A lot of terms are thrown around to describe where coffee comes from. This is especially true in our world of ‘single origin’ coffees, where we’re more interested in epicurean discovery than a quick jolt of caffeine or a ‘bold,’ ‘balanced’ base for a cup full of milk and sugar.
The more we focus on taste, the more important locating and understanding origin becomes. A country is usually a good start. Sometimes you get a region. Motivated, quality driven coffee roasters will give you more specificity and transparency – the Co-op, farm, or micro-lots within a farm that the coffee(s) came from. They’ll also typically identify whether the coffee is in season, the specific variety of coffee, and details about how the farm processed the coffee cherries to prepare the seeds for sale – all of which can impact taste. With all these varying conventions, and many coffee companies thoughtlessly info-dumping without the context needed to make sense of it all, you’d be forgiven for some confusion or a bit of resigned ignorance.
But coffee production is tough, proud, ultimately delicious work touched by many hands that can make or break quality at each step, long before it reaches a roaster or barista. This deserves both clarity and recognition. With that in mind, I’d like to share the experience I had visiting a coffee farm with Cafe de Colombia a couple weeks ago as part of their effort to get consumers to “Mind the Bean.”
Pereira is about 30 minutes outside Bogota by plane. It’s sticky hot compared to the crisp air in the capital. We hop in a van and drive about an hour into Chinchiná, Caldas, to visit one of the 563,000 coffee growing families represented by the Colombian Coffee Grower’s Federation (FNC). Our final destination is the award winning Finca El Descanso, a small farm among many others in a mountain town called Alto de la Minas.
This was a nice change of scenery from New York, where winter has refused to let go of the city despite spring’s best efforts.
Above, coffee pickers moving across rows of trees on the side of a hill.
Bumpy roads getting up to the top of the mountain.
The majority of Colombia’s coffee farms are relatively small and family owned, averaging about 4 acres (16,000m²). There’re dozens of small farms all along the way to the one we’re visiting.
Above, we finally arrived! And what a beautiful farm it was, looking more like a botanical garden than a work site.
Coffee Growing & Harvesting
At the farm, we meet owner Alirio Rios who walks us through the entire process starting with a bag of seeds, in this case the Castillo variety (developed in Colombia to resist a devastating fungus called leaf rust that threatens to wipe out coffee production around the world, more on that in a later article). Alirio brings in soil from a nearby riverbed and sprouts the seeds en masse. Each kilo of seeds produces over 4000 seedlings, which are eventually culled to around 1000 promising candidates.
The FNC, funded by a tax on all coffee exports, provides a variety of services that help farmers increase their productivity & sustainability. For instance Alirio can send soil samples to them and receive analyses on what fertilizers are needed for his land. They also provide sustainable pest control advice and much more (more on that in a later post).
Next, as the tree grows, it’s heavily pruned about every 5 years to keep it manageable and to renew production. In Colombia there are two harvest periods per year, one around October, and another around April. With care the plots will last 15-20 years before they need to be torn out and replanted.
While we were visiting, the one thing that truly surprised me was how intense coffee picking is. Growing up in California, most farms I’ve seen have neat, widely spaced rows of trees. In the photo below you’ll see how tightly packed the rows of coffee trees are. Coffee picking is an intimate, back breaking chore that entails getting up close and personal with the tree to find and pick only the ripe, red berries. And this example isn’t even on a steep slope or a variety of tree that rises high off the ground. This is a seasonal job that pays based on how much you pick, and how accurately you pick ripe cherries.
Above you see what the picker contends with. Difficult work!
One of the many factors that increases the price of the high end coffees we love here on FRSHGRND is that pickers need to be paid a premium to leave aside the underripe, overripe, and rotten cherries, only picking the ripest red cherries (or yellow for some varieties) which have developed ideal sugar content. This also means that a farmer will have to pay enough for pickers to come through multiple times during the harvest, as cherries don’t always ripen evenly.
These and other related efforts are investments in quality that only make sense when the market is willing to pay a premium for the higher quality coffee – which is where importers, roasters, cafes, industry associations, and bloggers like yours truly have various roles to play to ensure and/or help communicate that value.
The high end of the market covered on this blog still represents only a fraction of the global trade in coffee, and catering to this demanding market can be a rewarding, but risky investment when it involves changing established processes, re-planting, investing in new infrastructure, higher labor costs, etc. This is why many importers and specialty roasters emphasize their relationship with farmers (e.g., through terms like Direct Trade), and it’s a good reason to support companies that are thinking about and putting money into long term quality improvements. In a perfect world, this creates a win-win for all parties, but it’s all dependent on consumers finding that added value in the cup (e.g., roasters, cafes, and baristas doing their jobs well) as well as the intangibles that go along with the experience, that ultimately justifies a higher price tag.
Coming up: Processing and more!
I hope this was an illuminating read. The next steps include processing, milling, and selling the coffee, which I’ll be sharing soon, along with a few more articles about the interesting work Colombia’s Coffee Federation is doing, and visits to a few great cafes in Bogota. Follow FRSHGRND on Twitter or Facebook so you don’t miss it, and if you have any questions I’d be happy to answer them in the comments below.