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Colombia- The Other Side of the Moon

September 13-20

After a 2-day pit stop in Portland, fresh off a fabulous month spent cupping and planning for the harvests in East Africa, I grabbed a cab and sped off to Portland International with Colombia in my headlights. Luckily, I hadn’t even unpacked my bags. The goal of this trip was to cup the top micro lots from the southern Colombian provinces of Narino, Tolima, Cauca and Huila in the culmination of the 2007 Las Mingas project.

Las Mingas is an indigenous Colombian word that means ‘a group effort towards success’. The particular projects that the Stumptown has undertaken in Narino, and now Tolima, are exactly that; Las Mingas. Without the producers, the exporter, the importer and ourselves pulling equal weight we wouldn’t be seeing the extraordinary quality that we will be bringing into the Pacific Northwest later this fall. There are several roasters involved in the project scattered across the US and Norway. Of course, each of us are eager to see where our coffee ranks amongst the rest. The Stumptown had 2 of the 3 micro lots we entered finish in the top 4. So, out of 27 samples, that ain’t too shabby. With one from Narino and the other from Tolima, both regions were represented with stellar quality.

The majority of the producers we work with in Colombia have in the neighborhood of 1-2 hectares of land with maybe 3000 – 4000 coffee tress planted per hectare. With the average tree yielding 1/lb per harvest and the NY coffee market trading around $1.30/lb these days, Colombian coffee farmers are some of the most impoverished anywhere in the producing world. The Stumptown has entered into the equation and guaranteed farmers double the current market price for coffee that we score 88+ in our cupping lab. 93+ scoring coffee gives the farmer the opportunity to receive 3 times the market price. This is what we call Direct Trade! We are not paying the cooperative or an intermediary and expecting them to pay the farms fairly. The Stumptown is ensuring that all this money gets back to the farmers themselves.

To give you an idea of how this system works we need to tell you a bit more about how we evaluate the samples. We score each coffee sample according to flavor, sweetness, cleanliness and balance. This is the standard practice within the industry and we take scoring coffees very seriously. After all, we have the fate of hundred to thousands of coffee producers in the palms of our hands. Jimmy and I cupped over 130 samples this summer, weeding out the unacceptable lots, pulling the 88+ needles from the haystack and building a few producer association lots with the very good quality coffees we found that made up the in-between. We have almost 20 tiny micro lots for your enjoyment. You’ll have to work hard to try them all, but trust me, they are worth it. You’ll find flavors like concord grape, honey, pink grapefruit, jasmine, roses and beyond waiting to tickle your palates.

After the cupping competition, we voyaged into Narino to meet some of the micro lot producers and find out what exactly makes their coffee so special. I have to tell you all, Narino may be the most spectacular producing region I have seen. Although I’ve been there 3 times since April, I am still awestruck by the massive altitude of the Andes and their luminous, almost impenetrable feeling and presence. The landscape is arid and the valleys are cavernous. Winding through Narino’s snake-like roads makes you feel as if you are literally on the other side of the moon. There is nothing like the Andes.

Our first stop was La Union de Narino and the Chimayoy Association. I had been dreaming of getting back to La Union since Africa, as this is where we bought the lion’s share of our Colombian coffees this year. I’ve spoken about ASOPROCASAM in past reports, but their focus, and therefore coffee quality, was nothing compared to Chimayoy, so we had to switch our focus. We visited Jose Alipio Munoz first and took a look at his immaculate processing station in his backyard. Don Alipio’s 100% Caturra varietal coffee is processed as well as it can be at this point and it shows with beautiful chocolate and honey notes in the cup. He promised us that he is going to invest the premium we paid him into his process; in particular, by purchasing a tank to float freshly picked cherries. I commented to Alipio that this will allow him to sort out defective beans, through density separation, before they are mixed in with the quality beans. This tiny step will improve his quality and allow for him to receive better value year after year.

We went on to visit Luis Toro, Alejandro Ahumada and, of course, Marco Antonio Pajajoy who gave us our top coffee of the year scoring 95 on our cupping table! With 100% Caturra varietal on their farms and altitudes between 1800-1950 meters above sea level, these farmers have a lot to look forward to in the future. With spectacular grape flavor and supreme balance, all of you folks have a lot to look forward to as well.

I’d also like to add a little note about Tolima. We couldn’t visit Planadas, the town in this province where our coffees come from on this trip. Planadas is the birthplace of the FARC, the radical socialist movement responsible for kidnappings and bombings across the country for decades. They have no remorse for their actions and have shown little attempt in changing their ways. Some of our finest Colombian coffee producers like Edith Enciso, Uberly Lassso and Jairo Ciro Gutierrez come from Planadas and trust me when I tell you they are exciting. Uberly gave us a 95 coffee this year. Edith Enciso not only gave us more micro lots this year than any other Las Mingas producer (3 in total) she also won 1st place in the Cup of Excellence a year ago. I was fortunate enough to meet these producers in Popayan earlier on this trip and it was truly exciting. Producers from all the different associations across the 4 southern provinces were in attendance but none had the energy and passion that the folks from Planadas had. They feel fortunate that someone has found them in a place where nobody ever goes looking. The Stumptown found them and we plan to grow together with them. One of these trips we’ll even get out to visit them at their farms instead of cities in between. In the meantime look for their coffees at the Stumptown this fall. They are some of the most floral and citrically sweet coffees you have ever experienced.

Las Mingas 2007, folks. This is why we do what we do.