Last week I was in Colombia with a special group of coffee friends being hosted by Raw Material. We've been buying from them since their early days back in 2017 and they are setup as a CIC company here in the UK with a philosophy to assist in the development of the coffee communities they work with. It's a strong message on paper but seeing it in the flesh drummed home how significant Raw Material's work with two small Colombian associations really is.
This was my second trip to Colombia this year, the first back in July on a fermentation workshop held by Lucia Solis. Even though we did get to visit one farm during that visit this latest trip was very much geared towards meeting producers and seeing the processing stations first hand to see where our El Carmen and Villa Maria coffees come from. As soon as the trip was announced along with the names of my fellow travellers I knew it was going to be a good one. Tom from Redbank, Matt and Sam from Hardlines and Chris and Anastasia (aka content queen) from Bonanza in Berlin. All hosted by the legend that is Mat North and RM's on the ground agronomist Miguel Mendoza.
I flew into Bogota a day early to meet Catalina who owns Cata exports who we buy some of the most extraordinary coffees from (Diego Bermudez, Yenni Esperanza, Nestor Lasso to name a few). Cat offered to show me some of the coffee hot-spots of her city and surprised me with a private Cocoa tasting as well as a private coffee tasting of coffees from Sebastian Ramirez. We've been buying Sebastian's amazing coffees for a couple of years and when he heard I was visiting he asked Cat to set up a cupping of his latest coffees at his friends cafe-roastery Colo Coffee. My fellow travellers from Hard-Lines coffee in Cardiff and Caravan Coffee in London joined in with the surprise tastings and it made for a very special and different way to start the trip.
The Cocoa tasting was particularly enjoyable at Legado. The head of production and QC (another Cata), took us through all the stages in production from bean to bar, with 7 of us squeezed into her teeny production lab space. She receives beans from various producers they work with and assesses them both physically and sensorially to feedback areas that require attention. Some beans were over-fermented and dark to look at once cracked open. Some tasted incredibly bitter and unpleasant and would make it into commercial chocolate production but did not meet specialty standards. Sounds all so incredibly familiar !
The tasting session itself was fantastic. Little vials of cocoa nibs mixed with other compounds like sugar, salt, lemon juice, orange peel etc etc. All done blind and the difference in aroma perception was amazing. It was so interesting listening to a chocolate professional talk in such a familiar fashion but with different terms and words. One jaw dropping coincidence came at the end as we were leaving. Cata (chocolate version) said she was intending to travel to the UK next year to explore opportunities. When asked if she was heading to London she said.. "No, Exeter". One of her best friends lives in Exeter and owns the Zero Waste store on Fore Street, just a few doors up from the roastery ! The world is a small place ! We'll be hosting a chocolate tasting at the roastery when she does.
Directly opposite Legado lives Colo Coffee, and you'd have to search high and low for a more beautiful setup for a roastery and cafe. Colombia does wall art and shop decoration with style and this place was stunning. The head honcho happens to be a good friend of Sebastian Ramirez and he had setup a cupping of a few of Sebastian's latest coffees. 'Purple', 'Red' and 'Yellow' fruit infusion coffees which were very interesting. Adding fruit pulp to the fermentation tanks to influence the flavour pre-cursors isn't a new technique but the first time I'd tasted 3 different fruit infusions side by side. Yellow had mango added, red strawberry juice and purple plums. The yellow was delicious, sweet and balanced, red a little 'false' and artificial and plum just downright boozy. As big and boozy a coffee as I've tasted in a while. We asked them if they could make it up as a flat white for us to try, which of course they did (the service level is so incredibly high). It was definitely a memorable experience 😉.
