• First Steps

    For people involved in the coffee industry, their first trip to origin is an important symbol of their immersion into the world of coffee. For me, it has been about two years since I became a barista and 15 months since I first learned about green coffee buying. Taking this first trip to Colombia was both a culmination of all I had worked for and learned at Iconik, and an introduction to the international community of green coffee buyers, a community with an immeasurable role in the lives of rural workers around the world.

    Dylan Miller
    Iconik Coffee Roasters, LLC
    Santa Fe, New Mexico
    August 2016

In August 2016, Iconik participated in an origin trip and coffee auction sponsored by Royal Coffee and Inconexus in Southwestern Colombia. The following is the journal of Dylan Miller of Iconik Coffee Roasters

Arrival

Our plane was forced to circle twice before landing at the Antonio Narino airport, 45 minutes outside of Pasto, the capital of the Narino department in SW Colombia.  Later in the day, Henry Wilson from the coffee blog Perfect Daily Grind, will be forced to turn around and go back to Bogota for the night because of the winds.

Coming out of the terminal, I’m greeted by Pedro, the agronomist for InConexus, the Colombian consolidator and exporter hosting the event in tandem with Royal Coffee out of Oakland, California.  Riding with me, Bob Fulmer and Alex Mason, both from Royal Coffee.  Bob founded the company in 1978 and Alex is a green coffee buyer who has been with the company since the mid 1990s. I’ve never met a person as willing and eager to share his experience and extensive coffee knowledge with me as Alex.  During the car ride from the airport to our lodge in Buesaco, named after the native Inga word for “cow’s back” because it’s perched on a small plateau in the midst of the rolling Andes, I realize that talking about the country of origin is not enough for these two.  Coffee people speak in regions and varietals.  It’s not just a “Colombian coffee,” it’s “a Caturra varietal from Finca el Guabo in the Narino Region.”  More than traveling here to origin and learning about coffee at the producer level, one of the most valuable things I’ll take away from the trip is the opportunity to be surrounded by so many experienced and generous personalities.  Every moment I seem to be immersed in three separate conversations concerning all aspects of the coffee supply chain, an invaluable experience for someone just entering this world.

Before making our way to the compound we’ll be occupying for the next week, we take a brief detour to what Alex aptly describes as the “Golden Gate” of Buesaco, a joke that consistently draws laughs from the native Colombians.  The winds are strong enough that we have to brace ourselves against them.  The land is drier than I had imagined, though we have come at the very end of the three month dry ‘summer’ season.

Along the way we stop at a small restaurant and sample a plate of “los quimbolitos” a cake made of cornmeal, butter, egg, cheese and raisins and wrapped in achira leaves that resembles a tamale in both taste and texture.  We also have our first cup of Colombian coffee and it’s not the best.  In most coffee producing nations, the good stuff goes out and the locals, if they drink coffee at all, drink the dregs.  Increasing internal consumption of specialty grade coffee within the country of origin is an idea broached by Mayra Orellana-Powell, Royal’s Information Officer in Honduras who will also be arriving soon.    

Arriving at our camp, we are greeted with fruit cups and tomatillo juice and the sounds of Colombian rock music playing as a group of Colombian students lounge by the pool.  Only Bob, Alex, Mayra, her husband Lowell and myself have made it to the complex for tonight.  Beginning tomorrow, the rest of the roasters will arrive.  After a nearly 24 hour trip from Santa Fe to Albuquerque to Houston to Bogota to Pasto to Buesaco, I can use the time to catch up on sleep.

Diving in

Our first farm visit was a short walk up the road to a farm situated at ~2100 meters above sea level.  Most of the farms we visited were between 1800 and 2200 meters in elevation, though some were as high as 2400m, altitudes more commonly associated with coffees coming out of East Africa.  Altitude is a buzzword in specialty coffee and is typically associated with fruitier, more floral and complex coffees.  The reason for this is that high altitudes mean high temperatures during the day when the light of the sun is intense, and cool temperatures during the night when the coffee plant can rest and use the energy it’s stored up during the day to create complex sugars like fructose and sucrose, the sugars that will later create the delicious tasting notes found on the bags of specialty coffee roasters.  As the town of Buesaco is situated only 60km from the equator and under 300km from the ocean, the difference between the intensity of the equatorial sun during the day and the cool pacific breezes during the night is especially pronounced.

