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 set out guarantee a more stable income for the group and other farmers around Santa Maria. The chosen method was setting up a 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, adding the element of Education and a Coffee Laboratory space. The idea is provide access to the specialty market to smallholder farmers. By incorporating sensorial characteristics into the buying decision, next to looking at the physical aspects of the coffee beans. Objective: Paying for quality using well-communicated and transparent pricing,
This is excellent step towards better living income for producers by providing access to the market for quality coffee. The station, that has a cupping lab “manned” by Tatjana and Alberto, and has already become a popular meeting place for the members of the group and many other farmers. From 2017 to 2020 we have grown from 30 to over 200 farmers delivering coffee to the station, purchasing about 6 times more than in the first year. The improvements would not have been possible without the many roasting clients that have shown interest in supporting the developments in Santa Maria station.
The Santa Maria Station creates lots from different qualities, putting the coffee with similar point scores together. This allows producers from the surrounding area to find market for lots that score less, while receiving a better price for their best quality batches. Read More to understand how each lot is formed.
Each micro lot and communal lot is carefully constructed. Every small lot individually cupped various times before being included within the main lot. In addition to cup quality, each coffee must meet strict physical requirements, including our guidelines for moisture content and water activity. The first time a lot is cupped is when the producer brings a sample to our buying station. After approval the producer will then bring the lot down to the warehouse where it will be cupped again, taking a sample from each sack to ensure consistency. After final approval, the parchment coffee is packed in Grainpro bags and remains untouched until the entire lot is milled in Medellín.
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. The station allows producers to receive the quality premium even for the smallest lots.
You might already know that Colombia has a high humid climate which will make it very difficult to produce Naturals or Honey Coffee. The only way to get the same fruity flavours and resemblance of Naturals is to play with fermentation before washing. So, the variation in fruity flavours across the lots will depend on the different attributes that contribute to the fermentation process: such as the environment temperature, capacity of the farm, and farmer’s techniques. This is why there is no single answer to drying and fermentation. The hours spent in the tanks and on the drying tables will most likely be longer than commercial coffee, but will differ per farmer as cultural practices and logistical issues play a role. On average, fermentation in tanks goes around 24-48h (sometimes up to 72h) and drying time around 7-14 days.
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 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.
Type 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 Type 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.
Type 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 Type 2 has been cupped several times and added to the lot based on the determined cup profile. Multifunctional use for both blends and single-origin coffees,
Type 3 (83 score): The cup profile is a bit better than your average Excelso, showing a good Huila profile. Similar to Type 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.
In the Santa Maria station we cup all the available samples handed in by the local community of farmers. A lot of work! But it allows us to pay the farmer relative to the actual quality of their coffee. For our 82 & 83 scoring lots we pay a premium on top of the local C-market related price. All 84+ coffees have fixed prices that have a premium of 20-80% higher.
Together with local and international partners, The Coffee Quest Colombia is working on environmental improvements in the zone just next to the Parque Nacional del Nevado De Huila. In this buffer zone you can find many of the Santa Maria farmers. By setting up different projects with Parques Nacionales Naturales de Colombia and local environmental foundation FUSAMDES, the partners aim to restore as much of the nature in the buffer zone around the park.
- Eco-Washer: Reduction of waste water from the post-harvest washing process. Through investments in water-efficient “Lavadores” or Eco-Washer, farmers will be able to reduce the amount of waste water that ends up in their local rivers. 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 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 restoration, reforestation and composting using micro-organisms. The trees will be used by farmers in the network for re-forestation, to bring back native trees, but also to plant new coffee varieties for commercial purposes. One of the side projects of Fusamdes is to map out local biodiverity and highlight amazing native species that find refuge in the National Park and it’s surrounding area.
The Coffee Quest will be actively keeping track of developments in Santa Maria, with the intention 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.