September 26, 2018
Khristian Yurchak, Green Buyer
A few months ago Sisters Coffee launched the Colombian roaster series exclusives. Our goal was to create an unique experience centered around the beautiful differences that occur in coffee. After some time, I thought now would be a good time to revisit the day we spent in Pitalito, Colombia in October of 2017 with Elkin Guzman and the Banexport team touring Finca El Mirador and the Banexport office.
Jesse and I arrived to Pitalito the night before we were scheduled to meet with the Banexport team. We were connected with Banexport by our importing partners Cafe Imports in Minneapolis, MN, however during our previous travels communication had been sparse. In the morning we still had not heard from the Banexport team on whether we would be able to meet up or not. We started thinking about doing some sightseeing at the national park just outside of the city, but really hoping to connect with Banexport we decided to reach out one last time. It paid off and we got connected with Elkin and Santiago. Half an hour later, and after an entire catfish for lunch, we were off to visit Elkin’s family farm in the hills outside of Pitalito.
El Mirador is owned by Fanny Vargas, Elkin’s mother, but is run by Elkin. A small farm, El Mirador is used for growing rare and exotic coffee varieties and experimenting with harvesting, processing and drying. Funded by Banexport, the mission and goal of El Mirador is to cultivate unique, rare and new varieties as well as to develop new processing methods to maximize all coffee’s potential. This purpose is not just to create wildly unique and amazingly delicious coffee that will blow your mind, but also to take what is learned about coffee cultivation and processing at El Mirador and spread that knowledge to producers in the coffee growing community around Pitalito and throughout the Banexport network. This dissemination of information to coffee farmers helps them produce better quality coffee, which will fetch higher prices, raising their income and improving quality of life. The mission is simple and beautiful, but it’s implementation takes time, innovation and hard work.
The drive to the farm was not as long as I was expecting. After leaving Pitalito proper behind us, we headed into the hills above the city passing coffee farm after coffee farm along the way. In a little more than an hour we crossed a ridge and arrived to El Mirador situated just below the ridge. We piled out of the car and strolled around the driveway taking in the sights, green mountains behind us and valleys before us stretching out towards Neiva. After getting our legs beneath us we immediately began our Finca tour by walking the rows of coffee trees in El Mirador. Elkin grows a host of coffee varieties at El Mirador including Tabi, Pink Bourbon, Geisha, Catiope and others. A variety of note, Catiope is a newer variety cultivated by Elkin. This coffee variety is a cross between a Colombian caturra and an Ethiopian heirloom variety. Months later, Sisters Coffee is currently offering this variety as a part of our roaster series.
As we walked the rows of trees we asked questions about the health of the trees, harvest schedules, as well as challenges that they face cultivating the plants in the changing climate. I found it interesting that at El Mirador climate change has made the harvesting season less distinct. The manifestation of this is trees that have ripe cherries on them at any given time of year. We witnessed trees in all different stages of cherry development, some in flowering, and other trees completely barren recovering from a productive season. Others still had green cherries or perfectly ripe cherries on them.
Several of the varieties growing at El Mirador are known to be susceptible to disease. Elkin explained that El Mirador, and most farms in the area, had dealt with Roya (leaf rust, a fungus that attacks a coffee tree’s leaves) and broca (an insect that bores into coffee beans while still on the tree) in years past. During those times they developed strategies and methods to combat the diseases and had done so with great success.
We continued walking and Elkin picked coffee cherries off the trees handing them to us to taste. The cherries from varying species of coffee trees have their own exotic flavors and unique sweetnesses. A prominent reason for the differing flavors and sweetnesses has to do with sugar content of a given cherry. The ripeness of an individual cherry contributes to that cherrie’s sugar content, however the variety of coffee is also a factor affecting sugar content. Different varieties of coffee hit peak ripeness with differing sugar contents. Tasting these cherries with varying sugar contents was a reminder of how individual varieties should be harvested and processed according to their unique attributes.