At the farm, Francisco, a five time finalist in Colombia’s Cup of Excellence competition, laments this year’s crop.  Originally a cattle farmer, he switched to coffee when his success proved to be too dangerous to himself and his family, an anecdote he leaves mostly unexplained.  Francisco and his wife have both had health issues in the last year, which he believes contributed to this year’s subpar crop performance.  This season has been particularly dry and hot.  As any coffee farmer will tell you, sometimes you can do everything right and the climate just doesn’t cooperate.

The arabica coffee plant, by its very nature, is a difficult plant to cultivate.  Indigenous to Ethiopia, it requires very specific conditions in order to thrive and with rising temperatures across the globe has become more susceptible to infectious leaf rust and beetle borers that thrive in warmer temperatures.  A coffee plant takes 3-4 years to reach maturity, a risky investment for a farmer living at a subsistence level.  The mature coffee plant will produce 10 pounds of coffee cherry annually.  Of this 10 pounds of cherries, only 2 pounds of coffee ‘bean’ or seed on average will be shipped out to roasters across the globe.  A typical small farm in Colombia is 1 – 1.5 hectares.  A hectare being roughly equivalent in size to a soccer field, approximately 1000 coffee plants can be planted on a hectare in order for the plant to develop properly.   Given this, a standard small farm in Colombia will produce 2000 – 3000 pounds of coffee a year.  After you do the math, multiply that number by $1.50 – $2.00 a pound for commercial grade coffee (prices for premium grade micro-lot coffee at the auction began at $3.00 and the highest lot was sold for $5.80) then reduce your take home price by the 40% that will be taken by warehousers and exporters.  Now, you may begin to realize the tightrope walk most farmers perform between expenses and profits.

Tasting

The team of coffee tasters employed by Inconexus has whittled down the original 300 entrants in the competition to 30 finalists to be judged by the panel of roasters that are attending the event.  Our first day of cupping lasts roughly 6 hours and involves judging all the micro-lots of coffee, split between two tables of 15 coffees each, by standard SCAA grading criteria.

Categories: Fragrance, flavor, acidity, body and aftertaste.  Many of these categories are self explanatory but some could use a brief explanation.  A coffee cupping begins with the grader smelling the dry coffee grounds. After this, water is poured over the grounds and allowed to sit for 3-5 minutes until the coffee has been extracted.  At this point, the cupper uses a special cupping spoon to break the crust of coffee grounds that have accumulated at the top of the cup, releasing a fragrance that serves as the first indicator of how a coffee is going to taste.  As many coffee drinkers can attest, the smell of coffee may be its most alluring feature.  Fruity, floral notes may indicate that the coffee cherries used were plucked at the right time and processed correctly for maximum sweetness and flavor.  Musty or fermented smells may indicate the presence of overripe berries that have molded or over-fermented and tainted the cup.  The smell of the coffee will also give tasters insight into what they can expect to taste in the coffees.  If a cupper smells orange peel in the cup there is a good chance the coffee will have orange flavor notes.

Once the crust has been broken it’s time to taste the coffee.  One of the most controversial grading areas for the everyday coffee drinker may be the ‘acidity’ box.  In specialty coffee, acidity is desirable.  However, many coffee drinkers associate acidity with sourness, off-putting to those that prefer the chocolate and caramel notes of a darker roasted bean.  Ideally, the acidity in your coffee cup should make those chocolate and caramel notes “pop” and contribute additional floral and fruit notes that distinguish your individual coffee cup from your standard regular cup.  To me, acidity is like carbonation in soda, take it away and your drink tastes flat.  Other important features of great specialty grade coffee include balance, aftertaste and body.  Is the cup well-balanced or is one flavor overpowering everything else?  Body refers to the mouthfeel of the coffee, is it heavy like a syrup that coats your tongue or light like a sparkling water that glides effervescently across your taste buds?  Aftertaste is exactly what it sounds like but is a crucial part of grading coffee.  Some coffees can explode on the tongue with jammy fruit notes but end unpleasantly.  One of the most controversial coffees on the cupping table at the event was described as tasting like banana and watermelon taffy at the front but with a finish of gravy and onions.  The best coffees of the Narino region offer a creamy body tinged with tomatillo and cocoa with aromatics of dried mango and lulo oranges.     

