A Look Around Colombia Coffee Areas of Cauca – Huila – Urrao -2015

Getting back in the habit of doing travelogues with this trip to Colombia.

Writing and uploading coffee travelogues on a regular basis is something I did religiously … that is, until around 6 years ago when the travel became so frequent that the task became impossible. There are other information venues I use now too, like our podcasts, videos and such. But I think a quick travelogue still can hold interest, in our effort to be transparent about how we work in finding our coffees.

Dan and I (Thompson) returned from another Colombia trip lately and wrote up a little piece to sketch out how a coffee trip unfolds for us.

The trip was around 10 days and involved a few domestic flights and long hours on twisty roads. Dan has written some great notes focusing on the Urrao area of Antioquia, while my photos cover span the entire trip as we continued through Cauca into Huila area in the south. These are the prime Colombia coffee areas for quality in some respects.

Between farm visits, there was intensive work to cup all the coffees with lots ranging from 1000 Kilos to just 30 kilos. We cupped over 400 samples on the trip, as well as visited many farmers, which is a bit unusual actually.  Coffees need about 3 weeks minimum after processing and drying to be “rested” enough to taste. Six weeks is better. In most regions a trip will come at the tail end of harvest, so the focus will be shifted to cupping and selecting lots that have rested. Or the trip might be in the early part to middle part of a harvest, so there will be much to see at the farms and mills, but much less to cup. Colombia is unique in that there is coffee always in production somewhere, it seems.

We arrived in Medellin, Colombia a couple weeks back, hitting the ground running due north to the coffee lands. We’ve been buying a bit of coffee from the Urrao region in northern Antioquia. Our intermediaries in Medellin started a project in a small area of Urrao called Pavón, organizing a group of about 20 farmers – some family, all neighbors – who together coordinate deliveries at the local cooperative where their coffees are roasted, tasted, and those that make the cut are purchased on the spot for a hefty premium.

Urrao is unique for many regions, one of which is the amazingly flat “Valle de Penderisco” (carved out by an ancient river of the same name) that greets you when descending into town on the main highway. I should say, that for the 3 1/2 hours it takes to drive from Medellín to Urrao, the road is anything but straight. I like to think I have a strong stomach, but the non-stop curves and hairpin-turns gave me a run for my money. Needless to say, after one last wind in the road, you crest the mountain top and look down upon the wide and flat valley floor, as well as the welcoming arrow-straight road that follows for what seems like forever (but is really only a few kilometers!).

The altitude in Urrao is great for growing coffee, just over 1800 meters above sea level at the valley floor mentioned above, rising another 100 meters in the neighboring valley where our buying is focused. Most of the producers in this area have coffee planted above 2000 meters, some all the way up to 2100 (we’ve seen small amounts of Caturra at 2200). But what’s maybe most interesting about the high altitudes of Urrao, is that it wasn’t long ago that the climate was much colder, actually stunting coffee productivity, and cup quality to some degree.

The coffees of Urrao were for the most part sold off for blending into large, non-descript Excelso grade lots. But rising temperatures have changed this, and Urrao coffee farmers are benefitting from the warmer weather. Urrao isn’t ‘warm’ per se, but rather ‘warmer’ than in the past, which in this case has led to better cup quality, higher yields, and the potential of increased profits (we saw several farms place in both the top 10 Cup of Excellence and top 60 Taza de Antioquia competitions in 2013, and 2014).

Coffee plant productivity is tied to many things, but temperature plays a key role. For arabica coffee, this range is 16 – 23 degrees C, the temperature in Urrao averaging 19 C the last couple of years. The longer a plant is within this temperature range, the more time it is operating at ‘full capacity’, so to speak, and positively affecting properties such as seed density and potential sweetness.

Not far down the road however, at only slightly lower elevations, we’re seeing quite the opposite response to this warming trend. Just outside Medellin in areas like Santa Barbara, and Fredonia for example, farmers are experiencing record low rainfall coupled with warmer than usual temperatures, even at 1700+ meters, and the health of the coffee trees are suffering.

