This past August I traveled to Colombia to visit some of Equator’s key partners. The diversity of high quality coffee produced in Colombia makes it an important country in which to establish and nurture relationships. This trip was focused on producers we have been working with for several years who are based in the coffee growing regions of the West Andes mountain range, where the departments of Valle del Cacua, Risaralda and Antioquia are located. We have partners in each of these growing regions that range from smallholders to large estates.
The trip started with weather related flight delays which resulted in a late arrival to the town of Guatica, where the growers’ association La Cristalina is located. The history of coffee production in the Guatica area and the Risaralda region as a whole is transitioning. Once known for producing large volumes of commercial quality coffee, yields have dropped off in recent years due to rising temperatures attributed to climate change. Farmers, especially those at lower elevations, have stopped growing coffee altogether and have transitioned to other agricultural endeavors including citrus and livestock. With the help of La Cristalina the remaining coffee farmers in Guatica have pivoted and are now focusing on the more lucrative specialty market.
Unfortunately, the challenges of a coffee farm are numerous; the dry weather in early 2016 resulted in a broca, or coffee berry borer, infestation. The result is substantially lower yields, particularly in the specialty category. One of the primary methods of combating the pest is the labor intensive process of frequent clearing the farm of infested and overripe coffee fruit. Simple traps made of plastic bottles filled with sweet alcohol are used to monitor the degree of infestation on different parts of the farms.
Despite these challenges and others, great tasting coffee continues to be produced by the growers of La Cristalina. Several years ago we selected coffee from this group for Equator’s flagship espresso blend Tigerwalk, and have continued to use it for this purpose ever since. The sweetness, balance and creamy body make it the perfect foundation for Tigerwalk. Equator is an important partner for La Cristalina, we purchase one-third of the coffee produced by these farmers. The association is relatively new, and it was just a short year ago that they attempted to produce their first micro lot, which totaled just eleven (70 kg.) bags of green coffee. When we visited Guatica last year and saw the carefully selected, pristine coffee drying on raised beds, we offered to purchase the entire lot. Based on their track record we had no doubt that the finished product would exceed the already high quality of their main lot. We were happy to approve the coffee when it was ready for shipment and to share it with our customers last summer. We are encouraging La Cristalina to continue the experimentation process and hope to see to another micro lot in 2017, maybe even a natural processed test.
Driving south from Guatica we arrived in the town of Caicedonia, where our partners at Café Granja La Esperanza have a cupping lab, warehouse and two coffee farms. Long time Equator customers may be familiar with the farm name, Las Margaritas. This farm is planted with a vast assortment of coffee varieties and Equator has offered many of them over the years. Currently we are looking forward to two very special natural processed lots of the Bourbon and Sudan Rume varieties that will be available in the coming months.
Now the farm includes its very own wet mill and drying facility so the coffee cherry no longer needs to be transported to their sister farm, Potosí, located on the other side of the valley. Potosí is the oldest of Granja la Esperanza’s family of farms. It is undergoing a farm-wide renovation project; old trees are either being stumped or replaced to generate new tissue, higher yields and better cup quality. It is always a pleasure to visit Caicedonia to evaluate coffee with the team that is so intrinsically responsible for the quality of Granja la Esperanza’s coffee.
In addition to Las Margaritas and Potosí, we also traveled to the nearby town of Trujillo where the famous farm Cerro Azul is located. This farm is planted predominately with Gesha (or Geisha) variety trees, which has garnered a slew of awards for Cerro Azul, including a Roaster’s Choice award for Equator.
In addition to Gesha some smaller, formally unidentified trees simply known as Enano are also thriving on the farm. While Enano is a tiny fraction of the farm’s overall production, Equator has been the primary buyer of this coffee for many years. Although not obviously of the Gesha variety, we love the Enano for its brightness, jasmine and peach-like flavors. We are fortunate to receive two deliveries of this delicious coffee each year and we will be introducing the latest new crop arrival soon. The visit with Granja la Esperanza was capped off by a stay at their beautiful colonial farm house on their namesake farm, La Esperanza.
Finally, a short flight from Calí to the cosmopolitan city of Medellín and a visit to the offices of our friends at Cooperandes. This impressive cooperative has hundreds of members throughout the department of Antioquia. Known for producing large volumes of both commercial and specialty coffee, Cooperandes works hard to select and grade lots for Equator from smallholders who live and farm in an area known as Jardín. We didn’t stay long in Medellín; instead we quickly set off the charming mountain town of Jardín. While in the area we visited a massive new coffee processing mill that was already in use, with imminent plans for further expansion.
In other coffee growing countries these kinds of mills are not unusual but, in Colombia, with its long tradition of smallholders processing coffee on their own farms, seeing this scale of operation was a surprise. If that wasn’t enough, Cooperandes already has a sizeable mill in operation and soon construction will start on a third mill in a neighboring town. These innovations, along with their sophisticated dry mill and a brand new soil analysis lab left a lasting impression.
Even though Equator is considered a small buyer by this group, our strict quality requirements are sincerely appreciated by the Cooperandes team, especially the cuppers who are charged with isolating day lots that meet our exacting expectations. Although the name Cooperandes may not be familiar to many of our customers, it is a critically important component in our namesake Equator Blend, our most popular coffee. In addition to the smallholder lots from Jardín, we have also partnered with larger farms in the Cooperandes network, including Finca Las Mercedes near Ciudad Bolivar, a featured coffee from earlier this year.
Due in part to the fact that it is the second largest Arabica coffee producer in the world, Colombia coffee has a mixed reputation. The adoption of commercial grade coffee from Colombia as a "symbol" of quality by mass market brands can enforce a negative stereotype that Colombia coffee can be good, but not great. As with most coffee producing countries, there has always been a wide range of quality with Colombia, in recent years, we have seen an increasing number of coffee growers push more ardently toward a better and more differentiated cup. Not only are they succeeding, the best part is that there is a massive capacity for more farmers to join in. We expect to see even greater volumes of outstanding coffee emerging from Colombia in the years to come. Until then we can sit back and enjoy the coffees from one of our partners. They are clearly leading the charge!
Director of Coffee
Equator Coffees & Teas