After we had walked the trees for a while and having exhausted our questions about the different varieties and the health of the trees, we headed over to the beneficio (wet mill). The beneficio at El Mirador is a small square two story structure. The main level holds a depulping and demucilager machine, several fermentation tanks and different experimental paraphernalia including a freezer and a plastic drum. The upstairs level is for sorting and there is a concrete hopper that feeds the depulper. We began our tour of the beneficio by ascending the stairs to the second story where a handful of workers from the farm were working through a freshly harvested lot of caturra variety coffee. They hand-sorted their way through the cherries until satisfied all the disuniform cherries had been removed. From there they put the cherries into a floatation tank removing the underripe and less dense cherries, along with any remaining foreign materials. The resulting coffee was immaculate and extremely uniform, the only disuniformity came from a few yellow caturra cherries that sprinkled the lot. Elkin then explained the pre-fermentation process that they were employing to increase the potential sweetness of this particular lot. After the workers extensive sorting the coffee cherries are left in the concrete hopper above the depulper for 12-24 hours. During this time the beans start absorbing sugars from the surrounding fruit. As the beans absorb sugar from the surrounding fruit, pink spots begin to appear on the honey/pectin layer that encompasses the coffee bean as the sugar “clumps” onto it. Elkin squeezed a few beans from their fruits producing beans covered in their honey layer dotted with spots of pink here and there. He also measure the sugar content of the beans with a brix meter, a device that uses the refraction of light to measure sugar content. We compared the sugar content from freshly harvest caturra cherries versus the caturra cherries going through pre- fermentation. The cherries undergoing pre-fermentation showed a significant increase in sugar content. This pretty much blew my mind. The cherries in the pre-fermentation tank demonstrate a measurable increase in quality from the freshly harvested cherries.
Our minds reeling in awe of the pre-fermentation process, we descended the stairs and entered the first level of the beneficio containing the depulping and demucilager machine.
When coffee is ready to be depulped a pipe is opened allowing the cherries from the hopper upstairs to flow down into the depulper. The depulper then cleans the fruit from the cherries and then passes them to the demucilager which cleans the mucilage, honey/pectin, from the beans. In the case of honey processed coffees the demucilager is not used and the beans pass through with the honey/pectin layer intact. After passing through the two machines the coffee is ready to be fermented.
Fermentation is the chemical breakdown of substances by yeasts or other microorganisms. This process has a massive role in how a given coffee tastes in your cup. Elkin is experimenting with fermentation to a great degree. Changing the variables that affect fermentation can greatly alter the final product for better or, if done poorly, for worse. The first variable Elkin is altering is the duration or length of fermentation. By changing the amount of time a coffee is fermented he is altering the chemical breakdowns happening during the process. In some cases Elkin is fermenting coffee for up to seventy two hours. He also is playing with temperature of the environment in which the fermentation is occurring. Monitoring and/or controlling the environmental temperature in which fermentation occurs is critical as the chemical breakdowns occurring accelerate or decelerate based on temperature. The fermentation itself produces heat as a byproduct. If the environment temperature is too high the slurry temperature will rise, potentially killing the yeast responsible for fermentation. Elkin is experimenting with lowering the temperature in which his coffee ferments by placing specific lots into a freezer during the fermentation process. This allows him to ferment coffee for vastly longer periods of time as the low temperature dramatically slows the rate of the chemical reactions occurring. He is also playing around with adding different strains of yeast during the fermentation process in order to promote certain chemical breakdowns happening. I listened to a lecture on this idea at the coffee expo in Seattle a few years back and was fascinated. This technique however is still in the early stages of use at El Mirador so unfortunately we didn’t get to witness this experimentation happening or taste any of the finished products. Another time! The last variable of fermentation that Elkin is currently manipulating is oxygen. There was a barrel in the corner of the beneficio that had been modified to be sealed air tight so coffee ferments in the absence of oxygen. This is an idea used in brewing beer but is not common in coffee production. We spent a very brief time discussing the oxygen-less (anaerobic) fermentation and then finished our tour of the beneficio. There was so much to take in and comprehend.
