In September, I flew to Bogota, Colombia on my first sourcing trip. I was pumped, beaming with enthusiasm and ready to meet the farmers who grow the coffee we roast and drink, eager to ask hundreds of questions to expand my understanding of their craft. Not long after touching down in Colombia I was warmly greeted by my hosts and my journey kicked into gear.
The first order for my travelling party was to head to South Huila, one of the newer coffee growing regions in Colombia known for its complex and fruit-driven coffee. Leaving the thick traffic-congested urban sprawl of Bogota behind was a nice feeling. The further we traveled away from the Bogota, the sweeter the air, and the greener the scenery became.
We followed the Magdalena River down to Pitalito, cruising down long roads flanked by tobacco farms and grazing cattle, and occasionally passing through small rainbow pastel coloured towns with grand old churches. Once we arrived in Pitalito, we were in the hub of the South Huila coffee growing region. Pitalito was our home based for this part of the trip as we made visits to the surrounding districts of San Augustin, Bruselas and San Adolfo.
My host was an Australian guy called Fred, who’d headed over to Bogota a few years back to learn about coffee. Fred fell in love with Colombia, studied the language and now heads up the Australian and New Zealand sales arm of Virmax, one of Supreme's trusted coffee importing partners.
Fred introduced us to a heap of farmers that Virmax work within the surrounding regions. It was beautiful to see how proud the farmers were of their coffee and how excited they were to show us around their farms. Getting around the farms was a challenge, and at times some rock climbing was needed; there wasn’t a person on the treks who didn’t slip over and end up in the mud.
It was fascinating to see the difference between the strength of some farms compared to others and learn the reasons behind it. The foremost cause behind the variations in farm health related to how open each farm manager was too new methods of organic spraying and how regularly they applied them. Most farms were lush tropical paradises growing every kind of fruit under the sun. The farmers' hospitality were second to none, offering us some form of fruity drink and delicious snack at every stop.
Understanding how the coffee industry operates requires being on the ground at origin. The way Virmax works is unique; they appoint farmers in their regions as “regional agronomists” empowering the farmers as experts, and enabling other producers to gain information that helps them improve quality, which results in better prices for their coffee.
We saw a strong emphasis placed on sorting cherries before pulping (an extremely labour intensive process). However, the catch-22 to this approach is that pulping (the technique of removing the skins from the coffee cherry) reduces a farmer's overall yield, and therefore the volume of coffee they can bring to market.
But as far as ensuring quality, the pulping process significantly impacts on a farmer's ability to fetch a much higher price, and in turn gives us, the coffee drinking public, a cleaner, tastier coffee. Heavy emphasis was placed on tackling the leaf rust problem plaguing farms in South America. The primary solution used was the regular application of organic sprays to coffee trees, which is both efficacious and environmentally friendly.
This trip gave me a huge appreciation for what the farmers do and the problems they face producing coffee. It's easy to say ‘why can't you just fix that’ to give us the results we’re after, but things run differently in Colombia and infrastructure is not the same as in Australasia. So yeah, it can be pretty complicated.
I got to see some amazing things and gain a better understanding of why we face some of the challenges we face with Colombian coffee. I also learned how we can work on these challenges with the farmers and Virmax to get delicious coffee, which will bring us back to these same farms every year.