We are currently buying coffees in Huila, Tolima, Nariño and are just starting with some medium to small farms in Antioquia. Tolima and Nariño are having their main season from May to September, Antioquia October to January and Huila is harvesting all year around.
A farm is typically owned by a family living there and working as producers. Everyone is normally involved and they all work at the farm to some extent. Depending on the size of the farm they will potentially have a few workers throughout the year as well. Then they staff up with casual workers for picking etc. during the harvesting seasons.
Everything we do in Colombia is based on partnerships that we establish either through private producer groups, Cooperatives, or exporters that work with individual growers on consistent basis. In most cases we refer to these partnerships as projects. Meaning it is generally more to it than just cupping and buying their coffees. For the most part it is programs where it is some additional activities related to quality and access to their coffees. Many of them have agronomists working on the ground with the producers to establish better practices and increase quality.
Sourcing guidelines for Colombia
All our Colombian coffees are traceable back to the farmer(s) and we always pay good premiums to producers for everything we buy! Even for the bigger lots and producer blends.
To quantify our minimum standards for pricing and traceability this is what we can guarantee:
- We always buy coffees above the current market prices.
- We are always paying an FOB price at a minimum of 40% above the Fairtrade farmgate prices.
- The prices are determined based on the cup quality, cost of production and the going price for exceptional coffees in Colombia
- When the exporters have taken position in, or purchase coffees on our behalf we have full traceability on pricing back to the farmers/producers. (E.g. In Colombia the coffees from the farmers are sold in parchment)
- We share all the information we have up on request with our individual clients
- All coffees are traceable back to the farmer/producer.
- We only buy coffees when we know what it is and where it comes from.
- We always require information on altitudes and farming practices, harvesting period, processing and drying methods as well as storage conditions.
- We seek additional information on lot separation, cultivars, fertilizers and environmental awareness.
- Our coffee buyers visit every origin and the producers, groups, coops up to four times a year.
Quality and cup profiles
- The producer groups, Cooperatives or individual farmers we buy from are always selected based on their potential and ability to produce unique coffees related to their growing conditions, cultivars and processing methods.
- We are only seeking coffees with distinct characteristics
- Traceability back to producer, stock lots and process is key. Crucial to be able to improve, do product development and to access the same or better qualities over years.
- We always cup and do pre selection in origin to both calibrate and give feedback to the producers and to have first hand information of what we are tasting and buying.
- We will always cup through a broader range of coffees from each project, producer or cooperative to understand the range of profiles and qualities and to select the best coffees according to our preferences.
- All coffees are cupped blindly, and properly scored and evaluated before purchase.
- Our selection is based on a scoring system, where the general cut of is at a minimum of 86 points.
- We strive to get as many details as we can related to geography, microclimate, processing, cultivar, farm or block unless the coffee is a mix from multiple small farmers
There are more than 500.000 coffee producers in Colombia, 80% or more are having less than 3 hectares. Coffee is grown all over the country and is spread out in 19 departments (regions), most of them along the three mountain ranges coming from the Andes in the south. The biggest and most well-known regions are Antioquia, Huila, Tolima, Cauca, Nariño, Caldas, Santander and Sierra Nevada. The latitudes are ranging from 2 degrees to about 12 degrees. Altitudes for coffee production can vary from 1200 – 2200 meters above sea level. All producers are picking, pulping, fermenting and drying their coffee themselves in their “micro beneficios”. The coffee is then sold in parchment and delivered a local town to a bodega. The bodega is a purchasing point for parchment and can be represented by a growers association, a cooperative, an exporter, or just an independent local middleman. There’s always someone buying random coffee, while some others have quality programs or strong relations with the producers.
No matter what partnership or program we have everything we buy is based on cup performance. The starting point is that the coffees from the producers is kept separate. This is with a few exceptions where we are buying producer blends from a specific program or project. After the parchment is separated in the bodega it will normally be cupped by the local cuppers and partners we have as a prescreening. They know our quality standard so it is seldom they “save” the coffees that are far off. 3-4 times per year we are in Colombia to cup through tons of deliveries and samples to make our selection. As an example we work with a cooperative called Coocentral in Huila. They have a quality program of about 70 growers. These growers are harvesting through big parts of the year. They will deliver small amounts of coffees when they have well prepared parchment to sell. When we are coming in e.g June Coocentral have separated and collected parchment from many of these 70 growers the last month. When we arrive there we might have everything from 30 – 100 samples to cup. We normally do a pre-screening the first one or two days, and then a final cupping to take firm decisions after that. The cupping scores we are giving will in most cases determine the premiums they are getting. After cupping with Coocentral we will and visit producers we will normally move on to the next group we work with and do the same there, and then move on to the next. Meaning in a sourcing trip like that we can cup through several hundreds of coffees. When the parchment deliveries are equal to 5 bags of greens and above we normally keep them separate as micro lots. But for the deliveries that are tiny, and when the coffees are from the same groups and the profiles matches we can make small producer blends to get slightly bigger lots. It will still be we that decides what to blend after cupping and it is fully traceable.