The Cauca Valley below has always been a source of warm, upwelling air to the surrounding highlands, so even a small rise in temperatures sees the region well-above 23 C, and has meant lower production for many coffee producers. It’s important to remember that there is a big difference between ‘weather’ and ‘climate’. Weather refers to atmospheric conditions within a short period of time. The warm and dry weather of this year may very well be replaced with cooler, wet weather the next. Climate, on the other hand, is the tracking of weather patterns over time and gives us a better idea of the direction annual temperatures and precipitation are headed. So just because producers had bad year this year in one area, it doesn’t necessarily mean their crops will suffer the next. My geography teacher put it well: climate is what you expect, and weather is what you get. This was a topic of conversation along our trip: how do small producers protect their investment in coffee from a warming climate and weather unpredictability?

As you see with the above examples, the changes brought on by global warming are very different for those at high elevations than those at moderate and low elevations, and so the options for addressing these issues are also quite different. Though small farmers in Urrao have benefitted from the warmth, they are now also faced with problems that come with it, ones that used to be relegated to the lower altitudes, like leaf rust (“roya”) and even coffee boring insects.

The Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros (FNC – the National Colombian coffee growers association) heavily promotes the Castillo culitvar in all growing regions due to it’s resistance to leaf rust and promise of high fruit yields. While these claims are partly true (though we’re seeing mutations of the rust disease that do attack rust-resistant varieties over time), simply planting farms with Castillo or an equivalent is hardly a one-size-fits-all solution. One Urrao producer we visited was ready to pull out his Caturra trees and transplant with Castillo at the recommendation of the FNC when the Urrao project started last year. But after being approached about joining this group, he not only decided to prune instead, but also added another full hectare of new Caturra trees to his farm.

Without turning this into a “Caturra vs. Castillo” article (my podcast from the trip has plenty on that) what’s important is that the coffee he was producing was very impressive in our cup testing, due in part to variety, altitude, and of course the weather pattern during the year. Maybe replanting with a high-producing, disease-resistant coffee makes sense for farmer at 1400 meters struggling to produce 80+ point coffee. But for a farmer who is already producing 90 point coffee to replant with a varietal that yields an arguably inferior cup would be irresponsible.

You see a lot of Caturra in Urrao, I’d say it makes up about 75% of the planted coffee trees at the farms that we visited. It lacks the level of disease resistance of the Timor-hybrid types (Castillo, Variedad Colombia, Tabi, etc), but as one farmer pointed out, with proper care in planting and cultivation, farms in Urrao see a lot of success with Caturra. The trees at his farm are planted 3’ apart, a sacrifice of space, but he explains how the overall productivity of his farm is greater than if he crammed in more trees per hectare. At 3’ apart, sunlight is able to reach all the way to the bottom of the tree, creating an extremely productive tree top to bottom. It’s also much easier for his workers to apply fertilizers to the soil, spray for roya/leaf-rust if needed, and clean the ground of fallen fruit which helps keep coffee-boring insects at bay.

This “from the farm” information is so useful for helping other farmers understand how to best protect their investment in coffee, or even what type of coffee to plant in the first place. There’s no shortage of suggestions being made from “outsiders” (coffee buyers, government agencies, etc), and so having examples of what’s actually working on a local level is extremely helpful as farmers are faced with tough decisions. With roya, we’ve seen a race to find a sort of universal patch that every farmer benefits from, when the reality is that the options for addressing or preventing it can be quite different from one region to the next, and especially at high and low altitudes.

This is our second trip to the Urrao region, meeting with the farmers we’re buying from, mapping the area, and learning more about the local coffee-growing tradition which is not-so-surprisingly similar from one farm to the next. The intermediary we’ve partnered with in Medellín affords us the means to work in a more direct way with the farmers of this region too. Not only are they making regular trips to Urrao to buy coffee, but also to maintain their own farm “Los Palomos” that they bought last year. It’s a unique opportunity for us to learn more about how the changing weather is affecting different varieties, and wet-processing (fermentation in particular), as well as to maintain a close connection with the members of this project.

This is the first year of the project, and the premiums we are paying along with regular visits are helping to build trusting relationships. The base price we paid this year is nearly twice the going rate, 650,000 pesos per “carga” more than what is paid by the local cooperative (“carga” is 125kilograms of coffee still in parchment, or roughly 100 kilos of milled green coffee).

We offered a competitive price last year, and have chosen to continue at this level even with the precipitous drop in the market price. Like most of the coffees we buy direct, pricing tends to be divergent from the Commodities market, paying what we think a coffee is actually worth. Between Urrao, Inza, Timana, and La Plata, we cupped over 400 samples on this trip, approving more coffees than we can stuff in a 20 foot container. (We should be more practical, but when we cup something really nice, we feel compelled to take it).

