Colombia 2024: A Coffee Adventure
Colombia 2024: A Coffee Adventure
April 12, 2024

Every so often, we find ourselves living out moments that, even as they’re happening, we know are going to stay with us forever. 


I’m squinting into the low sun from the back seat of an overcrowded and ancient Kia people carrier, seven of us packed in tightly in the searing heat. Golden light bathes the stop start traffic on Avenida Calle Veintiséis as we slowly make our way toward the airport after an unscheduled stop in Bogotá.


My nose twitches with the fumes of a thousand commuters, and my ears ring with the Eurobeat blasting from the stereo. I feel a million miles from Argyll and, as if to confirm this, a commuter with a magnificent moustache flies past on his unicycle, weaving through rush hour and into the setting sun.   


I turn to my companions and grin.


Welcome to Colombia.



This moment already feels like the fulcrum on which the entire trip is turning. Two days ago, we arrived in Medellín, a non-stop dynamo of a city where kids turn a living by breakdancing at traffic lights whilst, high above, the wealthy few sip cocktails by their rooftop pools as the sun sets over the Andes.


Now, we’re racing through the streets of Bogotá to catch a flight to faraway Neiva, from where we’ll drive in the darkness through jungle and across vast river plains to Inzá, where smallholder farmers grow exceptional coffee in their mountaintop gardens and the air hums with woodsmoke and birdsong.


This whole trip so far has been unknown, but this moment feels like stepping into the abyss. Who knows where we’ll end up?


Join me as I travel through Antioquia and Cauca, to learn more about how coffee is grown, harvested and processed.


Let’s go on an adventure.



Winding the clock back by a day, it’s a little after nine on Monday morning and, way below us, Medellín has shaken off its hangover and set out for another week of work.


For us, however, something much more fun is happening. At the invitation of two of our coffee sourcing partners, Mercanta and Pergamino, a small group of coffee professionals has come together in Colombia to learn more about the amazing coffee this country produces, and how Pergamino are shaking up the specialty market.


And so we find ourselves in a convoy of off-road vehicles, slowly climbing the winding mountain roads of Antioquia, where crawling lorries and fearless cyclists bring progress to frequently grinding halts.



Antioquia is one of Colombia’s most celebrated coffee producing regions and today we’ll be visiting the estates of Santa Barbara, owned and run by the Echavarria family. 


This is my first trip to a coffee origin and, as we pull up at Finca Lomaverde, there’s a lump in my throat. Perched on the mountainside, the estate tumbles away in almost every direction, a sea of dark, glossy leaves cascading down steep valley sides in neat, straight rows, spreading out over four hundred hectares into the distance. Beyond, the jagged Andes soar and dive through the landscape, wax palms and shade trees gently swaying over the coffee fields, under a crystalline sky. To be here, to see it, to touch it and smell it, is nothing less than magic. This is Disneyland for coffee lovers. But it wasn’t always like this.



The global coffee market can be split into two distinct parts; the vast commodity market, where prices are set by Wall Street and producers sell their crop via third party exporters, with little or no traceability to origin, and the specialty market, making up less than 1% of Colombia’s output, where the highest grade coffee is sold at prices informed by the producers, and traceability and sustainability are held to increasingly high standards.  


When Pedro Miguel Echavarria graduated in 2010, he recognised that the future of his family coffee estate in Santa Barbara lay in the specialty scene. But to reach that market, the family would have to turn their backs on the third party distributors who had sold their coffee for them until then, and take control of processing and exporting their coffee themselves.  


But where to begin?  


The family taught themselves about coffee export and forged direct relationships with overseas buyers whilst, back at the farm, they worked hard to improve the quality of their crop, reducing output in order to focus on enhanced methods of cultivation and production.  


And then, as everything started to fall into place, Pedro did something truly radical.


