In Search of Direct Trade Coffee from Colombia - Day 1

After a quick sleep in Bogota, I rushed to the airport again to catch a 35-minute flight to Neiva.  Alex Russan from Castle Company and Madelyn Madrid from the Colombian Coffee Federacion (FNC) were my early morning travel partners, eager to show me the farms in the Huila region of Colombia.  By 6:45 am our propeller plane had landed and we were whisked off to breakfast and then to the FNC office. 

 The FNC exports 27-30 % of all coffees in Colombia, and in the state of Neiva this number is even higher: 30-35%.  Neiva grows three main varietals of Arabica coffee: caturra, Colombia, and typica.  Farms are an average of 1.5 hectares and there are 37 points of purchase throughout each region for easier access to farmers.  The FNC also offers services to the coffee famers, mainly in the form of education to improve coffee quality and investments into individual farmers to improve their farms.  An example of this is the “fondo de recursos,” a rotating loan given to farmers to build better facilities on their farm or invest in new coffee trees, soil analysis, etc.  This fund is built from a 6 cent (centimo of one Colombian peso, today trading at around 1800 to $1) tax on coffee sold.  The FNC describes itself as the biggest NGO in the world, and its goal is to unite a large number of agriculturalists to work together to improve Colombian coffees.  Immediately after breakfast, we began to cup coffees in the cupping lab of the regional FNC office.  We cupped examples of typical microlots from 6 different regions in Huila: La Plata, Palermo, Bruselas, Pitalito, Gazón, and Santa Maria.  My obvious top two favorites were Gazón and Palermo, both of which had a nice fruity aroma and a dark chocolate and raspberry finish, sweet (oh, so sweet!), green apple like acidity, and very, very well balanced. Almacafe handles coffee quality in all of Colombia, and they have a joint office with the FNC in the state of Neiva to evaluate coffee quality before export.  Microlots are in the warehouses for a maximum of one week before they are sent to Bogotá for export.

We visited three different farms, two of which we had cupped back in Portland.  First up was Don Benicio Diaz.  We loved his coffee back at the roastery, and we scored it around an 89 or 90. Benicio is a really fun guy.  He brought us to his house and introduced us to his family, who were busy preparing one of the most delicious meals I have ever eaten.  His grandson clung to him for dear life, and everyone seemed to want to be around him.  As he cooked, he told us the history of his farm – he bought it 30 years ago. His family had not been in the coffee business, but as a young boy he helped work on coffee farms, and always had a passion for it.  After living and working hard making clothing with his wife, he finally made enough money to buy the nearby farm he had always wanted.  We looked at his farm, which was very well cared for and obviously had a lot of work put into it.  After a treacherous (for me at least in a walking cast) hike directly up about 1000 meters or so, we reached a ridge where we could see Benicio’s entire farm and the nearby town of San Juaquin.  I won't even try to describe it here, but trust me, it would have taken your breath away (or maybe that was just the hike?)  After half sliding and half being carried back down the mountain, we were greeted by a hot lunch of chicken, rice, avocado salad, boiled yucca, plantains, and potato soup.  Yum!

Farm number two was that of Don José Fernando Becerra.  Fernando was a sweet quiet man with a beautiful family.  His plants were separated by age (date planted) and this is the way he keeps them separated during the fermentation process.  Each year he plants new trees to replace the oldest so that his farm is never out a year of production.  Pickers are paid 250-300 pesos per kilo picked, they are asked not to finish the season if they do not pick only the best coffee cherries, foregoing any under- or over-ripes from the bunch. That’s what we like to hear!

The third and final farm we visited was that of Luis Alberto Gutierrez. Luis Alberto was a hoot.  I have a great video explaining how he came to own his farm, which speaks for itself.  Recently, Luis Alberto received an 8 million peso loan from the FNC to build a new fermentation room.  He just finished paying the money back, and the room is beautiful. He lives on the farm with his wife and one of his six sons who stayed in the coffee business, and on the side raises roosters for cock-fighting.

To learn more about Project Direct visit www.projectdirectcoffee.com

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