Colombia, a stunning country that produces stunning coffee. Thanks to Dave and Raw Material I headed out on my second origin trip to this fine country and this time getting to see a different area than I did in 2022. I was particularly excited for this trip because we’ve been buying from Raw Material for a while now and I’d be visiting a couple of the farms/associations that we have been buying from, Villamaria and El Fénix, and they did not disappoint.
I arrived on Monday 6th at Bogotá airport at 4am and slowly started bumping into everyone else on the trip until our flight to Pereira at 8:30. Being 5 hours behind in Colombia, it meant it felt like an extra long day ahead of us, but luckily there was coffee involved. Our first stop was to Café y Procesos, a local grading and cupping lab, where we were to taste a few local farm’s coffee. There was a mix of processes and varieties on the table and a great insight into what farmers have been experimenting with.
After feeling revived and caffeinated, we drove a couple of blocks to Risaralda’s cooperative dry mill. Tightly packed into this warehouse were hulling machines, colour sorters and storage space for a vast amount of coffee. They made use of all the space here, but they said it wasn’t too big for a dry mill and the largest was in Armenia, which I happened to have visited last year.
Once we’d had the tour and had just about enough coffee dust inhaled, we headed to our first farm and accommodation for the night, the beautiful El Fénix. The journey was particularly fun because once we’d gone as far as possible on paved roads, we hopped out of the minivan and into 2 WWII Jeeps, as the roads were about to get steep, windy and pretty rugged. We could stand on the back of them, cling on and watch the vista unfold as we worked our way up the mountain. We arrived at El Fénix just before it got dark, so the scenery was to be fully appreciated in the morning.
El Fénix is a beautiful farm. It’s Raw Material’s main base and they produce some exceptional coffee there, as well as use it as an educational hub for farmers and they’ve recently developed a community wet mill for local producers. We had a tour around the place from Miguel and Susanne and we got to see the wet mill, drying beds and the different areas for each variety grown on the farm. The most interesting process to me was the ‘water pillow’ fermentation. This involved pulping the coffee, then putting it into a big plastic container that was weighed down by an oversized plastic sheet filled with water. Having the water in the plastic sheet on top meant that it filled the whole surface area creating a seal, while squishing the coffee together. This allowed for the fermentation to happen without any oxygen getting to the coffee. A truly innovative design that costs hardly anything for farmers to create, ideal! With a relatively long fermentation, this brings out many fruity characteristics in a coffee and is quite rich in body and flavour. We would later taste a couple of coffees processed this way.
Having checked out the processing side of the farm, we had a wander around the (very steep) fields to see the farm’s variety offering. They grow Castillo, Tabi, Moka, Wush Wush, Gesha, Sidra and Pink Bourbon (there may be some other varieties that we didn’t see). It’s always great to wander through coffee farms during picking season, as you can pick the odd ripe cherry to taste the fruit from each variety and how it differs from the next. My favourite is probably Pink Bourbon, as it’s the sweetest.
We had a few cuppings (tastings) during our stay on El Fénix, some coffees that were from the farm and others were from farms who worked with Raw Material in different areas of Colombia, particularly from El Carmen, which is a community of different farms that either pool their coffee together or they keep them as microlots, if the cup score is particularly good. There were some great coffees on the table (some perfect examples of how varied coffee from Colombia can be, while achieving excellent quality), but there were some clear standouts including a couple of washed Geshas and a washed Castillo from El Fénix. Delish!
The next day, before we moved on from El Fénix, the founder Matt Greyleigh took myself and a couple of the others aside, to show us a slideshow of how Raw Material started, the impact it’s had and the direction they want to head in. They operate in Colombia, Rwanda, Burundi, Mexico and Timor-Leste and they’ve committed to always put 100% of profits back into the farms and community, in order for the farmers to get better facilities and education. Their drive and approach has worked incredibly well and is continuing to better the areas they work in. If you fancy reading up on their work, there’s more info on their website: https://www.rawmaterial.coffee/colombia.
In the afternoon we headed onto our next location, which was a 3 hour drive, but happened to be a hotel with natural hot springs. Not a bad place to end the day.
The morning revealed the beautiful setting of the hot springs, with dense, green mountains in every direction you looked. We were over 2000 masl here and the first stop was at Descafecol planta Descafeinado, Colombia’s sole decaffeination plant. It’s a streamlined operation that they run here, decaffeinating 4140 kg (the only batch size) of green coffee in 24hrs.
They can run multiple batches throughout the day, but the coffee yield from the farmer has to be this amount, which limits what coffee can be decaffeinated. As good decaf coffee is becoming more popular, farmers are leaning more towards putting higher quality coffee through the process, as opposed to putting low quality lots mixed in, just to make the numbers. That’s part of the reason why decaf can taste so bad, it’s bad coffee.
