Colombia – Second Colombia Origin Trip of 2013

There are easier ways to buy coffee than to make a trip to origin to source green beans.  The older I get, the more difficult these trips are.  Air travel is, simply, not pleasant.  While several airports have been stepping up their game with better amenities, a long flight is a long flight no matter how you look at it.  Even if I get a lucky upgrade to business class, the air in a plane cabin is always stale, the food always sub-par, the cabin over-crowded with rather un-happy travelers.  A hotel room in a major city is pretty much exactly like any hotel room, a “hotel room” in a rural area of a developing country can be much less exotic than camping with a lumpy (at best) dank mattress, bedbugs, and a cold-water shower first thing in the morning.

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Getting to said rural areas is always a challenge as well.  I am always awe-struck by the beauty of the coffee-growing regions we work in, but the roads we need to take to get there are often bumpy, rough and dangerous and the drive can last for hours — hours of up and down, curvy, muddy, slippery travel — just to get to the farm; and then, you will still need to get back to the run-down, “rustic” hotel where you will have a poor night’s sleep in a poorly ventilated room wondering about the size of whatever it was you heard that just scurried across the floor of your dimly lit room.

The time away from home, your loved ones, your business, your routine can be tough as well.  Sure, sometimes a break from the routine is nice, but when you need to jump on a plane perhaps every 2-3 weeks during a peak time of the year, one can seriously doubt the choice you made to “get into the coffee business.”

So why do it?  Why source coffee at origin when all one really has to do is pick up the phone and call one of the many green brokers who do all this hard stuff for you?

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Several reasons actually.  For starters, going to origin is the ultimate learning-experience.  One can read a million articles on coffee, get a barista or roaster certification, but you will never know coffee until you visit a coffee-growing country during harvest, meet the people growing the coffee, meet the people working in the mill, eat the food that they eat, drink what they drink, listen to the music they listen to, and try to experience what they experience as they grow, harvest, process, and ship coffee.

IMG_0067_2Coffee is deep, deep as a beverage, with a deep history, and a deep tradition.  The countries that grow coffee are also deep and complex.  One cannot know about a coffee without also understanding the political and social environment that the growers live and work in.

See our companion article on Colombia’s FNC here.

Again, you can read about all this stuff, but you never really know until you are there.  Even though I have been on well over 25 of these sourcing trips, I still learn.  On each of these trips, I learn something I did not know before I boarded the plane in San Diego.  And for this reason alone, one should not be roasting coffee professionally unless s/he has been to origin at least once.

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True, traveling to origin is easier for some to do than others – certainly for brand new coffee-companies this is a lofty goal –  but traveling to origin needs to be a priority, and is an attainable goal, for every coffee roaster that is running a sound, and profitable coffee business.   Think of it this way, would you buy wine from a Sommelier who has no desire to see grapes grow on a vine, or from one who never visited a vineyard?  To me, the coffee business is a package deal – do it the way it should be done, or don’t do it at all.

For a legitimate coffee roaster, one that puts coffee – and all that goes with it—ahead of everything else, the reason for travel comes down to finding great coffee.  Going to origin is about access, access to unique coffee, exclusive coffee.  Going to origin is also about access to a potential partner, a coffee grower and coffee exporter.  It is about developing links in a chain that can help your business sustain and grow over the long haul.  We are not only seeking the best IMG_0001_2coffee available, we are trying to establish partnerships with people at origin who can help us secure this coffee for years to come and who can help us mill the coffee and to move it out of the country.

The coffee business is a competitive one and companies tend to work independent of one-another.  Everyone is trying to get the best coffee and roast it and brew it better than the next guy.  A roaster that sources their own coffee has a head start on this goal.

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By “sourcing” I mean, finding and buying a green coffee long before it reaches America.  When a roaster buys from a broker “spot” s/he is NOT sourcing coffee.  They are simply buying coffee from a broker who has already done the “sourcing”.  Every roaster in the country has access to a broker’s coffee.  A large broker like Royal Coffee in Oakland can serve literally 100s of small roasters all over the country with a single large lot of coffee.  Every roaster is often just a phone call away from getting the coffee that some other roaster has.

That said, we do buy coffee from brokers as well.  Some brokers source great coffee and do so responsibly and transparently.  Some brokers also source very well from origins we cannot get to, like Sumatra, for example.

What about the quality of the coffee sourced at origin?  Can’t one get better coffee just buy buying from multiple brokers?  Well, you can get some killer coffee from some brokers AND some brokers respect the fact that roasters want exclusivity and transparency.  But, we get some pretty killer coffee at origin, thank you very much.  So far in 2013, we have done darn well with Coffee Review scores with just a few of the coffees we sourced:
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2013 Directly Sourced Coffees and Coffee Review Score

Guatemala El Guatelan 91
Guatemala El Injerto Geisha 92
Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Washed 92
Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Natural 93
Kenya Makwa 94
Kenya Lennette 94

Our business model now relies heavily on coffee sourced at origin and how we do this continues to evolve year after year.  Case in point, Colombia November 5th-10th, 2013, the second trip to Colombia for us this year.

