By now you’re familiar with what we do at Stumptown–spend heaps of time visiting and connecting with our producers in the remote (and beautiful!) areas that specialty coffee thrives. Because of our constantly growing menu of Direct Trade coffees, this consumes much of our time, but we’re constantly on the lookout to develop new relationships. While we often spare you the details of what it takes to begin a new relationship, the reality is, it takes a lot of research and A LOT of cupping.
I’m new here at Stumptown, and excited to be helping Aleco and the Green Coffee Department continue to source the best coffee in the world. I’ve been doing my best to hide it, but it’s actually been a bit intimidating joining this team, as their success in sourcing the best coffee has become the envy of the specialty coffee industry. How can I possibly make an impression on the most impressive roaster? I set off for Colombia at the end of September with one goal–find a producer group that can offer a fresh perspective on what Colombian coffee is.
Colombia’s topography is a lot like the rest of Latin America’s with stark mountains and steep valleys interrupted by the occasional stream, but on steroids. It is not uncommon to be on a peak with a nice vista of another peak very near, and see one or two more beyond it, and a huge river gushing past in between. Three separate ranges (Cordilleras) of the Andes run from the North to the South, and provide Colombia with a spectrum of micro-climates offering–what I strongly believe to be–the most diverse range of flavors from any one coffee-producing country. I have tasted Colombian coffees that tasted separately of cherry, molasses, apricot, jamaica juice, limeade, black currant, and grapefruit.
I spent my first week in Bogota tasting coffees from as many parts of Colombia as are currently harvesting–almost all of them. It was through this cupping that I began to zero-in on the famed Huila department. Huila is south and east of Tolima, where we work with El Jordan, and east of Cauca, where we work with La Piramide and Las Vegas. The municipal of Sauza, Huila is where Isaias Cantillo’s La Esperanza is, but apart from him Huila was new territory for us. I decided that Southern Huila was perfect since the harvest was in full-swing and took off for Neiva, the capitol and only commercial flight destination of the department. From Neiva, a three-hour drive south to Pitalito was in store for me, and provided ample opportunity to see the Cordilleras on either side of me, as well as the north-flowing Rio Magdelena to the west. For now, that would be the end of my sightseeing.
Pitalito is a big city, second to Neiva, but only by Huila standards. The city-slicker in me still says it’s a small, quiet town with barely 100,000 people. Nothing is going to distract my two weeks of extensive cupping and analysis! Still, I’m quite pleased with the location of this lab–Pitalito is strategically perfect for my mission: San Agustin and Isnos to the west, Oparapa, Timana, and Elias to the North, Suaza to the East and Palestina to the South with the lab serving all of them. There are two cuppers at the lab–William Ortiz and Luis Samboni. “Cuppers” is really an understatement, as these two are responsible for receiving coffee, doing physical and moisture analysis, facilitating logistics (which can get tricky) and communicating with the office in Bogota to ensure that Stumptown has the coffee and information it needs to present the best coffee possible. And cupping. The better part of my week was consumed with grading and cupping alongside them, so that in the coming weeks, they’ll be able to assist me in finding that awesome coffee for Stumptown.
It is difficult to be in Pitalito cupping coffee for two weeks without stirring some curiosity, and consequently, I’ve met with several producer groups from all over South Huila: Andino from Bruselas, El Desarrollo from Gigante, Los Cauchos from San Agustin, Palmar de Criollo from Pitalito, and we had conversations about what it would take to make a meaningful relationship. This invariably leads to the importance of the coffee performing on its own in the cup. There is, however, one group that catches my attention–Alto del Obispo, from San Agustin, about 45 minutes drive south and west from Pitalito. In a casual meeting with the president of Obispo, Hugo Arbey Melo, I learn a bit more about the group: roughly 25 active members own an average of 3-4 hectares of coffee-producing land. They are growing almost exclusively Caturra, the natural dwarf mutation from Bourbon that we’re quite fond of, and a small amount of Typica, one of the oldest heirloom varietal that is in any sort of regular production worldwide. No sign of the high-yielding Colombia, or rust-resistant Castillo, both created in labs for the sole purpose of producing more fruit, even at the cost of cup quality. What’s more, the elevation of the farms is an impressive 1600-1800 meters, an altitude that is sure to produce some great, sweet coffees. I’ve only been able to try a few coffees from Obispo, but what I have tried has been promising–mandarin and brown sugar, with a cornucopia of yellow tropical fruits like maracuya and granadilla. I can’t wait to taste more of those!
Aleco arrives in a few days, and I’ll be joining him for a week to some of our staple relationships–El Jordan, Piramide, Las Vegas and La Esperanza–before returning here to Pitalito to complete my goal. It takes a lot of work to find coffee good enough for Stumptown, but the rewards of a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship are always worth it.