Our Raw Material trip started proper the following day. Meeting Mat North at El Dorado airport then a quick hop down to Pitalito in Huila and first stop the INVERCAFE dry mill owned and managed by Juan Felipe Aristizabel, a third generation farmer, exporter and processor. This place was hot, noisy and dusty and looked like someone had gone mad with big boy mechano. They do the last steps of processing before coffee goes into sacks and then delivery to port for container loading. Coffee arrives to them in 'parchment' which is the dry skin covering on the green beans. All the noisy, shaking machines, colour sorters, grading screens, conveyors and the like have a logical pathway to take the parchment to green. The filling and packing of the sacks was a partly manual process and these workers worked hard, very hard. At one point they were loading a truck with 150 sacks and it was incredible to watch. Receiving the 70Kg sack on their neck/shoulder and running the length of the truck to unload before running back for the next one.. and again and again. In their QC lab we tasted a couple of rounds of coffees from the 'Association Cafe de El Carmen de Acevedo' to get us in the mood for the following day.
Farm day number 1 was a trip up and over the local mountain pass into Acevedo and then up, up up to the El Carmen village for the associations AGM where we were the special guests. After introducing ourselves to the gathering of fifty or so producers they were 'treated' to a taste of coffees that we had brought with us. All El Carmen coffees of course which were roasted in Europe. It was interesting watching their reactions and one in particular stood out to me. One of the 'elders' Humberto, took his time with each cup, using his years of experience to assess the aromatic qualities of the coffee whilst waiting for it to cool before then assessing the taste. I felt I was watching someone being very mindful of this experience.
Some more farm visits after which we were then treated to an incredible alfresco lunch at one of the farmers homes. Everyone from the meeting came along with their families and in all I'd say there were close to 100 people. It seemed totally natural to be sitting overlooking this beautiful coffee region amongst these warm and welcoming people. They'd prepared a traditional Lechona Tolimense, a whole pig stuffed with rice, peas and spices and cooked in a brick oven for 12 hours. Absolutely delicious. Being a vegetarian or vegan in Colombia would be challenging.
Day 2 and we ventured back over the range to El Carmen to judge some coffees to see if they might be suitable to be kept as separate micro-lots rather than be combined into the general association lots. Raw Material had set this competition up with prizes for the top 6, and monetary prizes for the top 3. It felt like the eyes in the room were all fixed on us whilst we cupped and scored the 8 lots that had made it through to the final selection. Mat quickly made up a score sheet and one by one we gave him our scores for the coffees. After tallying up, Mat and Miguel announced the results.
Some claps and cheers and congratulations for the winner and clearly some disappointed faces who quickly scrutinised the judges to see why their coffees hadn't won. This was clearly important stuff. Then up to the hacienda for another village lunch before a typical Sunday afternoon of Tejo and socialising. Tejo is 'the' Colombian throwing game aiming a heavy stone object to hit a small red triangle that explodes on contact like a fire cracker. We were welcomed with open arms and an endless supply of cold beer.
Day 3 was a transit day up to Manizales via two flights and a very long bus ride through some of the heaviest rain I've ever seen (although it seemed to spur the driver on to drive even faster). The destination was well worth it, and if anyone wants to a recommendation for somewhere to take their partner and stay for a week of indulgence I'll happily share. Our stop was brief and up early to head to the DESCAFECOL decaffeination plant, the only decaf plant in Colombia and the only natural EA facility in the world. All Colombia EA decaf coffees come through this big industrial processing facility, built over 30 years ago and running 24x7. No pictures were allowed from the inside of the factory but they did have a nice Christmas tree inside the administration building.
Decaffeinated coffee has changed a lot over the last 5-10 years. The science of extracting caffeine is well established but the major change in that period has been the increase in the quality of the green coffee that is now being sent to undergo decaffeination. Some of you might remember the Yenni Esperanza thermal shock decaf that we had earlier in the year. An extraordinary coffee that happened to be decaffeinated. We were given a presentation by the site manager followed by a tour of the facility including the old control room which wouldn't be out of place in a Chernobyl disaster movie as well as the 'new' room with a single computer replacing the old valves and whistles. The core of the process uses naturally occurring Ethyl Acetate to bind to the caffeine molecules and remove from the coffee seed. EA occurrs as a bi-product of sugarcane fermentation and is a carefully controlled and monitored substance in Colombia. Caffeine is not the only thing it can extract and their deliveries came with an armoured convoy. Only one had been 'intercepted' and hijacked over the years ! We tasted the raw caffeine by-product of the process and it was absolutely disgusting and so incredibly bitter. Of course they sell all the various outputs including caffeine and it seems nothing goes to waste or is simply pumped into the surrounding countryside. One interesting take-home that our host seemed proud to tell us was that there's 20 times more Ethyl-Acetate in a ripe banana than there is in a cup of EA decaffeinated coffee.