Never let a coffee taster tell you that taste isn’t subjective.  There’s a reason Koreans can savor Octopus, Vietnamese can binge on duck and Mexicans can gorge on ant larvae to the horror of nearly everyone else.  However, coffee graders have gone through extensive training to taste coffee and develop a common language to discuss what they’re tasting; the best analogy I’ve heard is that it’s like learning a foreign language; at first all the words seem to blur together until, after enough repetition, the words begin to separate and one is able to distinguish the various parts of a sentence.  

Sensory analysis involves a tremendous amount of focus, especially trying to distinguish the subtle variations in flavor between 30 coffees from the same region.  Put a Kenyan coffee and a Sumatran coffee together on a cupping table and the differences are immediately distinguishable, but put two coffees that were grown within a mile of each other together and the differences become harder to appreciate.  Though with Colombian coffee, perhaps more so than any other country, there is an incredible amount of diversity from farm to farm and region to region.  This can mostly be attributed to Colombia’s 220 different micro-climates, a product of its steep, mountainous landscape.  Also unique to Colombia when compared to other Latin American countries is that even the smallest Colombian farms have washing stations on location.  This allows farmers to have control over their coffee from picking the coffee cherry off the plant, depulping the coffee, washing the coffee in water filled fermentation tanks to finally drying the coffee on their own patios.

After coffee cupping the afternoon is filled with farm visits until dark.  Farming coffee is intensive and difficult work but I can’t help but feel like every once in awhile, looking up from the soil, the landscape must offer a brief respite from one’s daily toil.  The Andean Cordilleras of Colombia extend to the horizon, steep sloped and crisscrossed with farm plots.  The sky offers consistent cloud cover, helpful for coffee plants which cannot stand the intense equatorial sun for extended periods of time.  For further protection from the sun’s rays, as well as additional income for the farmer, coffee plots are dotted with various shade trees including plantains, lulo (little orange), guava, fig and laurel.  That day we sample some of the various fruits of the region, including a cousin of the passion fruit, maracuya, which is best eaten by using the sharp edge of a spoon, to chip into its tough exterior, peel back its skin and scoop the sweet seed laden purple goo at the center into your mouth.  We also sample what appears to be a plum with a deep scarlet skin.  The skin of the gulupa proves much more rubbery and more difficult to pierce however, and once you reach the fruity interior the intense tartness is surprising.  In addition to these exotic fruits we are fed a steady supply of lulo, which resemble common clementines or mandarin oranges, at nearly every farm we visit during the trip.  

Though each farm has its own identity, there are features common to each.  Most importantly to a discussion of flavor, all of the farms we visited used a washed process to dry and remove the mucilage from the coffee seed.

The Process

The black liquid in your coffee cup begins its journey from the farm to the roastery and eventually to your local cafe as a ripe red coffee cherry hanging from the branch of a coffee plant.  In Colombia, the most common coffee varietals are Caturra, Colombia and Castillo.  The Caturra plant, which, by pruning, is kept at a height of no larger than 5 feet on most farms to make picking easier and allow room for other coffee plants to flourish, is known to produce the juiciest, most delicious berries.  However, it’s also the most susceptible to leaf rust.  On the farm, there is a constant push and pull between the quality and the volume of coffee a farm can produce.

The first step in creating truly unique quality coffee is picking only the ripest coffee cherries.  While many commercial grade coffees are produced by ‘stripping’ the coffee plant mechanically, this doesn’t really allow for only the ripest cherries to be picked.  For that type of discernment, human pickers are normally employed.  A coffee pickers wage varies, some are paid a set wage for a day’s work, while others are paid per kilo of coffee that they can pick.  The best pickers can pick 150 kilos of coffee cherry a day.  At 400 pesos per kilo this translates to ~60000 pesos, or $20-25 a day for the best pickers, not a terrible day’s wage in Colombia (national avg. $23/day).  The conditions can be brutal though, many coffee plots are planted on steep mountain slopes and the equatorial sun can be brutally hot at altitudes of 6000-7000ft.  For more info on coffee picking, click here.

