Origin Story: Colombia, Fall 2016

Feb 09, 2017

Getting to Colombia is no walk in the park. You take two long flights to get to the capital city of Bogotá, and if you’re in the business of specialty coffee, you’re only halfway there. Once in Bogotá, you hop a flight to the city of Neiva, then you take a seven hour bumpy van ride, driving on what essentially appears to be a hiking trail.

But then again, rural life in Colombia isn’t easy – maybe least of all, for coffee farmers. In addition to the usual hardships of agricultural life in Colombia, this region is especially susceptible to mercurial climate patterns, and the effects of climate change have unleashed a fungus called Roya on the coffee plants of this region, previously thought impervious because of higher altitudes and cooler climates.

Now remember, also, that the farming part is only the half of it. You also need to process the coffee which takes time, space, water and electricity, and your own expensive mill or access to one. And you have to do it at exactly the right time so the coffee doesn’t ferment too long once it’s been picked. Doing it really well is at least twice as hard and takes twice as long. And then there is the problem of transporting heavy bags of coffee down the mountain without reliable transportation.

Now imagine doing all of this on top of a mountain in a violence-ridden forest planted with landmines, gunfire and violence, embroiled in a decades-long battle with militarized guerilla groups and factions of right-wing paramilitaries. These fighters have been spread out across Colombia, but exist mostly in the rural areas, and often fund themselves by taxing merchants and farmers – or worse, with kidnapping ransoms.

“Could this be any harder,?” asked Stumptown President Joth Ricci as he listened to the Colombia El Jordan coffee producers talk on our recent Roaster’s Summit which took place last Fall.

We were here with a group of our lead roasters from across the country and some of our coffee buying team for our annual roasting summit. The idea was to to meet with coffee producers of Colombia El Jordan (who we’ve been working with since 2007) to chat, drink coffee, break bread and renew our multi-year contract with the group.

Getting these two groups together who work so closely on different ends of our coffee production and are such important factors in its quality was important – we were coming together to better know and understand each other's realities to help support each other better and deepen our longstanding Direct Trade relationship. We also had plans to meet and get to know farmers from our El Nevado lot, a new group we’ve recently begun working with, in the hopes of establishing a similar relationship based on trust, investment and support.

Most of the folks in this group had never been on a source trip before, but in recent years, our Coffee Sourcing team lead Gabriel Chait has come often. (Though for many years, it was too dangerous for any of us to visit these regions to support our partners here and supervise harvest operations.)

This time it felt like we were witnessing history. The Colombian government and the FARC had just signed a peace accord after four years of negotiations, and decades of fighting the Western Hemisphere’s longest civil war. The Congress passed the accord, though voters turned it down in a public vote in October, and we saw signs everywhere urging a “yes” or “no” vote. Everyone wanted peace, but many felt the accord was too lenient with the rebels.

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But here in Tolima, the mood was hopeful. Finca Villa los Alpes sits in the mountains of Tolima between Gaitania and Planadas, and it was (surprise) a long drive to get there, following the Río Ata up through Tolima. Our first van got stuck, so we had to get out and walk until the second one came to pick us up, traversing switchback after switchback. We eventually arrived at the Finca Villa los Alpes for a meeting of all El Jordan coffee producers.

During the meeting, every single one of the producers and their wives got up and spoke, introducing themselves and explaining what our partnership meant to them. One gentleman humbly said, “My life is 150% better because of this relationship.”

“The emotion they shared about the importance of our relationship and impact on their family was very moving to me,” says Joth. “It really reaffirmed the real impact we have on the world.”

A wave of super tiny coffees came out on trays and we toasted them and took lots of photos of each other and exchanged the gifts that we had brought. Next, we all cracked open Colombian beers called Cerveza Poker and stood on the balcony taking it all in.

We went for a tour of the farm with its steep contours, ate fresh lemons off a tree, and saw new worker housing. We were honored with a lunch of lechona, an entire oven-roasted pig stuffed with masa, usually reserved for very special occasions.

“There seemed to be a renewed sense of community and commitment to the land. After the peace accord there seemed to be an absence of hyper-vigilance and unrest, and it's like everyone was able to take a breath and finally relax,” says Mallory Pilcher, Stumptown’s Marketing Manager.

“The amount of work, dedication, and passion it takes to create a consistently high-scoring coffee for Stumptown year in and year out is very humbling,” says Los Angeles Roaster Dan Wilson. “It's a family affair and El Jordan is just that. A grupo, a collective working together for the good of all their lives.”

We drove back to Planadas and in the evening, bought beers at the corner store and drank them in the town square. People were out playing soccer, food trucks were serving up empanadas and teenagers on motorcycles were laughing and encircling the square on their bikes. The sense of freedom and joy was palpable – our importer partner told us no one came out here in the evenings before. The town was paramilitary-controlled and had a mandatory curfew, while the FARC moved through people’s land and commandeered whatever they needed or wanted.

“It felt like it was a carnival but it was just an average Tuesday night,” says Mallory. “There seemed to be this awareness every person had of each other–like they were all in it together and all participating in this social evening as a community.”

The next morning we made the steep climb to meet El Jordan farmer Reinel Perez Ospina in the tiny town of Gaitania for breakfast at his home and farm called Finca La Circacia.

