Despite its reputation for commodity coffee, Colombia may become one of the world’s ‘best-known, least-known’ coffee producing countries, says Stephen Hurst of Mercanta
People often ask me about the exploration for – and discovery of – fine quality new coffees, and they perhaps expect me to reference isolated volcanic islands or remote highlands. Doubtless there are many fine coffees yet to be discovered and brought to market from such far-flung places, but there are hidden treasures in plain sight. Colombia, the third largest producer in the world, is a hoard of undiscovered gems. The challenge in presenting the country as the home of high quality single estate coffee lies with the very large number of locations that produce this generic commodity. In other words, Colombia was already famous but, when it came to specialty, perhaps for the wrong reasons. And the hurdle here is – the ‘wrong’ reputation. In 2011, Mercanta set up a sourcing office in Colombia, but not in Huila where perceived wisdom may have coffees are delivered by bag and pallet to specialty roasters in 30-plus countries.
Our mission is to bring these gems to the market and for our clients to see the home of this coffee. In 2015, Mercanta started a programme of client visits to Antioquia, called Jantioquia, (January in Antioquia), when we visit farms and mills, cup hundreds of coffees and make excursions to other coffee-producing departments. We introduce our guests to a multitude of tropical fruits (expanding cupping lexicons), travelling on once suggested. Our business is about discovering, and introducing, the disconnected producers of high quality coffee to the international market of fine coffees. While Huila was already on the specialty coffee map, Antioquia was not. And that made no sense to me. The ‘department’ of Antioquia is highly mountainous and has a long history of producing coffee. The crop is produced throughout the regions at altitudes of 1,200m to over 2,000m in estate-style farms of every size. Within hours from its capital, Medellín, are thousands of farms and centuries of coffee-growing history. Antioquia produces more coffee than all of Costa Rica, but years of violence and political turbulence had stunted the access to speciality markets for decades.
So, we set off on our own search and found some gems in a region also famous for its gold mines. We hired Juan Cano, a young local man from a coffee-producing family, to represent us in Medellín and to help set up the new sourcing office (our first was in Guatemala). Then we did what we do best – applying local knowledge and history to find new, quality sources. In the intervening years, we have helped 82-plus-quality producers to find a market in Antioquia and further afield. With 16 coffee-producing departments in Colombia, the limits to discovery are only will and imagination. There are so many different crop cycles that those wedded to the idea that there is a fixed ‘crop time’ to buy Colombian specialty coffees will be sorely misinformed – and miss opportunities. Fresh coffees are being harvested somewhere in Colombia all year-round, and the expertise is in knowing when and where. We already collaborate on projects in Huila, Nariño, Cauca, Tolima and Magdalena, and new discoveries are just around the corner.
We have discovered so many individual farms it’s difficult to name them all. We can highlight exceptional Echavarria family farms like La Joyería, Veracruz, La Camelia and San Pascual, famous for an excellent natural process coffee. And smaller farms like El Tormento, Las Mercedes, El Chocho, La Heliconia and La Milagrosa in the south-west corner have produced equally amazing finds. We have supported the quality-driven efforts of small-scale producers such as Hernando Chantre (La Plata, Huila), Carlos Alberto Ulchur (Inza, Cauca), and the exceptional José Arcadio from Finca La Falda in Urrao. We have even unearthed fine coffees in Chocó, Antioquia’s neighbouring department. Chocó is not even recognised as a coffee-producing department, yet amazing coffee is farmed there. There are too many remarkable Colombian producers to list whose Medellín’s public transport system so they can experience Colombia’s magic. It’s rewarding to alter misconceptions about Medellín and showcase the wealth of specialty coffee resources in the region. Jantioquia is now a popular annual event. We are sure that Colombia will become the ‘best-known, least-known’ source of specialty coffee beans – not only now but long into the future.
Copyright Boughton’s Coffee House