Colombia Origin Trip 2019

Last year, I paid a visit to Efrain Argote‘s farm in Nariño, Colombia. We started some beautiful projects together and were eager to keep working on the new harvest. During that trip, I also met Ana Restrepo, whose coffee I imported myself earlier this year. This year, I figured I could visit both farms: checking on Argote’s progress and developing new plans for the future, and getting to know the nature and operations on Ana’s farm.

After a flight to Cali, Juan Pablo welcomed us warmly with a big surprise: Rebecca Trupin, our contact person for the Aranga cooperative was there! She happened to be in Colombia with a trip organized by a student association, so she took the opportunity to visit the Argote family as well. It was great catching up after having met last year at World of Coffee in Amsterdam.

On the first day in Cali, we visited two specialty coffee shops in Cali, and I was quite impressed. The level of involvement with producers is much higher than what we see here in the Netherlands, and the roasting is actually really good as well. I did notice that the equipment for roasting and brewing is not as technologically advanced as it is here, and the techniques used by baristas are also not always up to our standards. Still, the coffee tasted amazing, which shows that freshness and cooperation are a great foundation.

The following day, we went to Genova in Nariño where Efrain Argote’s farm is located. The family was very welcoming and it felt like coming back to my Colombian home. They had invested a lot in the farm after last year’s visit:

  • New drying beds had been built, all paid for by Shokunin. These drying beds have much larger capacity, enough for the entire harvest, and are easier to use. They also have more space to move the coffee around, so that one can control the drying speed by placing the coffee higher or lower in the beds.
  • A second tank above the depulper was added. This can be used for Cherry Ferment lots, or to soak the cherries before depulping. A roof was also added, which protects the cherries before depulping from direct sunlight.
  • A roaster was purchased, which allows the family to also sell more roasted coffee to the local market. This also allows the family to generate more value out of the “passilla”, the bad coffee that is sorted out of the normal harvest.
  • Juan Pablo had bought a Brix-meter and a pH-meter to take measurements during the entire production process. This year, we will collect data about all harvests, and see if we can find correlations between sugar contents, temperatures and fermentation times. This data, we will be able to use next year for improvements in quality.

Since we already have an established relationship and Shokunin already buys all coffee from Efrain Argote’s farm, there was a lot of room to play around with new projects. We always had to make sure that Efrain gave permission for microlots and special offerings, since he also wants to present a certain quality. Together, we came up with the following microlots for this harvest. Of all these, we did three while I was there.

  • Regular crop: 18hr dry fermentation.
  • Wet ferment: 18hr wet fermentation.
  • Natural
  • Cherry ferment: 38hr cherry fermentation (upscaled, this time in the big tank), 6hr dry fermentation.
  • Kenyan wash: 3 x 24hr fermentation with a single wash in between each.
  • Peaberry selection; this one will be produced at the end of the harvest when manually sorting all coffee.

Next up was a visit to Ana Restrepo’s farm in Sevilla, Valle de Cauca. After an interesting and fun 9-hour bus ride, her brother picked me up from the Cali terminal and drove us to Sevilla in 2.5 hours. Just outside the centre of this picturesque city was the first of the three houses of which the farm is comprised: Tranquilandia. This is the main house where Ana’s father family generally lives. It also has a few hectares of land where the coffee trees are somewhat old and are being replaced by new saplings, one piece of land at a time.

At a walking distance of roughly 10 minutes, we find El Rosario, the second house. This house is being neatly restored according to its original state, over 100 years old. Here we also find the largest piece of land with coffee trees, as well as banana and corn. The depulper and fermentation tank are located here, and the coffee is dried on these roofs.

A bit further below, about 5 more minutes of walking, we came to Palermo, the last house. This one, Ana wants to use as a guesthouse for BnB travellers. The nature and wildlife were incredible, and there were beautiful fruit trees. Here, Ana had also built a worm tank, which is quite an innovative way of dealing with organic waste, something we’d like to see more at other farms!

From what Ana had told us and the pictures that she had shared, we already knew the farm wasn’t in a great shape. When we walked around, we saw with our own eyes how much room for improvement there actually was. I felt a bit of a struggle to refrain from criticizing too much and looking through the bad things. This family had been producing coffee for a long time, but only this year started to take the step to specialty coffee. Ana had so incredibly much energy and so many projects going on, that I did realize there was some great potential here, as long as we all shared the patience for it.

As we walked we discussed the farm and the workflow, and we tried to find solutions for current issues. Money wasn’t the only issue: there was also time and availability of labour, and the fact that this farm required a lot of attention. Coffee trees seemed to grow at incredible speed and required much more picking than what we’re used to. This made it more difficult to plan future projects, but together with Ana we did come to the following focus points.

  • Drying is a big issue. It is currently done on wooden roofs, which are dirty and don’t store a lot of heat. It is also still quite inconsistent over the different production days. We hope to be able to afford a moisture meter with which we can stabilize the end product. There is a piece of land next to the drying roofs that doesn’t seem very fertile, which we may convert to a patio for cleaner drying space. Drying beds are difficult to use due to the air humidity at night. I discussed the option of mechanical drying with Ana, but she seemed reluctant about it.
  • The fermentation room is a bit dirty and somewhat disorganized. This will be renovated next year.
  • Many of the coffee trees are quite old and need to be cut down or pruned. This is done one part at a time. New varieties like Tabi are already prepared in nurseries, and Cenicafe1 trees have recently been planted. These already started giving cherries after a year, and tastes really good, so these may become our focus variety.
  • Cherry selection is still not up to standards. Ana finds it difficult to motivate the pickers, who already get paid quite a lot but still don’t want to focus on riper picking. My solution was to prepare for the harvest more time in advance, to place our order in advance as well, so that we can decide which part of the harvest will be exported. For that part, we can decide on a different wage for the pickers, which Shokunin will carry. If this proves to be a sufficient solution, this plan may be extended to the rest of the harvest as well.

An origin trip like this is an absolutely amazing experience, both coffee-wise but also regarding the nature, the food and the people. It’s very inspiring to work with our product at such a different level, and it creates opportunities for collaborations that we otherwise wouldn’t have. I often have to restrain myself not to try to change too much. These producers have been doing things for years or generations, so I feel that I can’t just walk in and tell them to do things differently. I see a visit like this as a way to get to know each other better and to see how they work. Whenever feedback is asked, I love to give it, and if there is room to talk about improvements, it is something we decide on together. Seeing the differences between Efrain Argote’s farm and Ana’s farm in both microclimate and workflow made it even more clear to me that we can’t just assume some solutions to work perfectly. Every situation is different, and it requires not only money and time but also intricate knowledge about the climate and the trees to find sustainable solutions. Even though there is a lot I want to do, and I can be very impatient by nature, I’m very much looking forward to see how the things I experienced this year develop in the coming years.