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 is adding a Quality Lab 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 Quality 1. This results in about 50% 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 connected farmers around Giraldo and neighbouring towns. All purchases require a minimum of SCA 83 points on the SCA scoresheet, including the correct physical checks. Overall we see an excellent quality offered at the station with the majority of all coffees scoring above SCA 82,5 points.
Las Perlitas: Throughout the harvest, it’s quite common that small-holders produce lots that aren’t large enough to be exported on their own. However, the quality is often just as good (or better) than samples received from larger lots. As such, we decided to buy all coffees, regardless of size and create a specialty blend based on cup profile, with a quality that would compare to a Micro lot. The result is Las Perlitas or “The Little Pearls”, various small lots from producers around the Huila region, whose farms range in elevation from 1,600 to 2.100 m.a.s.l. and grow quality varieties.
Micro lot: To select the best Micro lots we focus on 86+ lots that have a special characteristic in the cup profile. The Santa Maria area offers quite a good range of fruity lots due to the longer fermentation times. In some cases we combine the volume from 2 or 3 farmers together to reach a minimum of 10x 35kg bags of exportable green coffee. The combinations are made by taking the cup profile into account, and will 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.
Quality 1 (85 score): In the local network of farmers we see a large amount of producers that reach a consistent 85 point quality. The profile is stable and shows a vibrant acidity in combination with a pleaseant sweet milk chocolate and notes raisin and red fruits.This groep has seen quite an increase in contributors from 2017 to in 2019, which is a good indication of advice on post-harvets processing has been used. For example; A producer would switch from 24hrs to 36hrs of fermentation to generate a complexer cup. The Station is able to provide continuous feedback and provide tailored advice to improve production methods and monitor the risk.
Quality 2 (84 score): This quality is the most common quality accepted in the Santa Maria buying station. The lot provide a less complex, but beautiful clean cup with milk chocolate, touch of dried fruits and creamy afterflavour. This profile is found across Huila, but the station is able to provide additional value in consistency. Each individual lot that ends up in the group lot Q2 “Café Santa Maria” has been cup and added to the lot based on the determined cup profile. Multifunctional use for both blends and single-origin coffees,
Quality 3 (83 score): The cup profile is similar to a good Huila Excelso EP, however, similar to Quality 2 the quality can be offered with great consistency. Each producer will have the chance to sell this coffee to competing buying stations, but will receive a small bonus on top of the market price at The Coffee Quest’s Santa Maria station. The bonus represents our combined efforts in maintaining full traceability and quality control.