I just got back from my buying trip to Colombia and I am excited to share my experiences. Colombia is a beautiful country (especially where coffee is grown) and it is very safe to visit, in spite of what you may have seen on Netflix.
One of the things that sets Colombia apart is that it is situated very near the equator. Many of the specialty coffee regions there will have two harvests per year instead of one. At extreme elevations, seasons even disappear altogether, resulting in coffee trees bearing buds, blossoms, underripe and ripe cherries simultaneously. This is like nothing I have seen anywhere else.
Something else unique about Colombia is the geology of coffee production. I have never seen such steep slopes bearing coffee trees. This precarious aspect makes it only feasible to grow trees which will have a good production with a low height. This is one reason that Caturra, a dwarf Bourbon variety, is so commonplace. On larger farms with these dramatic coffee cliffs, harvested coffee cherries will be picked and delivered to a central location with a system of tubes so the pickers have fewer steps to make.
The average size of coffee farms in Colombia, especially Southern regions like Huila or Cauca, hovers at around 3-5 hectares. These family run farms will produce only about ten or twenty 70 kilogram bags per year. This is a smaller average than Central America and much smaller than Brazil. These farms will then sell their coffee to the state sponsored coffee buying group (FNC), larger regional cooperatives, or smaller municipality coffee associations.
There are some amazing farms that have gone virtually undetected until the past decade or so, since the norm was to sell to the FNC or National Federation of Coffee Growers, a government backed group which sells generic Colombian branded coffee on the world market. Regional cooperatives formed to establish more specific identity, but still only offered blended farm offerings with regional branding. Recently, municipal associations developed, which focus on the discovery and magnification of small farms with lots of potential.
These associations are great, but they all only deal in unmilled coffee. In order for coffee to be exported, it has to be dry-milled and sorted. Until recently, this was difficult to do with smaller lots because the expensive machinery available was designed for extremely large regional or commodity grade lots.
All that has changed, now that there are dry milling and exporting organizations like Pergamino. Pergamino, run by Pedro Echavarria and his family, is committed to the same values as the smaller municipal associations. His dry mill is set up to deal with small lots and he reaches out with one hand to the small farms and associations and with the other to importers like Mercanta USA and buyers like me.
Pedro took me on a few adventures in Colombia, from staying the night in the rustic Cauca farm house of a lady named Maria Roja Oidor (who made an amazing chicken broth breakfast soup) to seeing how larger estate farms are run in Antioquia.
I got to share food and beverage with the folks responsible for the Inzá Cauca we have in hoppers now, and I am excited for some new Colombian lots we have in queue because of this trip. Keep an eye out!