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Back from Colombia!

by Kevin Nealon August 24, 2017

Back from Colombia!

Hola, hope this finds you well. Kevin here, relatively fresh off the plane from Colombia, one of our favorite growing countries and arguably the most important country we source coffee from. Colombian coffees are frequently the most popular in our single origin lineup, and also play a slightly more anonymous, though equally important role in our blends, from Blue Orchid to You and Whose Army? to our cold brew.

Plus, Caravela is one of our favorite export partners, who not only make it possible for us to roast coffees like Matambo and newly-returned Las Brisas, but also do an enviably good job of connecting roasters with growers, helping those growers attain better quality, and making sure that the growers are rewarded fairly and transparently for their work. So, between its importance in our lineup and our desire to learn from Caravela, Colombia was a natural choice for our next trip to visit partners at origin. Turns out it's also a beautiful place to visit, too.

The view from Jair Polania's drying bed. #notbad

This trip for me was divided between some time in Bogotá with a few different importers and some time in the field and a lot of time in the car with Caravela, learning about their ground game. 

After a couple days in Bogotá cupping, eating, getting winded climbing the mountain overlooking the sprawling city, last Monday I woke up at an ungodly hour to meet up with Marisabel Vasquez from Caravela, Eric from Little City Roasters in Austin, and Jarret and Ryan from Lineage in Orlando. A short early flight south to Neiva, an hour of smooth driving south, then an hour of decidedly not smooth driving straight up a mountain, and we were at Cornelio Cuadrado's farm above Gigante de Huila.

Cornelio, his son John, his sister Maria Rosalba, and his neighbor Jair Polania all grow coffee next to each other, and all are members of Asociación de Cafeteros el Desarollo, the group that produces Matambo. This was the first year we roasted this coffee, and it was easy to see why it tasted so dang good. The farms were immaculate, the Cuadrados were proud to point out which section was planted with which variety, which section was planted with another, and were excited to talk about how much water they saved with new equipment, how they dried their coffee, and why they processed castillo differently than caturra. I'm a nerd who digs into these details, so I'll spare them. Also, the views and the fish we had for lunch were both amazing.

A few Matambo farmers clockwise from top left, Cornelio Cuadrado, Maria Rosalba Cuadrado, Jair Polania, John Cuadrado

As much as I was impressed with the farms, I was equally impressed with Caravela. Not to say that there aren't other great exporters, but many buy coffee when it's good, don't buy coffee when it isn't, and don't provide feedback or transparency to the growers. In Gigante though - and roughly 30 other locations in Colombia - Caravela has a team of two to help us connect to quality, and help the growers attain it and earn more money. In Gigante, Johanna roasts and cups each coffee the day after it is received, and gives the grower feedback. The prices the Cuadrados receive are tied to cup quality, and published at the warehouse. And Lorena, Caravela's PECA advisor, travels the coffee lands, visiting farmers, comparing quality results with drying, fermentation and farming practices, offering advice on how to improve.

Clockwise from top left: Lorena leads the charge, Marisabel and Caravela's fertilization calendar, Johanna and Rosalba wonder why a bunch of gringos are trying to 'gram their fish, and Israel, one of the workers at Cornelio's farm.

There will always be an element of chance in coffee farming, but farmers who work with Caravela have a team there to help them build systems to minimize that chance, and a fair, visible set of above market prices that they can depend on. And for us, the coffees are kept separate, and we don't get the whole group's coffee, but the coffee that meets the quality expectations we've set with Caravela. There's no cheating. That may be boring or unsexy, but I'd give it more thumbs up than I have hands, especially since the end result is consistently awesome coffee.

Monday night I split from the other roasters and headed back to Neiva for two looooong days traveling to Rioblanco, Tolima with Salomé Puentes, another member of the Caravela team. Shoutout to Salomé for being a badass. At 21 she's a better cupper, better spoken, and more responsible than I am at 31.  She might not ever get or seek the attention that some of the coffee industry's louder (and usually male) players, but Salomé's definitely part of the long list of folks I look up to in the world of coffee.

