Argote - 2018 visit

On the 31st of May, I travelled to Colombia to visit Juan Pablo Lasso Argote. After our projects in the past, this wasn’t the first step in our collaboration, but it did prove to be very educative and productive. In this report, I will focus on the steps we took with their coffee and their community.

Working together with Lennart Clerkx of This Side Up, Juan Pablo Lasso Argote positioned himself as a hub for quality-oriented coffee growers in the Nariño region of Colombia. Starting with his own coffee, he quickly realized the means to also process and export coffee for other farmers. This way, the importers and roasters working with it could give feedback and build on the coffee quality, and giving the right compensation for the efforts. This means we wouldn’t just be visiting a regular coffee farm: we would visit the central players in the Nariño specialty coffee scene.

On the first day, upon arriving in Cali, we had a cupping with local farmers from Valle de Cauca. Most of them had never before met importers or roasters, but they were inspired by the things JP has accomplished in a short time. They presented their coffees and we gave feedback on them, focusing on what we as “specialty roasters” find important. We also explained the importance of the story around the product, and stimulated them to build websites and Instagram accounts to create an image of their farm. Finally, we included the Reko Koba tasting box and the Argote tasting box in the cupping to get them in touch with different processing methods and with Ethiopian coffee. A lot of contact information was exchanged, also between the farmers, and I am still in touch with some of them.

On the second day, we paid a short visit to Technicafe. This is a relative high-tech company, esteemed throughout Colombia, where research on coffee is done and classes are given. Most interestingly, they showed us a drying machine they developed that runs on a single engine and does not use gas, but combustion of coffee parchment to dry the coffee at an even temperature.

From there, we took a 5 hour drive to the small town of Génova in Nariño. This was the first time we ever laid our eyes on the farm that we had been working with for years. After a welcome by the warm and friendly family, we headed straight to the coffee plants to see what we would be working with during the visit.

La Casa is one of the two lots of land Efrain Argote owns. It is located next to their house, and with a size of just 1 Ha and quite many natural shade trees, it contains about 1000 coffee trees. The trees were at that point roughly 8 years old, so they will not be kept much longer.

La Vega is located a bit further down the road, right next to a small river. When I first laid eyes on this piece of land, I immediately fell in love with it. It had a very positive energy and felt really natural because of the slopes, the trees, the rocks and the water. Here, the trees were only 3 years old, and last year was their first production.

In both plots of land, the coffee is roughly 88% Castillo, 10% Caturra and 2% yellow Caturra. One of the things I discussed with Juan Pablo is that for the sake of consistent processing and flavour, I would recommend to turn these pieces of land into full Castillo once the other trees need replacing. It allows for easier picking and more even ripening and fermentation. Furthermore, I find Castillo to be the most delicious variety of the three, but only when picked correctly. JP agreed and explained that most important for him is Castillo’s resistance to leaf rust, since about a quarter of the Caturra trees we saw showed signs of the disease.

The rest of the week, we spent most of the time picking, depulping, washing and drying coffee. Such intense labour and very long working days! I was surprised how many steps in the process are determined by something as simple as time and space, but that these two issues are also the most difficult to address or change. One example is that after the fermentation experiment last year, I thought that a 30 hour fermentation would produce the best result for the Argote coffee. However, upon my visit, I realized this would mean getting up every night at 03:00 to wash coffee.

What was most wonderful about this hands-on approach, is that we felt the product and experienced all the steps. The Argote family was so open to feedback and comments, that with every step we kept on asking questions why things were done this way, and brainstorming about alternatives, even if  things did not need improving. It gave us as well as the family a better view of the process and what we could do with the coffee.

On Wednesday, we finished picking the La Casa lot, and when the coffee was put in the depulping tank, I commented on the amount of underripe cherries picked. JP and Efrain and the pickers took this very seriously, and in the afternoon that day, when everyone was done picking La Vega for the day, the quality of the cherries was so incredible that I decided to buy that day’s La Vega production with a $1/kg premium. This excited the pickers and the Argote family so, that the following days a similar quality was picked. A quick calculation convinced me to purchase the entire La Vega production of this year at a $1/kg premium.

Of this premium, half would go to the pickers, meaning a pay increase from 500 pesos to 700 pesos per kilogram of cherries (Colombian standard is roughly 350). The other half of the premium would go to Efrain Argote, who would use the money to build another level on his drying beds, increasing the capacity for the next crop. He will use savings and the premium paid by This Side Up to extend his patio for more drying space for his coffee and cascara.

This way, we created enthusiasm in the community to work on quality, since it will be noticed, and it will be rewarded. The pickers have plots of land themselves and also sell their coffee through the Argote and This Side Up network, so we expect to see a quality increase in their coffee as well. Moreover, it gives us an accountable reason to pay more money, as a reward for quality. Living conditions are not as bad as people sometimes picture it, but still it is quite far from excellent, and every bit helps. Doing so with a sustainable project like this will definitely prove worthwhile in the near and far future.

Another project we did, is two special processing methods of Juan Pablo’s coffee. One is a “controlled natural”. Since naturals from Colombia are quite popular, but also difficult to control and therefore difficult to regulate, we figured to take a different approach. After a 36 hour fermentation in the cherry, we depulped and washed the coffee before drying so that we could control the fermentation time more exactly than with a regular natural. We did notice it was very difficult to wash all the mucilage off the coffee since it had become sticky during the fermentation. This was something we had not anticipated, and therefore it seems like it will be a combination of natural, honey and washed coffee, but we’ll have to wait until December to taste it.

For the second experiment, I wanted to use the results of the fermentation experiment last year to do something new and again very controlled. In order to understand the effect of mucilage on fermentation, I wanted to execute a Kenyan wash on this coffee, meaning three times 24 hours of fermentation, with a single washing cycle in between every period. This means every fermentation stage will have a bit less mucilage to work with, and the coffee should become very bright and clean. The plain 66 hour fermentation last year already proved its potential, so we expect this lot to also work well. Unfortunately, we did not have the drying space and time available for this lot, so we postponed it to be done after our visit. Both experimental lots come from La Vega too.

Finally, Juan Pablo also decided to start renting a piece of land (3 Ha) from his aunt this year. It has always been ecologically maintained and currently nothing specific is grown there. He wants to plant three experimental varieties of coffee and grow those organically. He has already arranged some Maracaturra through the This Side Up network, and I arranged some SL28 and SL28 and some Red Bourbon seeds for him to take back from the World of Coffee event in Amsterdam next week. We hope that these plants will flourish on his lands and that in roughly 3 years time, we will be the first to present these exclusive microlots from the Argote family.