Historically, Colombia’s domestic coffee market has been far from ideal. With the highest quality coffees earmarked for export, only the lower grade product remained in the country, resulting in a coffee producing nation which, paradoxically didn’t actually consume that much decent coffee. That began to change in 2012, when Pedro imported his own coffee roasting machine, and started to roast high quality coffee for domestic consumption. Recognising that no existing outlet in Medellín would be prepared to pay above commodity rates for his coffee, he opened his first specialty coffee shop six months later, and the floodgates opened. Suddenly, the local market started to embrace the potential of perfectly prepared, high end coffee grown only a few miles south of Medellín, and the brand grew beyond that one store in Poblado, to seven upmarket coffee shops across the city. 


Pergamino, as we know it today, was born.



Back in Santa Barbara, the air is thick and humid as we walk among the coffee bushes.  At 1,750 metres above sea level, I quickly feel the effect of the altitude, my chest tightening with every incline.  


We pass newly planted saplings. They grow quickly, with new pairs of branches appearing about once a month. Even so, it will take two to three years for these plants to grow large enough to bear fruit.


It’s January and the most recent harvest is over, with only a small number of deep red cherries hiding amongst the glossy leaves. The climate here allows for a near perpetual growing season though, so those same bushes have small numbers of white, jasmine scented flowers starting to bloom at the tips of their branches whilst, closer to the trunk, tiny cherries, still green and hard, continue on their nine month journey from blossom to harvest.  


Above the sound of rustling leaves and cawing birds, faint strains of latin music carry on the breeze from a distant radio. A smiling face rises from the bush, her head protected from the midday sun by a faded yellow scarf. The terrain here is rugged and steep, making mechanisation impossible. Coffee pickers start work around five in the morning, selectively picking only the ripest cherries by hand, and collecting them in sacks to be weighed when their shift ends at three in the afternoon.  



Once a section of branch has borne fruit, it will never flower again, so the farmers allow the bushes to grow, producing fresh wood for blossom. Pruning methods vary from country to country and farm to farm. Here at Lomaverde, bushes are hard pruned after about seven years, and the most promising shoot from the old wood is nurtured and allowed to form a new bush, and so the cycle starts over again, with new blossom appearing within one to two years.  


With a growing movement to eschew pesticides due to their impact on the environment and on the coffee itself, weed control too is a manual job, adding to the list of physical tasks needed to ensure each crop flourishes. 


As an outsider looking in, it’s easy to imagine that there is rarely a moment of stillness on the estate. There’s always another job which needs to be done, or a part of the process requiring a watchful, expert eye, in order to pick the fifty cherries that go into every cup of coffee.


Back at the farmhouse, I gaze out from the veranda over the dramatic scenery and, with my breath slightly ragged and beads of sweat forming rivulets down my back, I begin to realise just how labour intensive coffee farming can be and, with all things being relative, how little we as consumers pay for these hours of back breaking, precision work.


And that’s before a single coffee bean has even been produced.



Under the taut, red skin of the cherries clinging to the bushes laid out before me, the flesh, or pulp, of each fruit is made up mostly of sugar and water. Directly beneath that is a sticky, sweet layer of pectin, called the mucilage, which coats the parchment, a tough papery outer casing to each of the two beans.  In Colombia, the parchment is referred to as pergamino, and the process used to extract the pergamino-encased beans from the cherry can wildly affect the final flavour of a coffee.


With the flick of a switch, Pedro’s red and green pulping machine bursts into life. Ripe coffee cherries, loaded via a hopper into a rotating drum, are pressed against a faceplate, pushing the beans, still in their parchment, out of the cherry. As a mass of pulped flesh pours out of one end of the drum, hundreds of beans, still slick and sticky with mucilage, fall from the other, and are loaded into the fermentation tank. Overripe cherries are less dense than their ripe counterparts and will float to the surface of the tank, where they can be skimmed away. The remainder will soak in water for about a day and a half, their latent yeast and bacteria breaking down the mucilage until it is easily washed away, leaving green beans in parchment, which are then laid out on raised, parabolic beds, to dry under the hot Andean sun.



