This project to source certified organic coffee is a recently launched initiative in collaboration with an exporter a strong presence in Tolima. They have a purchasing point and bodega, plus agronomists offering agricultural training and support to our producers in the region.
These coffees are from small to medium sized farmers in and around the town of Planadas. Surprisingly the group includes many young growers with their own farms, some of them up to 10 hectares in size, frequently sitting at altitudes towards 2000 masl. And they know how to process their coffee well.
Some of the producers in this group were already producing certified organic coffees, others are in transition. If all goes well, we will increase the size of the project and source great volumes of certified organic coffee from this community.
As with all our projects we pay a premium above the current market price directly to the growers. In this case we pay two premiums, one for organic and another for quality.
Our export partners have a team of agronomist and quality control professionals who work directly with the farmers. These farmers deliver parchment to a bodega where the coffees are analysed, cupped, and kept separate for our approval. The purchasing point is managed by a great young team. Many of them are also coffee producers who inspire trust in the farmers they work with, plus a good network with young farmers in their community. Pedro, the QC director and head agronomist oversees all the departments they work in.
The team ensure all coffees meet certain quality standards including a maximum yield factor of 91 and humidity at 11%. They divide coffees into different tiers, one for micro lots and the other for regional blends, depending on the cup score. Most of the producers here work in smaller growers associations. Our buying criteria for quality is the same. We are looking for coffees with unique and distinct character, scoring 85 points and up. They also have to meet our standards of maximum moisture level of 11%.
Tolima lies just north of Huila in the southern centre of the country. It has its main harvest around June – August, unlike other regions they often have only one harvest per year.
We have been working in Tolima for three years, but this project is the first for sourcing certified organic coffees. Tolima suffered badly in the internal conflict that has affected Colombia for over five decades. Almost every farmer has been affected. Previously it was dangerous to travel in many of the coffee growing areas of this department, but it has settled down recently, especially since the signing of the peace agreement between the Colombia government and the FARC guerilla group. The farmers here are rebuilding their lives, and desperately need support from the specialty coffee market. There is already plenty of great coffee, and even greater potential in this area.
The flavor profiles in Tolima are slightly different than the other regions where we source. They are typically bright and delicate, with subtle fruit and berry notes. Many of them also feature a nice and clean cocoa-like sweetness.
|Harvest and cherry selection||Coffees are picked in three to four passes, meaning the producers and workers will pick the ripe cherries in one block, then wait a few weeks before returning to pick in that same block. Generally the first and last passes are of lower quality, and the second and third will be higher quality, with more ripe cherries and uniform quality. When we can, we try to buy parchment harvested in these two passes.|
|Pulping and pre-grading||The coffee from Tolima is usually fully washed, meaning pulped and fermented the traditional way. There are a few exceptions where farmers are using eco-pulpers with mechanical removal of mucilage, and some are processing honeys, but it’s still not very common.|
|Fermentation||Dry fermentation is the most widely used method. The farmer will have a small beneficio, a small manual or electric pulper and a fermentation tank. They pulp the cherries in the afternoon then send the coffee directly to the fermentation tank. It can sit there for one to two days, depending on the temperature. Higher temperatures will speed up the fermentation process, and lower temperatures will slow it down. Some producers do intermediate rinsing with water, that can also help them control the process.|
|Washing and grading||The pulped coffee is stirred in tanks or small channels before floaters are removed. Producers without channels commonly wash the coffees in the fermentation tank and skim off the floaters before sending the coffee to dry.|
For the smallholders in regions like Tolima the coffees are commonly sun-dried in parabolic dryers that almost work like green houses. The better producers have well ventilated facilities. There are many different variations and constructions, but generally they are all systems designed to protect the coffee from rain.
We have found that the producers whose dryers have good ventilation and can reach the desired 11% humidity in 10 to 18 days tend to produce consistently good coffees.
Some of the producers in this group were already producing certified organic coffees, others are in transition. If all goes well, we will increase the size of the project and source great volumes of certified organic coffee from this community. As with all our projects we pay a premium above the current market price directly to the growers. In this case we pay two premiums, one for organic and another for quality.
By receiving premium payments, the producers can improve their facilities, by building or reconstructing their dryers to increase ventilation and potentially add shade nets to slow the drying process, improving both quality and longevity.