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Dinner Conversation at Doña Maria's

Date
February 25, 2020
Author
Jeff Yang

Arroz con pollo, fried yuca, and warm sugar cane tea—a traditional meal in Latin America and one that I would see many variations of in the coming week. Juan, Pedro, and I sat at the dimly lit table, where Doña Maria had bussed our plates moments ago. I thanked her in my embarrassing middle-school level Spanish and she nodded with a grin. Maria Rosa Oidor owns and runs her coffee farm Los Nogales with her husband Antonio Pillimué. Having just turned 60, Doña Maria is an impressive symbol of women in coffee, hiking up mountains daily to organize and direct farm operations.


Still from video taken in Doña Maria's dining room. Paul Haworth, Juan Cano, and Pedro Echavarría.
Still from video taken in Doña Maria's dining room. Paul Haworth, Juan Cano, and Pedro Echavarría.

Paul hadn't been feeling well so he turned in shortly after dinner. A single incandescent bulb hanging from the ceiling showered the room in amber, flickering and buzzing intermittently. Juan reached up and tapped the glass bulb with his fingernail. It didn't help. I leaned back in my seat listening for any cognates as he conversed across the table with Pedro in Spanish. Juan Cano was our guide and translator during our time in Colombia. He’s a native Colombian and works for Mercanta; his email signature says that he’s a Coffee Hunter. Is that a real title? He lives in the city with his girlfriend—wife maybe? She’s German and he was in the process of moving to Germany with her.


Arroz con pollo and fried yucca.
Arroz con pollo with fried yucca served by Doña Maria.

I sensed a pause in the conversation and I jumped in with a compliment for Pedro. He owns and runs Pergamino—three cafes, a roastery, and a dry mill. Sprudge published a profile on Pergamino back in 2012. Pedro Echavarría lives in the city with his wife Manuela and dog Alonzo. His family also owns and operates many farms in the region, collectively called the Santa Barbara Estate. Naturally, Pergamino roasts and serves coffee from these farms, making them incredibly integrated. I’ve always appreciated Pergamino’s branding and design. Pedro seemed genuinely surprised. “Thanks. We’re just three fuckers.” A strangely worded reply, but I understood the sentiment. Pergamino is Spanish for parchment; it’s what they call the ivory colored outer skin around green coffee before being dry milled. It’s also what Pedro decided to call his coffee business in Medellín—poetic.


Pedro takes a sip of sugar cane tea.
Pedro takes a sip of sugar cane tea.

Pedro lamented that his packaging supplier couldn't produce the flat-bottom coffee bags that are popular in the industry right now—it's an understandably attractive construction that allows your product to sit upright with generously sized panels to carry your brand. Cartel's adopted this form factor for the same reasons. What he mentioned next surprised me: his supplier is local. In the same city. In Medellín.


Street view outside Doña Maria's home the next morning.
Street view outside Doña Maria's home the next morning. Not pictured is a rock chocking a wheel of the truck in place of a malfunctioning parking brake.

Medellín, as Pedro explained, began as a city of manufacturing because of its proximity to water; the Porce River flows northward, cutting the city in half. When a significant portion of the country is covered by lush mountains, industry naturally tends to gather in the more accessible places.


Juan captures a portrait of Doña Maria at her door.
Juan captures a portrait of Doña Maria at her door.

Stateside, that's a coffee unicorn. I can’t name one company that has cultivation, processing, milling, packaging, and merchandise all originating from within a few hours of each other. Well, mainly because we’re nowhere close enough to the equator to sustainably grow good coffee. But to be able to say that your merch and your packaging were produced locally on top of producing and roasting your own coffee? They might be in the ultimate position to be able to control every step of the process—dare I say, literally.