food / travel

A Colombian Quest For Coffee Perfection

A handful of producers are trying to boost the quality of coffee in Colombia, and improve rural lives in the process. They'd also like local consumers to be a bit more discerning.

Not your regular cup o' joe
Not your regular cup o' joe
Mari­a Alejandra Medina C.

BOGOTÁ — La Palma y el Tucán, a coffee estate located about two hours from Bogotá by car, is just one property in Colombia developing the "specialty" gourmet coffees that have become one of the country's most prized exports in recent years.

There are two key ideas behind this product: to assure growers a decent income, and to boost the quality and quantity of coffee that is produced — and consumed — in Colombia.

Coffee from La Palma y el Tucán sells for as much as $182 a pound, and many in the sector here view specialty coffee as the way of the future. It is produced following higher-than-normal standards, with greater attention paid not just to how the beans are picked and processed, but to the environment and the welfare of the growers themselves. The goal is to make what everyone — from roasters to baristas and their customers — agrees is a "perfect" cup of coffee.

The 13-hectare estate is also evidence of another emerging trend in Colombia: Young entrepreneurs starting farming businesses. La Palma y el Tucán was created by a couple in their 30s, Felipe Sardi and Elisa Madriñán, trained respectively in business administration and marketing. Sardi once worked for a coffee importer in the United States and decided to pursue the production end of the business upon his return to Colombia.

Just the right shade of burgundy

In addition to producing their own coffee beans, Sardi and Madriñán also buy freshly picked beans from approximately 60 different local producers, and then process it all at La Palma y el Tucán. "We realized coffee growers in Colombia did not have enough resources to invest in infrastructure and experiment with their coffee," says Madriñán.

One of the problems growers face most often is a dearth of manpower. Coffee pickers come and go, says Efraín Barrera, a grower who inherited his estate from his grandparents 50 years ago. He says coffee growers used to band together to gather farmhands in the Tolima department, west of Bogotá. That would net them between 10 and 20 pickers.

Today, La Palma y el Tucán recruits pickers for local growers and subsidizes their work. Pickers may be local or from another region. They receive assistance with lodgings, transport and food. The women paint their nails burgundy so they know which color beans to pick, because those that match their manicure are just ripe enough.

But the best part of this collaboration, says grower Rosalbina Bernal, are the prices La Palma y el Tucán pay. The operation pays a premium for quality yields, consistent supplies and organic coffee, and while it may only produce a couple of containers a year — with a record $182 dollars per kilo paid by the Greek firm Taf — the business is sustainable. Ecotourism travel packages provide the firm with additional revenues.

Bernal says she earns twice as much from La Palma y el Tucàn today as she did from other buyers in the past, and with less effort. She moves with difficulty among her coffee and orange trees. The average age of coffee growers here is 63, and many young people, like her sons, have moved to the capital, even when they own land.

Sardi and Madriñán believe the next generation must be enticed to come back, and higher prices for coffee could help. Innovation, they say, is key. With that in mind, they've started studying coffee microorganisms with the National University of Colombia. Their coffee ferments for up to 100 hours, when 18 hours is standard.

Creating a new customer base

Specialty coffee is profitable abroad. But producers are also setting their sights on the domestic market. Currently, growers can only count on small amounts of their produce being bought by the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia (Fedecafé), a national body representing their interests. The "union" buys a mere 23% of homegrown coffee today. The goal, then, is to increase coffee consumption in Colombia and boost demand for quality coffee by "educating" Colombians about its value and benefits.

La Palma y Tucàn also owns Libertario, a coffee shop in Bogotá"s financial district. "It was created in 2015 as a way of sharing a bit of the coffee we make with Colombians, so they can taste what we sell to the best coffee shops in the world," says Madriñán.

Libertario isn't the only specialty coffee outlet gaining ground in the capital, as evidenced by the popularity of places like Catación Pública, Amor Perfecto and Devoción. "Foreigners and our customers who come to Colombia have always connected the country with coffee. And yet, they don't sip the best coffee available when they're here. We found that very frustrating," says Madriñán.

While she says that for her type of business, Starbucks is "like the antichrist," Madriñán acknowledges the "great job" the U.S. company has done. "In countries like ours, where coffee consumption hasn't typically been sophisticated, Starbucks has paved the way to raise prices," she says. "People are ready to pay more for a coffee."

Fedecafé has done its part to boost consumption using the Juan Valdez brand, which is sold to numerous outlets in Colombia and abroad. According to figures from the Toma Café brand, the share of Colombians aged 18 to 24 who consume coffee rose from 69% to 78% since 2012. Over the same time period, the number of Colombians aged 45 to 49 who consume coffee jumped from 77% to 92%.

Specialty coffees have performed particularly well, tripling their domestic market share in the last four years. They now represent about 5% of the market.

The next stage of the specialty coffee revolution in Colombia aims to train the palates of more sophisticated coffee students, investigators, producers and servers. And after that?

Growers like Barrera and Bernal are hoping that one day, the price and demand for specialty coffees will be high enough to guarantee decent earnings even for people with just a hectare or two of land. It won't happen overnight, but maybe, just maybe, by the time their grandchildren grow up.

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