Caturra in Colombia is generally known for having the best flavor attributes for the farmers that’s able to take out the maximum potential of their coffee. Meaning doing everything right at all stages in the production cycle. We do not disagree. That said we see a lot of amazing cups with Variedad Colombia and Castillo as well. We as others have discovered that if they are well treated by the producer and picked when they are extremely ripe they lose the typical herbal and astringent flavors and becomes super sweet and complex. Most farmers will have a mix of 1-3 of these cultivars. Some is separating their production by cultivar, but most farmers don’t. The way we see it is that it would ideally be great with only Caturra or other high performing Cultivars. Specially at higher altitudes. But as a farmer it is hard to deal with diseases like leaf rust and low production. This can be handled by plant treatment and preventive measures, but the farmers often don’t have the know how. And even if they do have Caturra and are doing great they are not recognised as quality producers and the coffees are getting mixed with other bad deliveries at the local bodegas. When you don’t know how to access the premiums in our market it’s only volumes that matters. What we have seen is that both some generations of Variedad Colombia and Castillo can be tasting great with a lot of fruit driven complexity to it. It seems like the color when they are mature is deep red or almost purple. When picked at this stage and processed the right way they can be extremely flavor full and elegant. I believe most farmers pick them when they look like a ripe Caturra, but this seems to be to early if you want them at the peak.
Picking & Selection
Coffees are picked in 3-4 passes. Meaning the producers/workers ideally pick the ripe cherries in one block. Then they might wait a few weeks until it’s again a decent amount of ripe cherries to pick in that same place. As mentioned above it can be hard to incentivize your workers to only pick the ripe ones as their volumes will go down and the work is harder. Even when you’re paying them extra for the effort it can be hard to motivate them. If a producer want exceptional qualities he/she often have to follow up very closely, or hand sort the cherries after picking, before he/she brings them into production. Generally the first and last pass is of lower quality, and the second and third will be considered as the best, with more ripe cherries and uniform quality. When we can, we try to buy parchment harvested in these two passes.
Harvest and processing
There are tons of challenges during harvest. It can be everything from lack of casual workers to challenging climates. Depending on where you’re at it can be droughts or heavy rains during the production and drying. In e.g. Huila it can potentially be non stop rain for weeks while they are harvesting, fermenting and drying. In Nariño it can be the opposite with high temperatures and droughts. This will again affect maturation, fermentation and drying. But yet, even if the climate can be challenging, the growing conditions and practices can often compensate for that, and the outcome can be absolutely amazing.
Fermentation and washing
In our opinion many of the Colombian coffees are slightly over fermented. In some cases the farmers do it on purpose as there are buyers or exporters asking them to stretch it to get more complexity fruit and body, but often it’s just by accident or by mistake. We do think fermentation can add some complexity and structure, but often they can get rough, vinegary and normally we are looking for the brighter and cleaner coffees.
In general the Colombian coffees are pulped and fermented the traditional way. There is a few exceptions where farmers are using eco-pulpers with mechanical removal of mucilage, but it’s still not to common.
This is the most common and widely used method. The farmer will have a small beneficio, a small manual or electric pulper and a fermentation tank. They pulp the cherries in the afternoon. The coffees are going straight from the pulper in to the fermentation tank. It can sit there from one to two days, depending on the temperature. Higher temperature will speed up the fermentation process, and lower temperature will slow it down. Some producers do intermediate rinsing with water, that can also help them control the process.
We do see a good amount of producers now that are doing wet fermentation, meaning the add water to the tank after pulping. Some of the best coffees we had in Colombia have been fermented this way. They often change the water numerous times as well. This will both slow down the fermentation time and you get a bigger “window” from when it’s done until it gets over fermented and to pulpy in flavor. It’s a also good as they will normally be able to skim off the floaters during the rinse and get a better selection.
Washing and grading
The way of washing and grading varies a lot. Some producers have channels and some don’t. The channels are often short, and they don’t require huge amount of water. They normally stir the coffees in the channels before they remove the floaters. For the ones without channels it’s common to wash the coffees in the fermentation tank and skim off the floaters before it goes to the drying.
For the smallholders in regions like Huila, Tolima, Nariño the coffees are generally sun dried e.g on roof tops or dried in parabolic dryers that almost works as green houses. There is many different variations and constructions, but generally they are all systems that is able to protect the coffee from rain. In many of this places it can either be to hot, or to rainy and humid. And often both in one day. We have generally seen that the producers that have constructions with good ventilation and manage to dry the coffee down to below 11% in 10 – 18 days often have very good and consistent coffees.
In other places like Antioquia and Quindio mechanical dryers are commonly used. We generally don’t buy coffees dried mechanically as we so far don’t have very good experience with the flavor and shelf life related to that process.
Coffee in Colombia is a cash crop. Meaning you can sell your coffees any day in big or small volumes and get direct payment in cash. Every small town in the coffee growing areas will have purchasing points for parchment. Also called bodegas. This can be local dealers and traders that are reselling to exporters, it can be the exporters them selves, it can be growers associations or Cooperatives. In many cases they are located in the same places and compete to get the coffees from the growers. Most parchment buyers just look at the physical attributes, and pay the producers based on the yield factor. They do not care about the individual flavor attributes for the coffee and throw it all in to what’s referred to as the pile. Meaning coffees from all the different producers get mixed and sold as a general “excelso” from that region. But there are exceptions, and they are the ones we work with.
In our case we mainly work with groups, exporters or Cooperatives that have their own bodegas where they purchase parchment from producers that are part of the “program” Our selected farmers often deliver very small volumes at the time, and the ones that make the target for correct moisture levels, yield factor and quality will be kept separate and cupped individually. If they are scoring at a higher level primary by the local cuppers, and secondary by us they will be approved for purchase.