After the coffee cherry has been picked it’s carried to the farmers washing station, which houses a wash basin and a mechanical de-pulper that separates the fruit of the coffee cherry from the coffee seed.  Coffee cherries dropped down a sloped plank of wood with another another panel of wood set at the base at a height which only allows cherries of a certain size to pass through into the wash basin.  Once the cherry seed has reached the fermenting tanks, less dense beans, those with air pockets that indicate a lack of proper development, will float to the top and be whisked off to separate them from the properly developed, heavy coffee beans which sink to the bottom of the tub.  After the fermentation period of 12-48hrs, these coffee cherries will be laid out on a drying platform, normally the roof or patio of the farmers home, to dry in the sun until they reach the proper moisture content of between 9 – 12% of their body weight. 

Finally, coffees will be transported by road to the dry mill, the nearest dry mill for farmers of the Narino region is 16 hours away by road from Buesaco.  Once there, the parchment skin will be removed in a process called hulling and further sorting of the beans will occur, again making sure that overly fermented beans are separated to avoid molding and that beans shipped out to roasters are of uniform size, which helps in the roasting of well-balanced coffee.

Final Day

On the morning of the fifth day we boarded a bus to Pasto to visit the Black and White Museum celebrating the Carnival de Negros y Blancos festival held from December 28th to January 7th, the largest cultural event of the year for the town of Pasto and the region of Narino. The carnival is a conglomeration of many indigenous, Spanish and African celebrations meant to celebrate the cultural diversity of the region and named one of UNESCO’s Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

After the museum, we traveled to the St. Fernando Hotel for the auction of the coffees we’ve been tasting. Over 20 of the farmers will join us for the event. Just as we are settling into our chairs, a crescendo of drums rises from the stairway and a cortege of costumed dancers bursts through the doors wearing elaborate costumes of teal and gold and adorned with fish and flower heads. They urge us to follow them out onto the street and to the nearby plaza where they perform one of the traditional carnival dances from the festival. I later learn these are “Las Murgas” dancers.

None of the roasters participating and none of the farmers here have taken part in a coffee auction before. The excitement is palpable as the prices climb for the higher priced lots and the farmers join in chants of “Narino!” or “Pasto!” The opening price for each of the top 10 graded micro-lots is $3.00 and the highest priced lot goes for $5.80 a pound to a female farmer that says she’s going to use the extra profits to buy a new bed as well as invest in a climate controlled drying rack for her coffee beans.

At the end of the event, Bob pronounces that it’s one of the most unique experiences of his 40 years in the coffee industry. Having not purchased during the auction, I feel and incredible let down.  Our maximum price point and the going rate of the lots we were interested in didn’t align.  All the while, there is an ongoing discussion of what the fair price is for specialty coffee lots, given the tremendous investment on the farmers part in producing truly exceptional coffees.  The truth is, after centuries of exploitative practices by companies and governments around the globe, the general public has become habituated to prices that don’t fit a quality driven, sustainable model of the coffee supply chain.

Final Thoughts

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Bob the first night of the event discussing the intercession of the practical number-driven business side of coffee and the more ineffable relationship side.  Getting the customer to understand the story behind their coffee, the magnitude of time and resources, the number of lives involved in transforming the coffee cherry to the cup of coffee in front of them is the only way to create a more sustainable economic model.  A well informed consumer, willing to pay extra for quality coffee creates a feedback loop that allows farmers to invest in the necessary equipment and long term contracts and relationships to produce these special coffees while improving the lives of their families and communities.

Looking around the room, I see smiles all around, I see the connection that so many 3rd wave specialty coffee roasters espouse between farmer and roaster.  I see happy and satisfied faces, the faces of farmers that now have additional resources to invest in their farms.  The faces of roasters who now have a coffee imbued with the excitement of their participation here, an excitement they can share with their customers at home.

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