By Steven Lee
Rough roads and long drives are all part of going to coffee country. Hours of sitting in a truck or a bus winding through the countryside—only to turn off of the main road and traverse a narrow path that seems only fit for horses or goats—is par for the course. Sometimes the roads are dusty, so dusty that it makes it hard to see and hard to breathe; you end up coughing up dust for the next several hours and wonder what long-term effects this is going to have. Sometimes the roads are muddy and difficult, leaving you wondering if you are going to have to get out and walk, or worse. Sometimes the roads are filled with traffic. Sometimes the roads are clear. Sometimes the roads are straight and narrow, other times they are so winding that there is no foreseeable end. Despite all of the obstacles that are presented on the road, be it traffic or terrain, going to the coffeelands is a magical and remarkable experience.
I am a city boy; I love the conveniences of the city. But each time I travel to origin, all of this changes as I realize that it’s about the things that happen along the way: the important things happen while on the road, during the long rides and while waiting to get to where you are actually going. The immediacy of the city is left behind and a different pace is at hand. Coffee is about relationships. Oftentimes those relationships are made on the road, and the time spent getting to your destination is just as important as the destination itself.
This past month, I traveled to Colombia for a Roasters Guild Origin Trip. As expected, there was a lot of time spent driving and some of the roads were rough and long, but the journey was definitely worthwhile. Over the course of the trip, I met several new and interesting people, visited Buencafé, a freeze-dried coffee production facility, went to Cenicafé—the Colombian Coffee Research Center and experimental coffee farm— and saw coffee farms both small and large, as well as a dry milling facility. We also saw the sites at Expoespeciales, and had the opportunity taste some amazing coffees along the way.
Over the course of the week that we were in Colombia, we visited several farms ranging in size from 1.5 hectares to 61 Hectares. Each of these farms was a great example of the similarities and differences in processing and economies of scale. Through these visits, we got first-hand experience picking coffee, taking it to the Beneficio and seeing the processes of receiving, depulping, fermentation, washing, sorting, and drying.
In Antioquia we visited the farms, Villa Sofia, Tierra Santa, and Santa Isabel; each one displaying their own unique beauty and hospitality. Villa Sofia was experimenting in Natural and Honey Processed coffees, still a relatively new thing in Colombia. In both Tierra Santa and Santa Isabel, we learned more about the traditional washed process and about innovations in water conservation and wastewater treatment. In Caldas, we visited a small farm, La Playa, and got to see the difficulties of being a small farmer in a rugged region of Colombia; picking, milling and drying on a very small scale. In Quindío we visited El Agrado, where we learned a bit more about seed germination and variations in the variety, Castillo. It was here that we had another round of cupping hosed by Almacafe, a group that provides logistics and technical assistance to coffee farmers working in conjunction with the FNC Extensionist Services (Colombian Coffee Federation Field Technicians that offer support with farming and milling practices).
The last two farms were very small, so the group split up to see a more close and in depth look at the hard work it takes to be a small coffee farmer in Colombia. Getting a chance to traverse the rough almost impassably steep slopes that the coffee pickers navigate daily to seeing the affects of coffee plants severely damaged by hail, one really got to appreciate all of the effort that goes into a cup of coffee. The farm visits were rounded out by a visit to one of Almacafe’s dry mills, where the parchment coffee would be further sorted, cleaned, graded, bagged and readied for export.
One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to Buencafé, a freeze-dried coffee factory followed by a visit to Cenicafé, the Colombian Coffee research facility. The process of freeze-drying coffee is fascinating. Unfortunately, we were unable to take photos, but you can see an explanation of the process here. In short, coffee is roasted, extracted and made into a concentrate 5x the strength of regular coffee, where upon it made into a sort of semi-frozen slush at -5ºF. This slush is then aerated to add volume and to make the later sublimation of the ice-crystals easier. This coffee foam is pumped out into sheets and sent into a flash freezing room at -50ºF, after which the frozen coffee concentrate is ground and size sorted and brought back up to room temperature, where the ice will evaporate/sublimate leaving behind freeze-dried coffee solids—just add water and voila, instant coffee!
Afterward, we took a short trip to the Cenicafé campus, the 77-year-old National coffee research center. There we learned about advancements in coffee farming and variety research. We heard lectures on coffee plant nutrition and the effects on production, coffee pests and treating them with natural controllers (other insects that feed on coffee pests), and coffee pathogens and how climate has an affect on favorable or unfavorable conditions for them. The group got to walk around the campus and explore the coffee variety garden there, set up to study the affect that environment and different pathogens have on different coffee varieties with the ability to conduct other breeding experiments. We also had a presentation on fermentation and coffee drying and how temperature affects the end cup and learned that Cenicafé is now beginning to focus on research at the roasting end of the coffee chain. This is a one of a kind facility and surely one of the oldest coffee research centers looking for ways to improve yields, increase sustainability, measure the effects of pathogens and pests, and advance the study of coffee overall.
A short inter-country flight brought the group back to Bogota, where we would cup the top 25 Colombian coffees from a competition that had been going on that week and get to walk the showroom floor of Expoespeciales (a large coffee tradeshow and host to the Colombian national Barista Competition). There was so much to see and so much to taste at Expoespeciales. It was a great time for all. The day finished off with an auction of the top 20 coffees and the travel group came to an official end.
As I sit back in the comfort of the city and reflect on my travels through Colombia with a group of roasters, I am struck by the relationships that I made during this trip. The group was made up of folks from Indiana and Illinois, Texas and New York, California and Pennsylvania, Arizona and Florida, and as far afield as Thailand and Japan. It was a diverse group of individuals. Some of them I had known before, some quite well, some only in passing. Others were relative strangers to me before we embarked on our journey through the countryside of Colombia. But what I can say is that I am a better person for meeting and spending time with all of them—on the farms, in the mills, on the road. Each of them had a different perspective and a different story of how they came to coffee, and each of them added so much to the overall experience of the trip. I have been on a handful of these Origin trips, and each one leaves me with a renewed love for my industry and a few more people whom I consider life-long friends. There is something about traveling with someone that provides the opportunity to form these kinds of relationships.
I can’t say for certain when I will meet up with some of these folks again, but I am looking forward to the next time—hopefully soon, a bottle of aguardiente in hand, a bunch of stories to share. and a long road ahead.
View more photos from the Roasters Guild Origin Trip to Colombia.
Steven Lee began his coffee career in 1996 as a barista at Peet’s Coffee in the San Francisco Bay Area. After spending a number of years in the Training & Education Department of Peet’s, he moved on to help open the Roasting and QC Department at Intelligentsia Coffee’s Los Angeles Roasting Works, where he developed his love for the craft of roasting. Since then Steven has worked on a number of consultancy projects, and has served as a judge for international coffee competitions. He is currently a Credentialed Lead Instructor for the SCAA, which allows him the opportunity to teach, help others, and have meaningful conversations about coffee; something he really enjoys. In addition to that, Steven serves on the Roasters Guild Executive Council and is the Vice Chair of the Educational Pathways Committee for the SCAA. Steven currently holds the position of Director of Coffee Quality and Education at Groundwork Coffee in Los Angeles where he spends his days cupping coffee, writing educational programs, and figuring out better ways to make coffee brown.