-Dan & Thompson

Some Favorite Colombia Travel Photos from October 2015: 

The Chiva bus artwork in Colombia can be pretty amazing. Here an example from Urrao town in Antioquia

Colombia is wet … well, the southern growing areas are in drought but rain can come up quick. Coffee needs to be dried under cover. The parabolic dryer is a great solution, and they are common to see populating the coffee farm landscape in Colombia

Inside the parabolic dryer, coffee is sometimes laid out on raised beds, or sometimes on the floor of the structure, on a woven polypropelene cloth usually. It is ideal if the supporting structure under it has air gaps.

Urrao is a fairly wet area, and these old Caturra trees on the Los Palomos farm show what happens to coffee under heavy shade canopy, no pruning, and close proximity to surrounding coffee shrubs. Cafe Salvage!

Neiva is a low altitude, sweaty place, but a necessary stop when you fly from the north to the south. One fun thing in Neiva (maybe the only fun thing in Neiva) is to dine out and watch the massive iguanas position themselves to get food scraps. A little pathetic but a rare sight for the tourist.

Of course, this isn’t pathetic at all. It’s the Krosty Burger in another place most pass through to the Huila coffee areas, La Plata town.

Luckily there is more to La Plata than Krosty’s! Its a bustling town of commerce and the town square features a beautiful cathedral.

In Timana, Huila, we have the pleasure of cupping with Marcela Jovan. It’s professionals like her who help coordinate sample preparation to make the most out of our cupping time. A deeop gratitude to her and her staff.

On the not-so-professional front, I solicited a local canine to assist me in the evaluation of a green coffee sample. We thought this was a little over-fermented, and the taste lacked sweetness that can be traced to Castillo hybrid variety. The dog rejected it.

A farmer who has planted Caturra, which is an older type no longer distributed by Cenicafe or FNC, but has a good cup. This is Eduardo Vargas and his grandson in Urrao area.

A new farm planted in Caturra in Urrao. In the travelogue above, Dan discusses the wider spacing farmers use now in this area, as a way to provide the plants with more light and air, and thus control the spread of the Roya leaf fungus.

To get to the farm in the previous picture, you must cross the foot bridge in this picture. It’s not too bad, but consider walking it with 120 Lbs of coffee on your back … not so appealing.

After the bridge, you must run the gauntlet with this fierce guardian of the finca. Not what one might think of when they hear of a “coffee farm dog”, but this little Chihuahua keeps close watch on all visitors.

Drying parchment in Palmeras area. The night before was a local election for Alcalde, followed by a lot of drinking even though the local favorite candidate of the coffee farmers lost. Anyway, the next day was a chance to lay out the coffee to dry, and then to lay yourself out beside it to dry.

In the south we cupped hundereds of lots, and separated them in the warehouse as well. Each bag has the name of the farmer on it, and many lots are just 1 to 3 bags total. It’s a lot of work to cup so many small lot samples, because you can’t effectively export 1 to 3 bag lots (the milling equipment can’t handle them either, 7 bags is a minimum usually). But keeping separations is important to select the best, cleanest coffees and then combine them thoughtfully based on micro-region and flavor profile.

A new way to make a selfie and get a picture of the “Super Dumton” sewing machine. I was told it was antique, but that name just doesn’t call out 19th century to me.

The best hosts ever, Maria and Alfonso Pillimue. We slept above their shop in Cauca for several days, and bsides the freezing cold morning shower, it was so comfortable. Staying close to the coffee farms and in the local communities is such a great part of coffee travel.

And last, a word of warning from Urrao: Don’t stick your fingers into the coffee pulper! Peace …

Notes to go with the picture above: 

Okay, everyone knows that “origin” means China. That’s not some sort of bellyaching statement: That’s just a fact, no? Does coffee get a boost out of the fact that it (generally) doesn’t come from China? Is that so remarkable now? Has the “coffee origin story” now gained value and prominence because it doesn’t come from places with a haze of coal-burning smog and ash hovering over the bleak vertical urban landscapes of the workers making those goods for us at origin? I’m not being all political here; this is stuff you can read right on the surface.

As far as the coffee origin story, have we reached a point where the “look, I got super close to a branch of coffee cherry” is now the equivalent for a coffee web site as sites with free desktop screensavers of dolphins and whales, sunsets and rainbows? Maybe yes? And if the experience isn’t as hyper-real as it should be, I made this video to assist. That’s all.


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