Helping Colombian farmers to raise quality

Colombia is our 2nd home

With our Colombian sourcing and cupping Team we work closely together with our producing partners, small to medium size farms ranging from 0,5 to 7 Hectares. On a daily basis we discuss production methods, fertilization, harvesting and post-harvest processing. As part of the operation we trained new cuppers and developed three buying stations together with local partners in Antioquia and Huila. These stations allow us to provide quick payment including a price related to quality.

Adding cup quality into the buying decision is something new for smallholders located near the buying stations.

The Coffee Quest Colombia took the traditional buying station model, but adds 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. To do so, The Coffee Quest places a trained cupper (taster) to oversee the buying activities in each of our three buying station. Let’s talk about how technically we help the producers raising the quality at two of our buying stations.

Santa Maria Buying Station, Huila

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, paramilitary 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 center of town. The station fully focused on specialty purchases in the region and functions as foothold within the local community.

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.

This increase has been made possible thanks to our final roasting clients who have shown interest in supporting all of the developments of the Santa Maria station and our partner La Victoria.

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 station, has now a cupping lab “manned” by Tatjana and Alberto, it has become a popular meeting place for the members of the group and many other farmers.

The buying station allows us to cup all of the coffees from connected in the Santa Maria area. All purchases require a minimum of SCA 83 points on the SCA scoresheet, including the correct physical checks. We adapt to each producer development towards more quality, buying different type of lots:

Las Perlitas: A high quality specialty blend made of small-holders lots that aren’t large enough to be exported on their own. Our Colombian Team at each harvest creates the same blend with a consistent cup profile and quality.

Micro lots: To select the best Micro lots we focus on 86+ lots that have a special characteristic in the cup profile. 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 variates in between each harvest.

Quality 1 Lots (85 score): In the local network of farmers we see a large amount of producers that reach a consistent 85 point quality. This group has seen quite an increase in contributors from 2017 to 2019, which is a good indication of advice on post-harvests processing has been used.

The Station is able to provide continuous feedback and provide tailored advice to improve production methods and monitor the risk..

Quality 2 Lots (84 score): This quality is the most common quality accepted in the Santa Maria buying station. 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 cupped and added to the lot based on the determined cup profile.

Quality 3 Lots (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.

The Giraldo Buying Station

The town of Giraldo is located in the region of Antioquia, at about one and a half hours North-West from The Coffee Quest Colombia office in Medellín. In the last years Giraldo has become known as hidden gem in the Colombian coffee scene. We have been buying our Exótico coffee here already since 2013, but now, since the buying station opened, we’ve been able to tap into the vast variety of beautiful coffees this mountain region offers. The secret of Giraldo is the abundance of traditional varieties like Caturra, Typica and remarkably dense beans from high elevation (1700-2150 m.a.s.l.). Tropical updrafts from the deep Cauca River valley (500 m.a.s.l.) generate a micro-climate benefitting the high-altitude coffee crops.

The station is managed by Miguel, his wife Lizeth and their family.

This village buying station is located in the Café Aroma Giraldo, a local cafeteria that has been converted to function both as Lab and Meeting Point. The crew is focused on specialty purchases in the area of Giraldo, as well as actively supporting farmers to improve their growing & post-harvesting techniques towards quality improvement. That is 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 stock exchange.

For example, in Vereda La Sierrita near Giraldo, the producers have limited opportunities to improve their living conditions, as the market-related prices offered by the local cooperative and other local buyers remain extremely low. Therefore the last decade of growing coffee has not been profitable for the smallholder farmers (average 1-2 Hectares). As at the Santa Maria buying station, we buy different qualities, thus adapting in one hand to each farmer steps towards a better quality; and in the other hand adapting to roasters different quality needs.

Of course we always pay better than the local market prices: if a producer, for example, reaches the needed 85 score, his/her lot will be added to the Café La Sierrita (Quality 1). Minimum quality requirements are set at SCA 83 points, with a preference for quality (non-Castillo varieties). 

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.

After Jessica (TCQ cupper) and Miguel take the decision to purchase a coffee lot based on the sample, the farmer is asked to bring down the coffee. The lot will be re-packed into new bags with plastic inner-bag for protection. A new sample is taken and a reference code created. All of the lots and quality scores will be registered by Lizeth in the TCQ database. The farmer can always request feedback about the coffee, and the initial registration forms the start of a relationship with a producer. The performance of farmers in both the main crop and fly crop will be monitored. During the off-season there are trainings to develop the knowledge about: picking, post-harvest, but also practical requirements for delivering samples.

The main difference to other buyers in the area is our focus on details to improve quality.

We asked Yessica cupper at the Medellin Mill and at the Giraldo buying station, to explain to us about her work and the way she considers her tasks:

“We want to be closer to producers and building a more direct relation with them, we go to some of the most remote places in Colombia. There we meet farmers whom coffees have a high quality potential. They are very curious and willing to raise the quality with our help through cuppings and visits.

We open doors for the producers with our buying stations that are at key locations in Antioquia and Huila. We make a great team of coffee professionals responsible for the quality at the buying stations and at the Medellin Mill. Sergio is in charge of the whole quality department in Medellin, Alberto helped by Tatjana run the lab of the Santa Maria Buying Station, I take care of the lab in Giraldo, and in the most recent buying station located in Pitalito works Juan Carlos.

We all have the same vision and it’s a big adventure, but also a great work with responsibility: day after day, harvest after harvest, we have to maintain the consistency of our coffees for our customers. To do so, we proceed to physical and sensorial analyses of the samples the producers are bringing to us. We take care of a proper storage of the chosen coffees too.

The producers, all extremely hard working, their stories and the quality are constantly pushing us to try our best. We support them with our knowledge, putting in place cuppings to check which kind of process is the best for each of them, visiting each finca to gather all the information needed to evaluate and control each step of the process.”

Is there a collaboration with a producer you are particularly proud of?

“Yes, the first example that comes to my mind is our collaboration with Cirilo Antonio Serna. He kept on increasing the quality of his harvests obtaining better prices from the buying station. The kind of prices he that he never had before. We advised him to choose a better time for collecting the cherries and also to extend a bit the drying process. Buying directly from him has changed his life, he has been able to pay some debts he contracted in order to maintain his finca.

Few weeks ago we had the opportunity to visit his finca together with Stephen (sourcing & TCQ USA director) and some American clients. It was the first time Cirilo welcomed people from outside Colombia on his farm, I could see it made him very happy and motivated. Now his sister is also starting to work with us to make her harvest better”

Farmers in the areas of our Buying Stations are able to receive a fair price that helps them to sustain their coffee business and will hopefully motivate their children to continue with coffee in the future. With our three buying Stations, our goal is to show the world the potential of these small producers.

Our coffee represents the hard work of very dedicated producers who now are fairly compensated with the highest prices in town. Come and taste the result of those huge efforts at our next cupping!

Caffeinated regards ,

The Coffee Quest team

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