The neighbouring beds contain something different. Whole cherries have been sorted and spread out in a thin layer to dry. They scent the thick, heavy air with tamarind and fresh straw as they slowly and naturally ferment. Drying can take several weeks and regular agitation is needed to prevent mould from setting in before the dried cherries are sent away to be husked and milled, revealing the green beans within.  


The difference between washed and natural coffee can be profound.  Washing will usually result in a clean, well balanced cup, with quite clearly defined flavour and aroma, whereas the prolonged, dry fermentation of the natural process gives wild sweetness and undefined fruit flavours. In musical terms, natural processing adds dissonance to a coffees chords.  


I find myself bewitched by Lomaverde. The orderliness. The variety of coffees it produces. And most of all, the scale.  


But large estates like these only tell part of Pergamino’s story. For the other part, we need to go on a journey.



It’s about four in the morning on Wednesday and I wake to a lone dog barking in the distance. It’s joined by another, and another, more and more chiming in until the solitary bark has become a protracted, harmonious howl. I’ve only been in bed a couple of hours. I bury my face into the pillow and try to sleep.  


An hour or so later, the dogs are quietly napping.  


And then the cockerels begin.


There’s no point fighting it, so I lie awake, thinking about the last few hours. I think again about the drive through Bogotá, and then of the onward journey from Neiva. I think of the ominous warnings of bandits roaming this part of the country, and remind myself of the reassurances that today it’ll probably be okay to risk travel. I think of the darkness beyond the car window. The feeling of unseen jungle pressing in on all sides. I think of the scraps of moonlight where it broke through gaps in the canopy, revealing the silhouette of jagged mountains in the distance. Of the car suddenly slowing as a boa constrictor slowly wound its way across the road. I recall the sudden lurch as we left the tarmac and twisted up a mountain track for the final hour of the journey. And I think of arriving at the home of Maria Rosa Oidor in San Antonio, Inzá.


The smell of breakfast drifts up the stairs and under my door. It climbs the walls and seeps through a crack in the ceiling, and up onto the roof. Up there, the first light reveals a landscape far removed from Medellín. The steep valley sides are soft and green with forest and coffee, and beneath them, a small cluster of buildings crowds a single street. Up here on the roof, Maria Rosa lays her harvest out to dry, the green beans basking in the dawn.  



The shower is a pipe sticking out from the wall, with a single valve to control the flow of cold mountain water. I wash quickly, then listen out for the grunts, wails and sharp intakes of breath as, one by one, the rest of the team baptise themselves into the world of smallholder coffee farming.


Breakfast is simple. Scrambled egg, fried plantain, rice and hot chocolate. This is the nourishing diet that farmers need. The terrain here is steep, and aside from scooters, motorised transport is rare. If it’s going up or down the mountain, it’s going to be carried by a horse, or by you.


Unlike the vast, polished estates of Santa Barbara, farming here is on a tiny scale. The mountainside is a patchwork of smallholdings, each only a couple of hectares or so in size. Maria Rosa’s own three hectare farm, Finca Los Nogales, is a dizzying two kilometre hike up the mountain. As we eat, she tells us, her eyes twinkling, that she walks to the farm every day, often carrying a cooked breakfast for the team of pickers, in order to organise the days work.



Leaving the house, we pass through the front room, which has been converted into a small grocery store. It immediately takes me back to childhood visits to the corner shop owned by my grandparents. They became so much more than grocers; they were the glue that held their community together. Even in this short time, I sense that Maria Rosa and her husband, Antonio, fulfil a similar role here. 



A snoozing dog appraises us through a half open eye as, yawning and stretching, we step out into the morning sun and start our ascent. The vulnerability of this remote, mountain community becomes glaringly apparent when we reach the river. Two years ago, it surged during a storm, taking with it the only bridge connecting San Antonio with its neighbouring villages in the adjacent department of Huila. Recognising the impact of this loss, Pergamino and Mercanta funded the materials needed to reinstate the bridge, and the communities on both sides of the river pulled together to rebuild. Just like here in Argyll, people look out for each other when times get tough; with susceptibility comes resilience.


