Our first day in Colombia was nothing short of magical (If you missed it, read about it HERE). When I awoke the next morning, I was still in a dream-like state from all of the beautiful imagery that was imprinted on my brain. But there was no time to rest, as Jim and I were off to the town of Santa Marta to see how the other side of the coffee world worked. We had already witnessed life on the farm and the harvesting process, but I was about to discover the extensive production process that follows as the beans are trucked away from the farmlands and readied for exportation.
A little background: The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) is the foremost coffee association in Colombia, representing more than 563 thousand coffee growing families. This democratic organization promotes the production and exportation of Colombian coffee and is dedicated to improving the well-being of coffee growers by providing assistance in sustainable and competitive practices within the coffee industry.
Our first stop was to the Cooperativa Cafetera De La Costa, a coffee co-op and purchase point in Santa Marta run by the FNC. We were shown how each farmer’s coffee is priced through a series of routine steps. A sample is taken from one of the burlap bags and initially weighed, then manually sorted to remove the “defective” or bad beans. Once the sample looks clean, it is weighed again, and the percentage that is left determines the price category for that crop (i.e. 80% or 75%). After touring the grounds (no pun intended!) we met John Deiber who owned the lab there. Jim and I joined him in cupping a variety of coffees from different regions in Colombia. We particularly enjoyed the one from Sierra Nevada that was very clean and acidic with hints of orange peel and chocolate!
Next stop was Alma Café, the FNC’s quality coffee assurance office. Jose, the manager, showed us around this impressive facility and it was here where the magnitude of this entire operation set in for me. I’ve never seen so much coffee in one place before! Bags on bags stacked to the ceiling in large connecting warehouses. It was never ending. I immediately had a flashback to the day before; watching Nelson and his workers harvest coffee cherries, and how many hours of manual labor it must take to fill just one burlap bag, never mind thousands. It was a “WOW” moment for sure.
What also stuck with me was how thorough and systematic their quality control was. Coffee is first received off of the trucks that drive directly into the warehouse. After they are milled (meaning the parchment hull from the outside of the bean is removed – this is the green coffee we would receive in the US ready for roasting), the beans go through a rigorous quality control procedure. Beans shimmy through an automatic sorting machine not once but twice to take out defects. For extra special preparation they can also be hand sorted as a final precaution. Of course, this hand sorting is a more expensive process. The coffee is then bagged into official Colombian burlap bags weighing exactly 70kg each. Finally, samples are removed to do a physical analysis and cupping in the Alma Café lab. If the particular coffee meets all requirements, it is then that it’s accepted for export and received at the port. With an operation like this, it’s no surprise that Colombian coffee is some of the best, and most consistent, in the world!
After our tour, Jim and I were welcomed in the cupping lab to sample coffees with Alvaro, who has been running the lab for the past 25 years. He does an average of 400 cuppings per week! You could say this guy knows his coffee. Alvaro set up a blind tasting for us, which included the sample from Los Amigos (the farm we had visited the day before!) Amazingly, we both loved the Los Amigos cup best, without even knowing which one it was. It was smoky and bold with citrus tones.
We said goodbye to the kind and informative employees at Alma Café, appreciative of the knowledge I had gained about the incomparable quality control that Colombian coffee goes through as well as an understanding of why it is world-renowned in the coffee world.
Our hosts, Isabel and Claudia, brought us down to the marina in Santa Marta to breathe in the ocean sea breeze, take in the beautiful landscape… and take a selfie! How amazing that just yesterday we were high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains enveloped by larger-than-life greenery, and now we were feeling the sand between our toes and staring out to the salty sea. What an incredible country! Jim and I lunched on an authentic seafood meal at one of Isabel’s favorite open-aired restaurants near the beach. Muy delicioso! Such a peaceful break in the day to enjoy some local cuisine and good conversation.
Next we visited the main office of Red Ecolsierra – a coop of farms from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region in Magdalena, including Nelson’s Los Amigo farm that we had the pleasure of visiting. Sixty percent of the coffee produced on Red Ecolsierra farms is exported to the US. Many improvements have been made to the farms in this network, thanks to social premiums. We are happy to support this effort!
Our last stop of the day was to Café Cooagronevada, another cooperative covering farms in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. We received a quick tour from the welcoming owners, and were invited to cup a few samples of their beans in their sparkling new laboratory. At this point in the day, the sun was starting to set and we were highly caffeinated – a combination that told us we were ready to head back to our bungalows by the beach!
That night, Jim and I met with our second set of hosts – Carlos Julian Ruiz and his lovely wife, Sara, who would be accompanying us to a farm from the Montesierra group the following morning. Carlos is a partner in BanExport – an exporter of specialty Colombian coffees.
The next morning, we left early to start our mountainous drive to La Argentina, a 33-hectare farm 3,339 feet high in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. On the way, Carlos shared a wealth of knowledge with Jim and I about the current coffee growing situation in Colombia. He informed us that the future of Colombia was the Castillo plant – developed to combat rust. Farmers are constantly creating hybrid trees that can withstand the atmospheric conditions. Castillo is the 10th generation of hybrid tree created for coffee harvesting.
After a couple hours of bumps, turns and breathtaking scenery, we were greeted at La Argentina by the owner, Albeiro Herrera. Getting out of the car, it felt like we had just pulled up to a magical secret garden, filled with deep magenta flowers, lime green fauna, and juicy orange trees. The landscape in the distance was otherworldly. It just didn’t feel real. You could feel and smell the organic nature surrounding us. The farmer and his family led us to their abode while we took in the view from their porch and the scent of freshly picked herbs, vegetables and chicken wafted from the kitchen. We enjoyed a hearty lunch, very similar to the traditional farm meal we had at Los Amigos two days prior, and we were able to chat with our hosts, farmers and friends about life on the farm. It even rained a little, which was very welcomed in the 95 degree heat. The farm workers quickly ran out to their patio to cover the drying coffee beans.
Once lunch was digested, we were led to the steep coffee fields – a bit of a downward hike from their home. Because it was nearing the end of harvest season, field activity was quiet. But we were lucky to witness one picker and became mesmerized by how efficiently and quickly he picked the red cherries off the branches. After scoping out the land, we walked back to the farm to watch the washing process.
Water is sent to their holding tank and particles float to the top. They continue to filter the water further to avoid contamination and the good water is sent back to the stream. Everything that gets stuck in the filter is added (with the cherry pulp) into the mulch. Once the coffee cherries are depulped, they sit in the holding tank with a lot of water. This is a traditional system that in turn makes the end result sweeter.
We presented the owner of the farm a bag of our Colombian beans and he was very touched. It was a special moment. More than once, Jim and I were thanked for visiting their country – and more importantly, for bringing their beautiful coffee to the United States. It is because of companies like Jim’s that these farmers make a living and are able to support their families. We took one last sweeping view of the farm and the land beyond, and made our way back to sea level.
Lastly, Carlos took us to see BanExport’s fairly new and all-organic milling facility. We were wowed by all of the state-of-the-art technology and machinery. It is really one of the first of its kind in Colombia to use such sophisticated processes. We appreciated being able to experience the future of Colombian coffee exportation!
Sadly, our Colombian journey was coming to an end. We trekked back to our bungalows on the beach and I caught a final sunset (I know, tough life!), heading to bed early in preparation for the day long travel itinerary starting at 4am!
Looking back on the three memorable days we spent exploring the coffeelands and beyond, it still feels like a dream. I am so grateful for the experience and I can genuinely say it was an eye-opening and life-changing trip.
Muchas Gracias to Jim and to all of our wonderful hosts for this opportunity!