This trip had a dual agenda.  First, I was invited to partake in a cupping and auction event for coffees from the Antioquia region and next I was to cup coffees with our friends from Klatch and Portola on a new project we are initiating.

After arrival to Medellin, we met up with about 10 other representatives from coffee roasting, exporting, importing, and consulting companies from around the world.  We were all guests of this government-sponsored event whose main objective is to heighten the status of Antioquia coffee, a region that is not as well known for quality coffee as Huila or Tolima.

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We cupped 4 tables of 10 coffees each from about 7am-4pm, followed by an auction which gave all the opportunity to buy the lots we had just cupped which ranged in size from 5 bags to 275 bags.  Overall, the coffee we cupped was a bit disappointing.  For starters we were a little early in the season so the very best coffees, those that were higher grown, had not yet been harvested, and two, this region is planted with predominately the Castillo varietal of coffee, a durable high-yield cultivar but not very good tasting.

We found a couple lots that we like but, unfortunately, the best lot, one of a handful made up of 100% Carturra varietal, was too big at 275 bags so we did not bid on it.

That evening we were to join the rest of the group and our government handlers for a nice dinner but before, Jeff, Mike and I decided to have a cocktail at a nearby bar and strategize about Roasters United (more on this later). One drink turned in to three before we realized we were a tad late.

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For whatever reason, on origin trips good/strange things just seem to just happen at times.  Yes, we were late, and a little drunk, but as a result, we were seated at the end of a very long, 30-person table … right next to the farmers who grew the one lot we wanted to buy.  A lively discussion ensued and soon we had made plans to buy part of that big lot and to join them the next day as they would take Jeff, Mike and me to their farm before meeting up with the rest of the group on a trip to Ciudad Boliva to see more of the growing region.  Yes, kids, drinking can be a good thing!

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Finca Las Alpes is one of the bigger farms I have seen and certainly one of the most beautiful.  Most of the coffee on this farm grows at around 1800 meters and is shaded most of the time by low cloud cover and mist.  We spent most of the day at this farm, hiking the grounds and interacting with the pickers who were busy with the harvest.  While we thought highly of their coffee, there is always room for improvement, so in addition to agreeing to buy 75 of the 275 bag lot, they will embark on a harvesting experiment for us.  We noted they did a lot of their cherry selection – separating the underripe cherries from the perfectly ripe coffee cherries – at their mill and we were curious to see how the coffee would should if the pickers only picked the perfectly ripe cherries, adding another layer of quality control to the process.

From Finca Las Alpes, we headed to Finca El Boton, another larger farm about five miles away.  El Boton used to grow 100% Maragogype but the farm was devastated by Roya a few years ago and, like so many others in the region, switched to Castillo.  For the last couple years, El Boton has been doing an interesting dry-processing experiment with the Maragogype.  We brought samples back to try and may bring some of this to San Diego – depending on the cupping results.

After an evening celebrating at a festival in Cuidad Boliva, we visited a couple more very remote farms and then returned to Medellin.

IMG_0082_2On our last full day in Colombia, we cupped for the first round of our Roasters United competition.  What is Roasters United?  We have formed a partnership with Portola Coffee and Klatch Coffee to establish sustainable long-term partnerships with coffee farms by instituting incentive-based programs that will increase coffee quality and improve the economic conditions of the farmers.  In short, we have set this up like a competition with cupping rounds.  Round one was on this day.  We cupped about 50 lots from Huila, Cauca and lesser-known regions of Colombia, and 12 of those lots, representing 1-6 bags, moved on to the finals.  Since this trip was early, the lot size was pretty small.  In December we will get another batch of samples and those lots will be bigger because the timing will be closer to the peak of harvest.  Then, we will return in January to cup the finals and present awards to the farmers.

We have agreed to a very high farm-gate price for all coffee than makes the cut – hopefully around 200 bags.  Then we have a special micro-lot pricing structure for the very best, most interesting coffees.  The farms that place will receive Farm-Improvement-Grants we hope the farmers will use to invest in their farm’s infrastructure.

This is a new level of sourcing for us.  We are doing a lot of pre-selection of lots and we have a long way to go.  We have never filled an entire container of coffee before, but when this first attempt is finished, we will have bought coffee in a transparent way that will directly impact the farmers’ lives on many levels.  It is our hope, then, to move the buying model to other countries and to repeat it as Roasters’ United grows.