In 2017, we were contacted though facebook by a Colombian woman living in the US who asked if we were interested in trying some coffee from her native village high in the mountains of Huila. Sure, we said, a little intrigued. And a few weeks later a young guy rang the doorbell of our office in Medellin with in his arms a huge bag with more than 25 samples. Andrés was the representative of the Association La Victoria in Santa Maria, he had spent 18 hours in a night-bus to meet us personally. We talked with him for a few hours until he had to catch the next night-bus back. He told us that Santa Maria, in the foothills of the Huila volcano had been closed off from the rest of the country for decades because of the guerrilla in the region. There are only two narrow unpaved access roads along dangerous precipices, so it was impossible for the authorities to enter the area. This is fortunate for specialty coffee lovers; the Coffee Federation never came here. This means almost all farmers of La Victoria grow Caturra, Colombia or Typica varietals. Hardly any converted to Castillo. When we cupped the samples a few days later, we were in awe. This was the best set of samples we had ever received. These were farmers, just doing what they’ve been doing for ages, they could only sell their coffee to local buyers for below-market prices, so they were never focussed on specialty processes. But we cupped coffees ranging from 84 to 88 points on the SCA scale. Just imagine what they can achieve with just a little improvement.
The region around Santa Maria in Huila has been a stronghold for guerrillas during the 60-year conflict that ended recently, making the town virtually inaccessible for several decades. The civilian population suffered tremendously from the conflict, always being in the middle between the warring parties (guerrilla, para-military groups and the army). Only during the start of the peace negotiations around in 2012, the FARC pulled out and the town opened up for outside influence and economic development. In 2018, The Coffee Quest partnered up with Asociación La Victoria to guarantee a more stable income for the group and other farmers around Santa Maria. The chosen method was setting up a buying station in the centre of town. The station fully focused on specialty purchases in the region and functions as foothold within the local community.
In short; The Coffee Quest Colombia took the traditional buying station model, but added a small cupping space to focus on quality. The idea is to incorporate sensorial characteristics into the buying decision, next to looking at the physical aspects of the coffee beans.
A lot of work, but it allows us to pay the farmer relative to the actual quality of their coffee. All payments are fixed prices that are not related to the fluctuating New York C-Market (which is currently at a historic low!). If a producer reaches the needed 85 score, his/her lot will be added to the group lot La Victoria. This results in about 100% price increase compared to commercial buying station prices in the area. An excellent step towards better living income for producers with good quality lots. Already quickly the station, that has a cupping lab “manned” by Tatjana and Alberto, and has become a popular meeting place for the members of the group and many other farmers.
From 2017 to 2019 we have grown from 30 to over 200 farmers delivering coffee to the station, purchasing about 6 times more than in the first year. A lot has to do with the final roasting clients that have shown interest in supporting all of the developments of the Santa Maria station and our partner La Victoria.
The successful start allows La Victoria to work on environmental improvements in the zone just next to the Parque Nacional del Nevado De Huila, where quite some La Victoria members are located. By setting up different projects with Parques Nacionales Naturales de Colombia and local environmental foundation FUSAMDES, La Victoria aims to restore as much of the nature in the “buffer zone” around the park.
- Project Lavadores: Reduction of waste water from the post-harvest washing process. Through investments in water-efficient “Lavadores” they will be able to reduce the amount of waste water that ends up in the local river. This mechanical addition to the farmers pulping machine costs about USD 1300. The farmer is asked to contribute at least USD 300 to fund their own Lavador. The rest will be subsidised by clients and other involved organisations.
- Training & Nursery: To support all of the environmental improvements La Victoria & Fusamdes will be developing a nursery for native trees, fruit trees and coffee plants. The location for the nursery is just behind a local agricultural school who will manage the nursery and provide education about soil restauration, reforestation and composting using micro-organisms. The trees will be used by La Victoria and other local farmers to bring back native trees and plant new coffee varieties for commercial purposes.
- Organic certification: Part of the group is committing to becoming Organic and hopes to receive their certification in 3 years. The first registered farmers have planted 1500 new trees each to support the move to Organic. The new plants will function as back-up to reduce the fall back of production, expected during the first years of transition. During 2019, La Victoria intends to register 50 farmers in the area of Santa Maria to switch to Organic production.
The Coffee Quest will be actively keeping track of their developments and intends to stimulate their efforts in upcoming years. The Lab inside the buying station is used for workshops focused on quality and consistency improvement. Many producers have experienced a ‘cupping’ for the first time, sometimes even tasting their own coffee for the first time. A great motivation to put in the effort to develop better production methods. Santa Maria has a troubled past, hidden from the world, right now, the farmers have the opportunity to continue improving and even think long-term.
The buying station allows us to cup all of the coffees from La Victoria and determine what lots to offer. From the Associacion members we offer the La Victoria Group lot as part of our Classic segment. This is a blend from all of the producers coffees that score between 84,5 to 85 points. The lot has a stable cup profile with a characteristic milk-chocolate layer and a vibrant acidity that comes from the Typica variety grown at high altitude. This makes the coffee an excellent candidate for both filter (sweet!), and espresso. The current pace of improvements allows The Coffee Quest to provide a stable volume and quality from this coffee.
Next to the group lot, many of the La Victoria farmers are reaching 85+ scores with amazingly fruity profiles. Each season the farmers work on variety separation, new fermentation formulas and general improvements in their processes. Out of the group we select the best Micro lots and sometime combine the volume from 2 or 3 farmers together. Each lot must have reach a minimum of 5 bags of exportable green coffee. Any combination made will take the cup profile into account, and carry the name of the largest contributor. This method allows us to provide a steady volume for our Seasonal segment, with interesting cup profiles that variate in between each harvest. All of the lower qualities are directed towards fulfilling contracts for the Santa Maria buying station, but often don’t reach below 82,5 points.