Then a flying visit to the Raw Material Jamaica mill where Miguel and Juan Felipe have combined their forces and knowledge to setup processing methods for cherry and parchment delivered to them from some of the Villamaria members. Snuck away in a side room was the now well known water pillow Anoxic technique which was developed here by Miguel and now used throughout Raw's producer partner network in Burundi, Mexico, Timor-Leste and Rwanda. These 'anoxic' coffees were some of the sweetest and aromatic coffees we had on our list last year and we'll definitely be adding to this with more examples from Raw Material. Watch out for the new combination processing technique that Mat and the crew named whilst we were there.
The afternoon excursion up to Finca La Aurora needed a change of vehicles and our inner children were In full flow. The 'Willy's' are 1940's Jeeps will incredible traction and the vehicle of choice in Colombia's rough coffee terrain. Willy rides all round. La Aurora is owned by Rubiel Orrega and was one of RM's early Villamaria association partners and became a collection and processing facility for surrounding farmers who sell their cherry to La Aurora. The partnership has grown and whilst we were there there was a constant stream of producers driving or carrying sacks of cherries up to to collection point, where a set of scales and a man with a notebook recorded all the deliveries for payments. The work RM have put into these relationships with their association partners like Rubiel has enabled payments well above what producers could get selling into the local market plus a quality premium. Miguel explained how this wasn't built overnight and it's taken years of hard work and open and honest discussions with the associations to get to this point. All with the objective of increased consistency and quality which is well rewarded.
Our final destination was Raw Materials own 'piece de resistance' Finca El Fenix which is located just outside of Calarcá in the Quindio department. El Fenix was bought as a derelict farm and through a kickstarter program they funded a community wet mill and have built a centre of excellence for advancement of agronomical practices. Miguel walked us around the farm amongst the Wush-Wush, Typica, Pink Bourbon, Gesha, SL28 and Mokka trees, some of which were gushing with ripe and sweet cherries. No fungicides or pesticides here, just knowledge of the soil and fertilisers that need to be applied, and careful planning of shade trees to allow the right proportion of sunlight for photosynthesis but not enough to cause any unnecessary moisture buildup that could lead to an outbreak of Coffee Leaf Rust. Planned and methodical with knowledge and application of the latest agronomical practices.
The cupping room that RM have built is quite something and we were treated to a number of tables of delicious coffees, including some of the Villamaria micro-lots processed as anoxic naturals and honeys. One of the big lessons learned on the trip is just how good fresh coffee is. Freshly harvested and processed and even the association lots tasted great, super clean and vibrant. The micro-lots were better still and the advanced process coffees quite special. We'll hopefully be offering more of the El Carmen and Villamaria coffees on our offer list going forward.
One final surprise of the trip was when Sebastian Ramirez turned up at El Fenix and spent the day with us. Miguel told me that they had gone to school together and were good friends and that when Sebastian had seen via Instagram that we were going to be at El Fenix for the day he came along. Obviously his faithful cattle dog Niña was by his side and a nice reminder of seeing Sebastian back in July on his farm El Placer.
I feel privileged to have been able to go on this trip with these special people. Raw Material are not just another importer. The work they are doing with these associations is making a difference to the livelihoods of the producer members. My fellow travellers were a fabulous group of people to experience this beautiful country with and I was impressed by all of them. If you read this and wonder what other roasters you might want to support then I couldn't recommend Hardlines and Redbank more highly.
Oh, and the Arepa thing. They're a maize based pattie that's served pretty much with everything. In themselves they are tasteless, filling and heavy. Some people raved about them. I didn't get it.
Dave (6th December 2022)