Reinel is kind of like the Patriarch of El Jordan group. He runs the farm with his son Juan, who also manages the warehouses of Caravela, our exporter partner. Reinel has acted as a mentor to a lot of the younger farmers and tries to help teach them how to grow and process higher quality lots of coffee for Stumptown, and in turn make better profits.

The land here was some of the most lush and spectacular most of us had ever seen. Everything was completely saturated in color, with explosive vegetation everywhere. His farm sits in view of the cloudline and from the elevation, you can see for miles.

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We had breakfast with Reinel and his family. Reinel’s wife roasted coffee in a pan over a wood stove and made a large pour over for us to drink. We took a tour of his farm and watched as Reinel easily climbed up a tree to pick us sweet and delicious lemon/mandarin hybrid fruits.

We carefully walked the steep slopes of the farm as Reinel recounted how his land had previously been an air drop zone for FARC supplies, and a dangerous line of fire between the military, paramilitary and rebels. Everyone who worked on the farm grew accustomed to dropping what they were doing and hiding when guerrillas or paramilitaries were spotted on the land.

Reinel says he’s dealt with weather, war, and all kinds of adversity, but there’s nothing you can do but move forward.

“It’s hard to comprehend how complex the supply chain is to get quality coffee,” Mallory says. “It’s just insane seeing what it looks like to institute this intense level of quality that we look for – there is so much opportunity for it to go wrong.”

She says, “You see this guy who has a bag of coffee strapped to the back of his bike, his dog is freeform surf riding on it, and he is taking it down to Planadas down to the mill, and, hopefully, it will be accepted as being good enough.”

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These trips to meet with coffee producers are paramount and at the heart of our Direct Trade relationships – it establishes a close communication and interaction to ensure that the producers reap as much value from their coffee as possible.

On top of that, we are always looking to reinvest in each other's success. After the group made a request last year, we purchased a dryer this year to install down at the warehouse so that coffees that came in a little too high in moisture could be dried to spec and accepted, instead of being rejected and sold to other intermediaries who pay much less.

This regular communication is also geared to be as helpful as possible in increasing awareness of what is necessary to do on the processing and growing side to ensure success for everyone. A big part of this trip was having the roasters explain what they do with the coffee once it gets to them and to explain the respect they have for it, and to show the importance of the work that the producers do.

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The next morning we flew to Medellin. It was gorgeous and lush and and urban. The contrast from Gaitania was stark. The city was bustling with scooters and motorcycles zipping in and out. We were here to see the cafes and operations of Pergamino, an exporter partner of ours who also runs a roasted coffee business with two cafes.

Pedro was our host as we explored the cafe and facilities. We took a tour of Pergamino and met the head Roaster, Omar, and our team tasted coffees and compared notes in broken Spanish.

Pergamino’s cafe felt like a great American third-wave cafe – warm with brick and tile and La Marzocco espresso machines. We were greeted with enthusiasm and hospitality. We tried the espresso, a pour over, a macchiato and a cold brew drink that was mixed with sparkling water, lime juice, and had panella around the rim. All delicious.

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The next day we headed to Caicedo to meet the new producer group, who contributed last year to our El Nevado lot. While Tolima is lush and green with eucalyptus and native Yarumo trees everywhere, Caicedo is more like a tropical desert, with red soil landscapes dotted with cactus. We passed many houses with coffee drying on the roof.

We took a passenger van to get there on a very bumpy road. Aside from a brief scare when Pedro’s dog escaped into the forest, we made it to Caicedo unscathed.

For our next part of the journey, we soon learned we would be traveling by Chiva, which is a privately-owned intricately painted and lit-up bus that goes up and down the mountain. If you live on the mountain and are delivering coffee cherry to town, for instance, or buying concrete or chickens to bring home, you hire a Chiva to take you where you’re going. The flashier ones get better business, so they each compete for style points.

The FARC in the Caicedo region used to steal coffee from the farmers off of the Chiva, so they organized a peace march and everyone dressed in white. The governor at the time heard about it, and in 2002, he marched with the farmers. He was subsequently kidnapped for a year, then tragically killed during a rescue operation. We passed a monument to him on the ride up the mountain.

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We all hopped in the Chiva with Colombian cumbias and vallenatos loud on the speakers and rode up to one of the farmer’s homes where 40 farmers came out to meet us. The show of numbers and interest was unprecedented for this group and the farmers seemed really excited to meet us. They had lots of questions, and relayed that they hadn’t ever known much about the people who bought their coffee before.

These initial first meetings are a way for us to get to know each other and explain what we’re looking for – we passed around bags of our coffee and explained what type of coffee we liked, and brewed pour overs of some of our roasted coffee that we brought from home.

As we were talking, the farmers’ wives served us the best sancocho we tasted on the trip. Sancocho is a popular chicken soup here but every region of Colombia has its own version. This one was Sancocho de Antioquia, a brothier version made with yuca, corn, chicken and served with rice.

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On the way down, someone asked if we wanted to ride on top of the Chiva, which was a perfect end to a perfect day. Pure, unadulterated joy is how most of us described the feeling of riding on the top of the bumpy bus, above the clouds, laughing and ducking to avoid low branches.

“Nothing allows you to take stock in what you do more than meeting and breaking bread with the people who put you where you are, and seeing the value their work has on their entire way of life,” says New York Roaster Ryan Gonzales Johnson. “This experience also gave me that undying respect for the fact that coffee comes from land, which is someone's home. And what we're doing is simply, trying our best to offer people the best possible sensory experience we can as it relates to that place and those people.”