Tarqui is one of our main focus areas in Huila. It is located in the central cordillera of the Andes mountains, with coffee growing in altitudes up to 2000 masl, and rich and varied micro climates. In the northern part, the main harvest is in July-August and the mitaca or mid-harvest is in November-December. In the southern parts this is reversed which means it is possible to have fresh coffee in from Tarqui all year.
The farmers are smallholders by Colombian standards, with 1-3 hectares each, and are often organised in groups. We have two major producer groups of 10-20 farmers that we work with, as well as individual producers in different areas.
Tarqui is dense with coffee growers, and together with our exporter we have been working to identify the best farmers in the region. We are now at the point where we have a stable and committed group of supreme farmers that we buy from each harvest, and every season there are new farmers approaching us because they have heard good things, which is a fantastic position to be in.
At the purchasing point in the city of Tarqui, Ana Beatriz Bahamon manages quality control of all coffees being delivered, and only the lots that meet her strict quality standards are purchased. She also gives feedback to the producers and gathers information about their harvesting and processing. This way we can learn from the farmers in order to keep improving, discover new farmers and areas, and raise the general level of production in Tarqui.
We have been running a micro-lot competition for coffee producers in Tarqui annually since December 2015. Farmers deliver lots for entry into the competition and if the lot meets certain quality parameters it is shortlisted for cupping. In November or December, depending on the timing of the harvest, we gather a panel of international judges to cup and score the coffee blindly.
We commit to buying the top twenty placing lots, and these farmers earn a premium based on the placement of their coffee. For example, the standard price in Colombia in August 2017 was approx. 820.000 pesos per 125 kg of parchment coffee. For the 1st prize we paid more than three times that.
A competition like this is a way of incentivising farmers and paying them great premiums for great coffees. It also gives us the opportunity to meet and get to know the farmers in that specific area, and explore its true potential. Several of these lots were featured in the Nordic Roaster Forum competition in 2017, placing 1st, 3rd, 4th, 8th, and 9th in the Colombia category.
|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.|
|Processing||The coffee from Huila is generally 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.|
|Dry Fermentation||This 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 from 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 they remove the floaters. Producers without channels commonly wash the coffees in the fermentation tank and skim off the floaters before sending the coffee to dry.|
|Drying||For the smallholders in regions like Huila 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. By receiving premium payments, the producers can improve their facilities, by building new or reconstruct the dryers to increase ventilation and potentially add shade nets to slow the drying process, improving both quality and longevity.|