And with resilience, comes a momentum toward improvement. At Finca San Francisco, owned by Maria Rosa’s son, Robinson, the sun filters through a corrugated plastic roof as Léo Henao Triana lifts the lid on a large, plastic vat. Léo was Pergamino’s first employee outside the Echavarria family, responsible for export and logistics. Since then, his remit has grown to cover a bewildering array of aspects of farming and agronomy, including a collaboration with Deeper Roots Coffee, to promote use of organic farming practices here in Inzá.  



As the lid is lifted, the air fills with the sweet, complex smell of fermentation, as millions of microorganisms feast on molasses and rice powder. Léo explains that, when combined with water and the right combination of organically-derived elements and minerals, this mixture can be used to produce organic fertilisers. As I look around the biofactory, I see large tanks filled with minerals in solution, and with prepared liquid fertiliser, specifically formulated for each phase of the crops’ growth.  These fertilisers are sold to local farmers at cost, with a litre of solution - enough to treat a hectare of farmland - costing one dollar. Moreover, Pergamino and Deeper Roots have taught the farmers how to produce organic fertiliser themselves, and host monthly meetings to collect their feedback and discuss best practices. In this way, ninety farmers in Inzá are now certified as organic, with this certification potentially increasing the saleability of their crops, as well as improving the quality of their soil.



We slowly continue our trek above San Antonio, single file like a line of ants. As we climb, the view opens up, and we find ourselves gazing across the valley, over the neat lines of coffee, beyond the cedars and white eucalyptus, toward the rugged, scree-clad mountains on the horizon. Every so often, the view is punctuated by vast carbonero trees, their upright branches terminating in flat umbrellas of leaves, perfect for providing shade for the delicate, drought averse coffee bushes below.  


There’s a clear sense of pride here. Every house we pass is neat and well maintained, and the air is scented with woodsmoke from a welcoming fire in the hearth. We pass farms which utilise companion planting, so that the lines of coffee are interspersed with beans, turnips and maize, to feed the farmers.


But who are those farmers, and what are their lives like?



In the early days of coffee, after it made its way from Ethiopia to Yemen, from where it seeped out across the Ottoman Empire and onward to Europe, it was nothing short of a luxury good. 


Yemen’s ruling classes made sure that only green beans, and not live specimens, were shipped out of Mocha, thus ensuring supply was aways kept on the profitable side of demand. This was a product for the elite, and it was priced accordingly, allowing the Yemeni economy to flourish. 


No party lasts forever, though, and this one was crashed by the Europeans. As living coffee plants were eventually smuggled out of Yemen and shipped to colonies in Asia and the New World, Yemen’s bubble burst and coffee, once reserved for the highest strata of society, became increasingly accessible. 


And people couldn’t get enough of it. 


As the new producing countries grew in output, an unstoppable tide of coffee of wildly varying quality washed across the globe. Prices, once sky high, were caught in a race to the bottom, driven down by the pressure of market forces, until many farmers made a loss on their crop. And this became something of a status quo until the last decade or two, when the burgeoning specialty coffee scene began to refocus on coffee as, if not a luxury product, then certainly an artisan one, rather than the commodity it had become.


But even in a changing market, in which higher quality coffee can command a higher price, the pressures of market forces, the spiralling cost of living and farming, and the undeniable impact of climate change on the geographies of coffee cultivation, can still be felt with brutal force.



Back in Colombia, we are still climbing our hill. 


As we approach 2,000 metres above sea level, high above San Antonio, we reach a low, tin roofed building, hunkered down into the hillside, the dramatic landscape looming above the banana trees in the garden. This is Finca el Cedro, home of Homer Cuchimba and his family.


He greets us with sweetened black coffee and biscuits, as one of his dogs curls up under the pulping machine, away from the midday sun, and his cockerels, raised for fighting as a means of additional income, scratch at their stacked wooden crates. As with everywhere we visit, Homer’s family demonstrates a profound generosity typical of Colombia, but I can see in his eyes that he is tired.



As his green and yellow parrot regards me curiously, and snatches at my biscuit crumbs, Homer speaks of the harsh realities of small scale coffee farming. His coffee is fantastic, but no single harvest is a guaranteed success. 


