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The Coffee Quest’s Santa Maria Station in Huila

People

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 Quality Lab. 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 our roasting clients that have shown interest in supporting all of the developments of the Santa Maria station and our local partner La Victoria.

Product

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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.

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.

La Victoria – 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 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.

Santa Maria – 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 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, 

Huila Profile – Type 3 (83 score): The cup profile is similar to a good Huila Excelso EP, however, 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.

Price

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.

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 40% and much higher. Click the button to read more about the pricing managed in The Coffee Quest’s Buying Stations. The quality related pricing has proven to stimulate farmers in the Santa Maria to improve production methods.

Planet

Together with local partner La Victoria and other 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 quite some 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.

  1. Eco-pulpers: Reduction of waste water from the post-harvest washing process. Through investments in water-efficient “Lavadores” or Eco-pulpers, farmers 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.
  2. 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 restoration, reforestation and composting using micro-organisms. The trees will be used by La Victoria and other local farmers for re-forestation, to bring back native trees, but also to plant new coffee varieties for commercial purposes.
  3. 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 1000 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 2020, La Victoria intends to register at least 25 farmers in the area of Santa Maria to switch to Organic production.

Read more on the blog of the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture: “Specialty coffee from Colombia with a green taste”

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.

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