A Colombian Coffee Adventure
In April 2023, I went on an origin trip to Colombia with my friend Tom.
My family is from Colombia and I spent number of years working and living there after graduating from UMass. Colombia is also where I first learned how to appreciate coffee as a specialty product and Colombian coffees now form a key part of our direct-trade repertoire at EcoCoffee.
As a 20-year veteran in the coffee industry, I've always been fascinated by the process of cultivating and processing coffee. I've spent a lot of time and effort growing my own understanding of coffee processing and relaying this information to our customers and patrons to grow their appreciation of the processes involved in producing coffee. However, the longer I work in the industry, the more I realize that my understanding of the process is limited to the technical side. I know the ins and outs of the process but I want to connect more deeply with the people who tend to the coffee trees and get their hands dirty to process the beans, to learn about their lives and work, and to gain a greater appreciation for the craft of coffee-making. This desire led me to plan visits to two coffee regions in Colombia, Santander and the Sierra Nevada in 2023. Although the Sierra Nevada leg of our journey ultimately did not come to fruition, Tom and I had a chance to visit a small, non-traditional coffee region called Boyaca. Fair warning, I'm going to skip over the technical aspects of fermentation, pulping, natural processing, semi-washed and honey, and drying for now and focus on the cultural and personal connections that made this trip truly unforgettable. I will expand on the technical for each location visited in later blog posts which are forthcoming.
I want to share my experiences and insights with you and hopefully convince you to come with us on an origin trip in the latter half of 2023. That said, let's go.
We began our trip in Santander by visiting a family farm owned by our friends Carolina and Ralf, who are based in Canada and who we buy most of our Colombian coffee from. Santander is a department (region) located in the northeastern part of Colombia, bordered by the departments of Norte de Santander, Boyacá, Cundinamarca, and Antioquia. Santander is known for its high-quality beans, which are grown at elevations of up to 2,000 meters above sea level in a cool, misty climate that is ideal for coffee cultivation. The harvest season in Santander typically runs from September to December, and the region's coffee is known for its medium to full body, and chocolatey flavor notes. Ralf and Carolina first met in Bucaramanga, Colombia in 1998. They eventually ended up in Canada but maintained strong ties to Carolina's family and their coffee farming heritage. Carolina's lifelong dream was to follow in her grandparent's footsteps and work the land that had been in her family for generations. In 2012, that dream became a reality when they purchased their own farm. Ralf and Carolina are committed to using sustainable farming methods and protecting the local environment for the benefit of the local community.
The farm is an artisanal and authentic coffee operation that is nestled amidst the stunning natural beauty of the Santanderian countryside just above the city of San Gil. During our visit, all our needs were graciously tended to by Omaira, the farm's caretaker and cook. Their coffee production is led by Uncle Mauricio, a relative of Carolina's. We spent two days exploring the farm and learning about their methods of coffee cultivation and their commitment to sustainability. What I found most interesting was that the farm employs an agroforestry system, cultivating mandarin trees both for consumption and to create a canopy that protects the coffee, contributes organic matter to the soil, and provides habitat to a number of native and migratory bird species. They also have fish ponds to diversify the income on the farm and provide fish for the household.
Our original intent was to head north from there, to visit a mill on the way to the Sierra Nevada, but as luck would have it, we had to cancel this part and look elsewhere to learn.
Disappointed but undeterred, we focused on the appointment we did have lined up, with Oscar Daza from Hacienda la Pradera. I had met Oscar at the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) event in Boston back in 2019, but he didn't seem to remember me very well. Nonetheless, he graciously gave us a very comprehensive 2-hour tour of his operation that is deserving of a separate blog post all on its own. We got to cup coffees in the lab and the new systems they've implemented in their production. We also talked about new coffees, major relationships, segregation of various processing methods, third-party processing, roasting, and sales. We even got to learn how they have been incorporating the implementation of solar energy to minimize consumption from the local grid.
After the tour, Oscar recommended a local restaurant for us to try, and even suggested some must-see sights at the National Park of Chicamocha, PANACHI. He also told us about a boutique hotel just down the road run by some family friends, where we could rest well that night. Oscar's generosity and hospitality were emblematic of the warm welcome we received throughout our trip, and set the tone for the rest of our journey.
PANACHI stands for Parque Nacional del Chicamocha, which is a national park located in the Chicamocha Canyon, near the city of Bucaramanga in Colombia. The park covers an area of over 50,000 acres and features a wide range of attractions, including a gondola that takes visitors across the canyon, a water park, a zip line, a rock climbing wall, and several restaurants and cafes. The park also offers various activities such as hiking and horseback riding, and is a popular spot for tourists and locals alike. The Chicamocha Canyon is a region in the Colombian Andes that surrounds the Chicamocha River. The valley is known for its stunning natural scenery, which includes towering mountains, deep canyons, and lush forests. The region is also home to several small towns and villages, where visitors can experience traditional Colombian culture and cuisine. The valley is also an important agricultural area, producing a variety of crops including coffee, cacao, and fruits.