If the bridge we crossed earlier demonstrated the damage too much water can do, the dry winter may yet show us the devastating affect of too little. October and November are typically Colombia’s wettest months and bring much needed rain to the coffee farms, but the winter of 2023 was unseasonably dry, leaving enormous uncertainty over the validity of the crop. Dry conditions result in less dense beans, which typically have less complex flavour and aroma and therefore command a lower price. However the final grading of Homer’s crop won’t be known until harvest later in the year, so he must carry on cultivating and hope for the best. 


Even if the crop does fetch a profit, Homer then has to decide whether to reinvest, or to improve living conditions for his family. I look around, at the clay and straw walls of the house, at the makeshift outdoor shower, run off a water tank in the garden, and the rough patio where he lays out his beans to dry, and I see that Homer lives on a knife-edge.


The average Colombian coffee farmer is fifty five years old. The younger generation, seeing the meagre return for their parents’ relentless hard work, are eschewing coffee for careers which they regard as financially more sustainable. If this trend continues at the current rate, the skills and traditions of these small scale farmers will be lost within a couple of generations.




Once again, however, Maria Rosa sets herself at the centre of the community. Her home acts as a buying station, where local farmers bring their coffee to be graded and tested to see if it is of sufficient quality to be bought by Pergamino. Those that make the grade are shipped back to Pergamino’s dry mill in Medellin, where they join the five thousand lots tested each year to select the finest coffees produced by over six hundred partner farmers under Pergamino’s Allied Producer Programme.  



In the receiving hall of Pergamino’s dry mill back in Medellín, hundreds of jute sacks from allied producers are piled in vertiginous stacks. 


These bags represent the crops of smallholder farmers just like Homer Cuchimba. Moreover, they represent the power in a consumers decision to choose speciality coffee over commodity. The power to help lift a smallholder out of poverty. 


Depending on the quality and quantity of their crop, these farmers will receive payment from Pergamino of 30% to 300% over market rates, reframing coffee cultivation as a profitable business, and not just a means of survival.


The deafening sound of machinery echoes from the next room. There, coffee passes through a sorter, which removes anything smaller or larger than a bean wrapped in its papery parchment shell. After that, the parchment and the thin layer of silverskin beneath it are mechanically removed, revealing the green beans, and creating a cloud of fine dust which picks out shafts of light tumbling to the concrete floor. 


The polished green beans are then sorted for size one more time before passing through two vibrating densometric machines to remove any defects. Finally, they flow through a destoner, to remove stones and other debris, and are sorted through a colour grader before being decanted into bags, ready to be loaded onto trucks and hauled up the winding mountain roads we travelled on Monday, and onwards, through forests and plains, to the shimmering sea.



It's three months later, and those beans which travelled from Homer's farm, to Maria Rosa's buying station, to Pedro's mill, have just arrived at our roastery. It’s easy to imagine that that is the start of the process; that opening the bags for the first time and charging the roaster with a fresh batch of green beans is somehow the point at which the magic of coffee begins.  


Not only would that be categorically untrue, but it would be a terrible disservice to the countless people whose meticulous work got those beans to us in the first place.  People like Pedro, and Maria Rosa, and Homer, Robinson and Léo.  


Coffee provides a livelihood for about a third of rural, Colombian workers.  To be allowed a glimpse into their world, to see what makes them proud, and to hear about their fears, has exposed me to complexity and nuance that goes so much deeper than a coffee cup.


Next time I pour myself a brew, I’ll be thinking about them.


I hope you will too.




We're delighted to have a limited run of washed Caturra from the farm of Homer Cuchimba available to buy now. This really is a delicious coffee, with a great balance of sweetness and zest, notes of black tea and tropical fruit, and a luxurious mouthfeel. Click here to get your bag whilst stocks last.


Join Michael at the Hayshed coffee bar on 28th April for a presentation all about his adventure, and to try Homer's coffee for yourself.  Tickets are available here.