knew that we were in a different place altogether. This was a remote area that has history with FARC. But the buildings were colourful and the people were delightful. Josue Enciso and his son Emanuel were there to greet us. After some soup in a little restaurant we hopped on the back of a jeep and made our way through the mountains to the town of Gaitania. The locals were already staring at us, and it didn’t help that John was yelling that he was George Clooney from the back of the jeep! We are thankful that John is still with us.
After a quick stop in Gaitania where we would say the night, we hopped back into the jeep and continued via mountain dirt roads to Finca Roma in the San Pedro Region. The farm is called Roma because all roads in the region lead there. At Roma, Josue introduced us to the leaders of ASCI SP, an indigenous coffee growing community. The name is an acronym that translates to the “Indigenous Coffee Producers Association of San Pedro.” Meeting ASCI SP was thrilling for us because we buy their organic coffee for our Eastside blend, but we had never met them before. There are around 70 members of the association. They are currently building a mechanical dryer, as harvest time coincides with the wet season. They also have plans to build a school for teaching English to give opportunities to their children.
After we met everyone we had some coffee, and we were stunned. Emanuel made us a Chemex of a natural Geisha that completely knocked our socks off. At Roma, Josue is constantly experimenting with different methods of processing. The coffee is fermented anaerobically in bags or buckets, not tanks. They use an eco-friendly de-mucilager that removes the mucilage through friction, allowing them to use almost no water in the process. They have plans to build African-style beds to better control their drying. The whole operation is extremely impressive, especially given the remoteness of the area. The mountains are extremely steep, and some producers in the area still bring the coffee down using donkeys.
After a magically restorative bowl of bean stew (with sausage and chicharron!), we hopped back on the jeep and visited some of the ASCI SP farms, passing beautiful adobe brick houses along the way. At one point a very large drum of liquid was placed on the back of the jeep. This turned out to be chicha, a boozy, cloudy, fermented sugar cane drink. Fede really went at the chicha hard, which made the windy road back somewhat uncomfortable for him but amusing for us.
That night we returned to Gaitania and checked in to the hotel, before watching some locals play soccer and eating cheesy street arepas. The bathroom in our room consisted of a toilet and an exposed pipe coming out from the wall for a shower. When the “shower” was turned on, it sprayed cold water over every surface of the bathroom, including the toilet. I had never encountered this interesting arrangement before. There was no hot water, but we were filthy and sweaty from the farms so we needed to shower. The trick was to do one body part at a time. Neto, Nicolas and I stayed in one small room. I confess that I slept in my clothes. There were loud noises during the night: banging, clanging, and unearthly screaming.
The light of morning couldn’t come fast enough. After my customary breakfast of Pepto Bismol tablets, we were on our way to Finca La Leona, a farm owned by Josue’s brother Afraino. This farm was a little larger than others we had visited, producing a whole container of coffee. La Leona was like something out of a romantic painting of a coffee farm. We walked among the immaculately straight rows of coffee, chewing on raw sugar cane cut with a machete. The coffee at La Leona is traditionally wet-processed. No water is added during fermentation, and the coffee is dried on greenhouse patios.
After La Leona we had to rip back to Planadas to catch our little Cessna back to Bogota. The landing strip was barely long enough for take-off, which was a little unnerving. But then the real excitement began. After take-off, the pilot wheeled around, came screaming down to just above the landing strip for a fly-by (for reasons that escape us), and on the way up from the base the second time, we hit a vulture (Requiescat in pace)! One wonders what might have come to pass if the vulture had connected with the propeller instead of the wing.
To say we were grateful to land safely in back in Bogota is an understatement. In our excitement, we made the neanderthal-like decision to hop out of the van before it arrived at the hotel during a torrential downpour of apocalyptic proportions (Hollywood and Amanda wisely continued on to the hotel). But we needed a coffee! The hot shower in the hotel that afternoon was perhaps the greatest shower in memory.
The next day was Sunday, and a day off. We took the opportunity to walk the Camino Peatonal a Monserrate up to the shrine dedicated to El Señor Caído. Unfortunately the rest of Bogota had the same idea. Think of doing the Grouse Grind, up stone steps, pressed up against thousands of people. We thought John wouldn’t make it and that we would have to send him down in the gondola, but in the end he said he would rather die than face the shame of not finishing. The view from the top was spectacular and worth the effort. We couldn’t get into the church at the top as it was bulging at the seams with pilgrims. The whole experience made me think of something out of the Middle Ages. That afternoon we made for the centre of old Bogota and took in the sights, after some much needed coffee and a delicious lunch at Azahar cafe.
The next morning we were up early for another internal flight to Armenia, where we visited the Azahar dry mill operation and cupped a bunch of coffees. On the cupping table we were attracted to some extended fermentation and natural process coffees. This surprised us, as we usually stick to traditionally washed coffees. But these were both really clean and extravagantly fruity. A number of them had tropical, pineapple-like aromatics. Look out for these beauties in the coming months!
We had lunch in a really cool restaurant called Helena Adentro in an amazingly colourful town called Filandia. Margaritas were a specialty of this place. I’m surprised we didn’t clear them out of their supply of limes…
The next day we flew home to Vancouver, full of memories and a renewed passion for coffee that these trips inevitably birth in us.
It’s impossible to capture all the good-natured ribbing, the quantity of pisco sours consumed, the pool games lost and won, the new friendships forged, and the amount of laughter and team bonding that these trips produce.
At the end of each origin trip one sentiment remains: gratitude. We are so thankful to be able to roast and serve coffees that are not really ours at all. They are the product of good, hard working people, half a world away, and they come to us through the efforts of exporters and importers who are making a real difference in people’s lives all through their part in the journey from crop to cup. We are thankful.