We spent an afternoon taking in all that we could at the park, and then headed to the Posada Don Agustin, located near the town of Aratoca, just south of the PANACHI. We wanted to get a sense of the place, connect with the locals, and enjoy the cuisine we had heard so much about. We were greeted by Lydia and Agustin as we arrived, who made us feel most welcome as they showed us to our rooms. Their boutique hotel, known as a "Posada", has 9 rooms. Half are located in the original Spanish colonial style farm house and the others are up the hill in a building that was originally the coffee processing plant for the farm, otherwise known as the "Beneficio." The facility was converted and subdivided into a series of unique, comfortable rooms, each with their own en-suite facilities. I particularly enjoyed that there were no TVs anywhere as the space was explicitly designed for rest and peaceful relaxation.
Once settled in we all met in the outdoor kitchen just below the pool area. The spot is absolutely magnificent, built to cook up a feast to share with others. The traditional wood fired oven, grills and flattops are complemented by more modern appliances like a deep fryer and gas range. Now that I'm back in Canada, I really can't wait to get back there and jump in to the kitchen to cook. We talked to the owners, and listened to how their Posada came together. This is one of those inspiring stories about how people dealt with the difficult circumstances created by the COVID-19. Lydia and Agustin had moved from the city to the farm and as as time went on, they hosted more and more people. It was mostly family at first, but then friends and then friends of friends. They realized that the farm had an amazing potential to safely host larger groups of travellers that wanted to get away for a while because they had the amenities people wanted but a large portion of their facilities, like the kitchen, were outdoors. That gave us an idea- why not organize a group origin trip?
During our stay of two and a half days, we discussed with the Lydia and Agustin how their property could host a group and how we were eager to incorporate an educational component centred on coffee processing methods. The hosts informed us that while their farm still had a considerable coffee plantation, they were focused on managing the cafe so they had leased the land to Oscar Daza and his family. However, they emphasized that they had preserved most, if not all, of the traditional tools used in the coffee processing, which could be valuable in educating our coffee enthusiasts. With this in mind, we planned out how we would proceed with the project, including establishing a budget and schedule for our origin trip.
We could not leave this beautiful and industrious province without a visit to one of Colombia's most beautiful treasures: the town of Barichara. Barichara is a picturesque colonial town known for its well-preserved architecture, which dates back to the 18th century. The town is characterized by its narrow cobblestone streets, white-washed houses with red-tiled roofs, and wooden balconies adorned with flowerpots. It is also famous for its artisanal crafts, including handmade textiles and furniture, as well as its traditional sweets and desserts, such as panela, cheese and cocadas which is a coconut and dulce de leche fudge. The other main attractions of Barichara are the churches and museums that showcase its rich history and culture and the Camino Real, a stone-paved path that leads to the neighboring town of Guane, which was built by the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century and which connected Caracas to Bogota.
We then turned South and headed towards the nation's capital, Bogota. On the way, we were able to stop and visit Ivan Diaz's Finca El Diviso which is located in Boyaca, Colombia. Boyaca is a department located in the central region of Colombia, in the Andean mountain range and is known for its diverse agricultural production, including coffee. The topography is varied with altitudes ranging from 1,200 to 2,200 meters above sea level. The coffee farms in Boyaca are often small, family-owned operations, and the coffee is typically grown under shade trees and harvested by hand. Coffees produced in this region are characteristically delicate, with floral and fruit tones, and a bright acidity. The region has gained recognition for its high-quality coffee, winning several awards in national and international coffee competitions and Finca El Diviso is no exception. The farm is approximately 2 hectares but it produces high-quality coffee that is recognized internationally for its exceptional cupping scores and unique flavor profile. The coffee produced at Finca El Diviso is characterized by its bright acidity, medium body, and notes of tropical fruit and chocolate. The bulk of the coffee grown at Finca El Diviso is of the Castillo variety, which is a hybrid of Caturra and Timor, two Arabica coffee varieties but as Colombian coffee farms typically cultivate a diverse range of coffee varities depending on climate and soil variation, they also have Bourbon and two varieties of Geisha. The farm is located at an altitude of around 1,700 meters above sea level, which is ideal for producing specialty coffee. One of the unique aspects of Finca El Diviso is the natural shade provided by the surrounding forest, which helps to regulate the temperature and create a more stable environment for coffee production. The farm also uses sustainable farming practices, such as composting and minimizing chemical use, to ensure the long-term health of the soil and surrounding ecosystem.
After spending several days in the coffee region, we returned to Bogotá for a few days before our flight home. During our time in the city, we visited some recommended cafes that were serving specialty brewed coffee, each with their own choice of equipment as well as definition of proper process. We were impressed with the quality and attention to detail in their coffee preparation. We also visited a couple of small roasters and learned about their unique approaches to sourcing and roasting beans. Overall, we found that Bogotá does not have thriving specialty coffee scene, but it is blossoming into what will be special and unique opportunity and we were glad to have the time to explore it and meet some of the characters who work in it.
My visit to two coffee regions in Colombia allowed me to gain a deeper appreciation for the craft of coffee-making and I hope that by participating in an educational tour to Colombia, others can expect to have a similar transformative experience, learning about the history and process of coffee production, connecting with locals, and immersing themselves in Colombian culture. It's a trip that's sure to leave a lasting impression and deepen your appreciation for one of the world's most beloved beverages. For further details, please head to our EcoTour page