CQI and Harvest Visit to Colombia

I just returned from a week in Colombia, attending a board meeting of the Coffee Quality Institute (“CQI”) of which I’m privileged to be deeply involved with as a Trustee and long time supporter. Hosted this year by the Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia (known to most in the coffee business simply as the “FNC”, or “Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia) our CQI group split its time in Colombia between board work and field work - with meetings held in Bogotá and Cartagena, and boots on the ground in the coffee regions surrounding the towns of Armenia, Manizales, and Pereira.

Given the choice of sitting in a meeting room, or being outdoors talking to farmers and seeing their coffee, most of us on the board would choose the farmers any day of the week! So after a day of meetings with the Federation at their headquarters in Bogotá - which included a mind-boggling presentation about the FNC’s new GIS (geographic information system) computerized mapping and inventory system covering of every farm, literally every square meter of coffee being grown in Colombia, including number of trees, variety of trees, age of trees, fertilizers, soils, etc., enjoying a blind cupping of coffees from five different regions of Colombia with several CQI-trained cuppers in their labs, and a delicious lunch with the Federation’s new CEO in the penthouse of the FNC’s office tower - we flew westward to spend a couple of days in Colombia’s zona cafeteria (“coffee zone”).

Manizales is the capital city of the department of Caldas, which along with Pereira (department of Risaralda) and Armenia (department of Quindío), are square in the middle of the zona cafeteria. A lot of coffee is grown further south in the ascending mountain ranges of southern Colombia, and quite a bit is grown to the north in the descending mountain ranges, but the “coffee zone” is the heart and soul of Colombian coffee. These three departments (we would call them states) are perfectly situated for growing fine coffee - possessing just the right combination of altitude, temperature, rainfall, soils, and people - and our visit coincided with the departments’ primary harvest. It’s the best time to visit because of both the flurry of activity on the farms and the mills plus being once again reminded of just how much physical labor and care goes into producing each pound of specialty coffee that we all love so much.

While in Quindío, we stopped in for a visit with Sr. Ignacio Quiroz, one of my favorite Colombian coffee farmers and owner of “Finca La Alsacia”. Ignacio and his wife have a modest-sized farm located about a kilometer off the main highway outside of Armenia. Their place is about a hectare in size (roughly about 2.5 acres) of gently sloping terrain, planted with about 1,500 coffee trees, mostly Variedad Colombia, but he also grows the Yellow Caturra variety that ripens earliest in the season. Sr. Quiroz grows other cash crops such as vegetables and fruits, and is renowned locally for the quality of his plantains. Ignacio is extremely proud of his farm and his trees, and took great pleasure in walking us around his place – answering questions, poking fun at himself and his guests, pulling his machete from its sheath to open a trail up a bit for us, and even stopping to knock down some ripe papaya from one of his fruit trees for us to refresh ourselves with on our hike.

Ignacio’s pride and joy is a restored and tricked-out 1954 Willys Jeep, which he uses to tool around his farm and making runs into town. If anyone is wondering what happened to all of the WWII and Korean War-vintage American Army Jeeps, apparently they all retired to the mountains of Colombia. At almost every farm, there’s an old jeep to be found – either running, or up on blocks waiting for parts, presumably purchased through some sort of automotive time portal, as the Jeeps themselves haven’t been manufactured for decades.

While in the Manizales region, we also had an opportunity to visit CENICAFÉ, the primary coffee R&D facility of the Federation. This visit had double meaning for me, as their facility is world-class in studying coffee - and has been for 70 years – and you could say it has been on my bucket list of places to visit. But in addition to that, it’s also a potential research partner for the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative ("GCQRI”, AKA: “Geekery”, which I think pretty much sums it up) at Texas A&M that Coffee Bean International has been so involved in launching during the past year, so I really felt a need to visit it first-hand and meet some of the people behind the science. Impressive doesn’t begin to do it justice.

I hated to leave! Colombia is the third largest producer of coffees in the world, and the number one producer of fully washed specialty coffees. My Colombian friends and acquaintances have a sense of quiet pride and accomplishment in their country and in their coffee that is well-deserved. Theirs is a beautiful country that I hope to visit again and again…

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