As someone who has spent his entire life living in New York City, it’s hard to explain the awestruck feeling of looking out the window of a plane and being eye-level with a mountain while the plane hasn’t even dropped its landing gear yet. Or the realization that I can’t see the horizon line because behind every mountain all I could see was another mountain, and another, and another—even when standing on a peak at 1900 meters. I don’t know how to put that experience into words and I don’t think the photos do it justice either. This is where our best Colombian coffee comes from.
We met up with our exporter, Felipe, and his chief cupper and quality control agent, Ricardo, at Bogota El Dorado Airport on Monday. We flew from Bogota to Neiva, the capitol of Huila, on a small commuter airplane. We would have flown directly to Pitalito’s air strip, but the grassy field that served as the town’s airport was closed a few years ago. James, the purchasing agent in Pitalito met us in Neiva and drove us to the purchasing point lab. After a brief tour, we began cupping coffees. Cupping together with Ricardo, James, and later with the cuppers in Tolima is extremely important. Everyone tastes things differently, so tasting the same thing and then comparing notes helps pin point the flavor we want to find in our coffee. We also got to discuss the changes the coffee goes through when it’s a few days off the tree and after 6 weeks and it’s been shipped to New York. In Pitalito one person’s “nice fruit” could easily be “fruta peligrosa” (or potentially fermented–Oren likes to say it “dangerously froooty”) by the time it gets to New York. We spent a lot of our trip trying to get everyone involved dialed in to our preferred profile, and also got to learn a little about how that same coffee tastes when it’s just off the tree.
Fortunately the security situation in Tolima has stabilized enough for us to visit without worrying (too much) about being kidnapped or worse. Of course, they didn’t tell us until after we were on our way about how the driver was almost blown up by a grenade meant for a protection dodging car dealership a few months ago. Southern Tolima produces some of the finest coffees in the world, but it has been extremely difficult to get access due to safety concerns. The Colombian military is convinced that the leader of FARC is holed up somewhere in the Tolima hillside, so even though we got to visit Chaparral where the cooperative is based and a nearby farm, the Cooperative’s manager wouldn’t let us travel any further into the mountains. Instead, he arranged for several farmers that have sold coffee to us in the past to travel to Chaparral to meet us. Some of them traveled 8 hours by bus in order to learn about more what we look for—and pay premiums for—in the cup.
It’s a lot of work to put together a container of our Colombian coffee—and we do it 5 times a year. Even after we find our Platinum, Gold, and Star lots, most dry mills are meant to process hundreds of bags of coffee at a time. Our farmers provide anywhere from a few bags to a couple dozen. So, after the coffee is selected and saved from being mixed into huge contract lots, we have to send it to our own exporter’s mill so each micro-lot can receive the attention and care it deserves.
Some people say we’re crazy. We pay farmers premiums for quality, ensure the farmer gets that premium and understands how to produce even better coffee, and (through some sort of magic) still sell it to you at reasonable prices. I think we’d be crazy not to do it.