After a presentation and tour from Sven, the CEO, we headed down slightly to Jamaica drying station (‘J’ pronounced with a ‘H’), which is where the honey and natural processed Villamaría Red association coffee is dried. The Red association was set up by Raw Material to help farmers to increase cherry quality and give them a better price for them, but more on that shortly. At Jamaica, they had a few fermentation tanks and a lot of double stacked drying beds that were covered by a polythene shelter, like a bin greenhouse. This creates a very warm and dry environment, reaching around 50 degrees, allowing the coffee to dry steadily, but it needs to be turned regularly to make sure it dries evenly. Being at a lower altitude, around 1300 masl, it’s better for drying honeys and naturals, as the temperature is warmer and more stable.
After sweating it out by the drying beds, we then headed into the mountains to Finca La Aurora, which is where the cherries for Villamaría Red are collected. The Red association buys the cherries from local farmers (all who grow Castillo), which after quality being quality checked, they’re then mixed together to provide a regional blend and processed. The Red association will provide constant feedback and education for the farmers, so that they can produce more, higher quality coffee. So if the cherries weren’t purchased for these reasons, they’ll help the farmers to yield a higher quality for the next harvest, where they’ll hopefully be able to buy them. We’ve been buying Villamaría coffee for a number of years now and the quality is getting notably better each year, so it’s definitely working.
Once we’d met all the hard workers and had a tour of the farm, we headed back down the mountain to crash out before a new location in the morning.
Santuario was our base for the next couple of nights. From here we boarded another Jeep and headed into the lush, green mountains nearby, to visit 4 farms. These farms work with Asocafé Tatama, who are based in Santuario and sell the parchment on. Parchment is the green coffee bean still with a thin casing left around it after drying. It then needs to be hulled to take this off and you’re left with the green bean, ready for shipping. This is how coffee is usually bought from the farmers, as they tend to process and dry their coffee on their own farm, so Villamaría is an exception to this.
As with a lot of farms in Colombia they were set amongst the mountains in very rural places, so the drive between them all was gorgeous. The picking season was firmly underway too, so we saw a lot of coffee being delivered and processed on each farm. Pickers are hired for this job, so they make multiple trips throughout the day with sacks of around 15 kg of cherries. It’s very labour intensive work, as with most farming, so it really makes you appreciate all the hard work they’re putting in to try and give you good quality coffee. Each farmer proudly showed us their system in order to achieve the best quality they could, most of which was very innovative and making the most of what materials they have. It certainly works well for them.
On the last farm, work had to come to a halt, as a thunderstorm came rolling in. We quickly squashed back into the Jeep and made it safely back to Santuario, just as the storm came to an end and the sun had set.
Asocafé Tatama not only purchase and export some of the local farm’s parchment, but they also buy some the the higher quality parchment (this would usually be exported, with the lower quality beans staying in Colombia), hull it in there small warehouse and roast it on site for their café in town. This is where we had our breakfast on both mornings when we were in Santuario. They served us a Honey Caturra and a Natural Tabi from a couple of the nearby farms. It was amazing to think that the whole process was completed within 10 kms of where we were sitting. We went to their HQ in the morning to be shown around and to cup a few of their higher grade lots from local farms. A delicious selection was on the table, but all of our favourites was a Honey Bourbon.
After a relaxing lunch and wander in Santuario, Phil (from Raw Material in Belfast) had arranged and bought 9 kg of the favourite Honey Bourbon we had tasted in the morning, but it still needed sorting. Luckily, he had all of us on side to help go through the hulled beans, picking out any obvious defects and bits of parchment. It took 7 of us around 45 minutes to go through it, which we were told was too slow compared to their workers. 1 person would’ve done this in the same amount of time.. It was a good experience to help sort the coffee at this stage, before it’s bagged and exported, widening your perspective of the journey the coffee goes through.
On our final day, we made our way to Filandia, a picturesque town closer to Armenia, where we were flying from the next day. On the way to Filandia however, we stopped off at one last farm, which was owned by Pedro, who used to work for Raw Material before taking over his family farm, Finca La Esperanza. Pedro had been learning the ropes for around a year and was having a successful harvest so far. His family mainly grew Caturra and Castillo, but he is introducing Pink Bourbon as a higher quality variety, to see how this takes and will look to experiment with more varieties, including Café One, a new, more pest resistant hybrid.
It’s got to be said, another highlight from his farm was Kiara, a new pup that was giving everyone cuddles.
Arriving in Filandia, we headed to Miguel’s brother’s restaurant for some delicious food, which wasn’t beans, rice, egg and plantain. Being vegetarian, the menus were pretty much limited to this, so to go somewhere that had other things on offer was heavenly.
Before the night drew in, we wandered around the colourful town of Filandia, browsing the shops amongst the, busier than we were used to, crowds. Everyone was tired from the week’s adventures, so we found a bar and cheers-ed the trip with a couple of ‘cervezas’ before another top up of food at the same restaurant as lunch. A great end to the trip.