After the beneficio we walked to the two drying areas on the El Mirador grounds just across the driveway. The first was a fully enclosed singular raised bed; raising a drying bed off the ground allows air to circulate under the coffee drying it more evenly. The raised bed was subdivided and had three to four different lots of coffee drying on it. I had never been asked to take my shoes off when entering a drying area, I have walked on drying coffee before, so the fact that we were asked to remove our shoes was funny. I didn’t mind at all, plus it felt like a lab and I liked the level of care taken to ensure the highest quality from each coffee. Coffees start the drying phase on this enclosed raised bed. The enclosed space increases temperature and humidity drying coffee more quickly than it would in the open air. After a day or two drying in the enclosure the coffee is transferred to a second drying area, which is another covered drying area. The second area unlike the first, has tiered drying beds and is much cooler. Open doors and a fan circulates the air, slowing the drying process and drying it more evenly. Slowing the drying like this helps water activity which translates into an improved shelf life for the green coffee. The coffee will dry here for another week or two before reaching optimum moisture levels.
Our final topic of discussion at the farm was the curious collection of tiny little drying huts all covered with different colored tarps. Elkin explained that they had been experimenting with drying coffee under different colored tarps to filter out different spectrums of ultraviolet light. After a portion of the same coffee in each of the huts they cupped the coffees side by side determining the blue tarp had performed the best. He then pointed to the paneling on the roof of the 2nd drying hut which we immediately noticed was blue. That was pretty cool and speaks to the next-level attention that Elkin incorporates into his experiments and innovation.
Because we only had a single day to hang out with Elkin and the crew of Banexport, after spending a few hours at El Mirador we headed back to Pitalito to visit the Banexport office to cup some coffees. Their office in Pitalito was a hive of activity when we arrived. Coffee in parchment was stacked throughout the front of the office, brought in by producers from around the area. There were a few farmers around who had just sold their coffee to Banexport for the prorated market price of the day. The quality control team was there in full swing preparing a cupping for us. We met everyone on the team and introduced ourselves before promptly starting the cupping. We started with a table containing eight coffees, just Elkin, Jesse and I cupped these coffees. The first table was a representation of the more regional lots that Banexport offers. After twenty five minutes we compiled our scores and headed to the next room so a second table of coffees could be prepared for us. We sat down and went through the coffees from the first table, one by one. After comparing our notes and scores we discussed our general impressions of the coffees before promptly heading back into the lab room to cup the second table. The second table was all top micro lots and contained some of the experimental lots from El Mirador. After cupping the second table our collective favorite from both tables was the hydra honey processed catiope from El Mirador. The complexity, acidity and flavor stood out on a table of incredible coffees.
The hydra honey processed coffee starts out as a natural, hand sorted and then dried for a day in the cherry. After twenty four hours the coffee is removed from the drying bed and rehydrated in a tank of water for eighteen hours. When rehydration is complete the cherries are then run through the depulper, removing the fruit from around the beans. The coffee then passes through the demuciliginator without removing the honey layer from around the bean. After cleaning away the fruit the coffee is dried with that honey layer intact.
I scored the rehydrated honey eighty eight points, a very high score for me, although this coffee has been scored up to ninety two points. I think the hydra honey is hands-down one of the best coffees I’ve had the privilege to roast for Sisters Coffee. The high quality flavor, acidity and body that the hydra honey demonstrates is a direct result of the innovation, dedication and hard work that Elkin, the workers at El Mirador and Banexport have put into their coffee production. Along with his innovation, Elkin is proving to the younger generations in Colombia that coffee farming can be a viable means of living and that it is possible to be creative with something that is steeped in generations of tradition making it new and exciting.
We have a very limited number of Elkin’s coffee available in our cafes in Sisters and Portland and on our website. If you have yet to try Elkin’s coffee I highly suggest it. I believe his coffee is an excellent opportunity to experience the unique characteristics a coffee can exhibit when processed with innovation and care.