Salomé and Davier - smelling grounds, taking notes, kicking ass

Anyway, Tuesday we drove to Rioblanco, Wednesday we drove back, 6-plus hours each way, with an additional hour up and down some harrowing roads to the farms on Tuesday afternoon. Lots of travel for a little bit of time with the folks who produce Las Brisas, but totally worth it. Rioblanco is out there, and it had been a while since anyone from the US had visited the growers, so it felt like a privilege to see where one of my favorite coffees comes from.

We headed up the hill with Wilfer, Caravela's PECA advisor in Rioblanco, and Davier, Caravela's town quality manager, to visit Fabio Ramos and Arnando Vargas. The straight uphill walk to Fabio's farm was brutal, and I was impressed with the region's potential. High altitudes, great access to water, and a team to help farmers get better. No names, but one of those two growers is a little bit slack when it comes to attention to detail, and frustrated when his quality and prices swayed, or even when his coffee was rejected outright. But, he also can produce great coffee, and contributed to our most recent lot of Las Brisas. Part of the reason for our visit was to emphasize his farm's potential, and chat about some quality and record keeping (again, unsexy but important) practices that could make it more consistent.

Fabio Ramos and his son Manuel, Fabio's drying beds, Arnando Vargas with his son Miguel, and Fabio's ingenious system of tubes that carry cherry from the top of his farm to his beneficio below

Las Brisas is a name that refers to the strong winds in Rioblanco, but the group that grows the coffee is called ASOQUEBRADON. Wednesday we cupped with Davier and had a long conversation with association head Samuel Ortiz and his wife Isabel about the potential we saw in the region, and ways Salomé and I thought a bit more attention to detail could make already great coffee even greater. It was humbling to be a part of that conversation, and while I feel like my Spanish is pretty good, I really don't want to see how dumb I look in the video Samuel took for the next association meeting. On the cupping table, I remain stoked on Las Brisas, happy that Caravela has someone like Davier in town to make sure our coffee is as good as we want it to be, and while I don't want to say too much, I think we may have found an extra special something from one grower in Las Brisas, headed our way in early 2018.

Isabel and Samuel from ASOQUEBRADON (aka Las Brisas)

Wednesday afternoon was another long drive and short plane ride back to Bogotá, and Thursday we reconvened at Caravela's office with Marisabel and the folks from Little City and Lineage for another day of cupping, reflecting on what we saw, and chatting about how to move forward together. Mostly cupping though, and there's no need for a play-by-play of slurping coffee.

That's a lot of Caravela talk, eh? We love 'em, but we also have to say that they're not the only game in town, and not the only folks we like to work with in Colombia. Shoutout to Sweet Latitude and Fairfield Trading as well. I had the pleasure of spending some time with Marco, Sebastian, and Katerina from Sweet Latitude and Sascha from Fairfield, and we'll be bringing in some tasty coffee from both over the next few months. A visual highlight of the trip was walking into a relatively nice restaurant in Bogotá with Sascha, 30 lb nylon sack of green coffee samples slung over shoulder. I don't think the waiters necessarily thought it was appropriate, but hey, sometimes you gotta eat after you cup.

And while this trip was mostly coffee, Bogotá has a ton to offer beyond coffee, too. The Botero museum is a must if you're in town, not only for the artist's own paintings, but also for his personal collection, and seeing the city from top of Monseratte is pretty amazing - Bogotá is yuuuuge. I learned my lesson: even coming from Denver altitude and feeling a bit cocky, 2.4 kilometers of stairs ending at just over 10,300 feet above sea level kicked my ass and left me wheezing harder than I have in a long while. Totally worth it though! And when in Bogotá, do yourself a favor and eat some ajiaco and drink some lulo juice.

Bogotá, just strolling in for dinner with some coffee, and a bit more slurping with the Sweet Latitude crew.

Ok, I need to finally wrap this up, so I'll leave you with a link to Las Brisas, which will be online and in our cafe by Friday August 25, and in our wholesale partners' shops this coming week. The timing of this trip feels special in part because this year's crop showed up at our warehouse while I was out of town, and Shep and I got to roast our first batches this week. Maybe this trip has created a bit of bias, but I think it's hella tasty.



Kevin Nealon
Kevin Nealon


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