I know, I’ll buy it and replant the nearly vertical slopes with Caturra, and produce amazing microwave lots, with orange acidity and caramel sweetness. I am slipping into a tranquil, sentimental, 100 Years of Solitude state of mind. There is a magical quality to the light, and the mountain peaks do seem to possess spirits. Magical realism? No doubt. I can’t even keep the gophers out of my garden. A finca, really?
Max went to Narino last year, a place long on my bucket list. So when Royal and Inconexus partnered to sponsor the Mejor de Nariño coffee contest and auction in August, I packed my bags. Had I known how much I was going to enjoy the experience, I would have pleaded much harder for our roaster friends to come along. So this is a scouting report about where we’ll meet next time. These coffees have landed and are tasting wonderfully – check out these incredible coffees here.
Buesaco is a town where the path carved by coffee seekers is going to get deeper and wider. From its commanding ridge top setting, the town offers multiple views of deep ravines dotted with small coffee fincas. Also, not too far away, is an autonomous zone, controlled by the indigenous Inga community, relatives of the Incas, who communally produce the Inga Mystic brand.
By late afternoon many of the attendees had arrived and a group formed to walk into town, look around and get some coffee. I started to notice the Major de Narino posters along the road, inviting growers to participate. Judging by the almost 300 samples the Inconexus team received, the interest was keen. It was a lot of work for their team to select the top thirty. Over the next two days our multiple blind cuppings would determine the top 20, then the best 10, which would be auctioned on our final day. The culture of quality has been growing here for years. There are many Cup of Excellence winners, and there are more than a few farmers who now have waiting lists for their coffee. Still, I am surprised by how good the coffee is at the café.
One of our first visits was to Finca La Mina, owned by a reflective 72 year old Sr. Franco Hector Lopez. He welcomed us into his home where multiple Cup of Excellence certificates were proudly hanging, and we met his family. He explained he was not happy enough with his coffee this year, and so he did not submit a sample. But considering the ease with which he marches up from his drying patios, it is clear that he is still going strong and I suspect it won’t be long until he’s back in the game.
After two days of intense cupping, we headed to Pasto for a morning of exploring, and later, the big event. Pasto is about 36 kilometers up the Pan-American highway, altitude 8,300 ft. Besides dating from 1537, it has a nickname of !Que Sorpresa! I am really hoping for some surprises.
The Black and White Museum, featuring gigantic vintage plaster-of-Paris parade floats, chronicles the festival started in the 1920’s to help integrate whites and former slaves. It still takes place every January with a fantastic carnival parade.
You are going to love the food. I tried some small, light, not-too-sweet cornmeal cakes, wrapped in banana leaves called quiombolitos, and these should be patented by the Pasto city fathers immediately. We found an ice cream parlor, named El California, which had fabulous ice cream made from local fruits and flavorings…Try the coconut, it’s the best in the city. There are hundreds of varieties of potatoes in the Andes, but there is a certain florescent yellow one which may never be topped.
The farmers and family members had arrived and appeared to be filled with anxiety. These are pretty tough folks who have seen a transformation in their lifetime: the marketing of coffee with their names on it. So here they nervously sat, ready to see what would unfold. Truthfully, I was not sure either. We had a very cool, but small group of buyers. They had thoroughly cupped these coffees, which I think are great, but would they sell with a 3.00/lb. minimum bid?
Just as the international guests and local farmers were settling in, the tables began shaking. Booming drumming was exploding from the stairwell just outside our door. In through the doors they came, the drum pounding bird-heads, leading us outdoors, where dancers in fantastic beautifully colored costumes, and some on 12 ft. high stilts, did moves not advisable to try at home. Their performance was pretty great and kind of surreal. Along with a very judicious amount of Jonnie Walker, the stage was now set.
Our masters of ceremonies were Royal’s Alex Mason, the auctioneer, and Inconex’s Adriana Villanueva, who was to play the role of Vanna White. I have come to never underestimate Alex, especially in Latin America. But being the auctioneer was a huge responsibility. I figured he’d really bring it, but I still did not expect what happened. Alex delivered a truly inspired performance, like a professional auctioneer, only better. There never has been a coffee auction like this. Henry Wilson, the founder of Perfect Daily Grind joined us for the event and took an impromptu video. Although the video quality isn’t great, it’ll give you a taste of the energy in the room.
By the end it had evolved into nothing less than a mutual love and admiration society. Customers and the producers, beaming with pride, wildly cheering and laughing as the prices went higher. At the end, the top coffee was named, fetching 5.80/lb., and all the women in the room, and most of the men as well, began loudly chanting Las Mu-jer-es! Las Mu-jer-es! as it became apparent that the producer was Senora Olivia Rivera, of Medina Espejo, Narino. As Alex explained, espejo means mirror in Spanish.
“Look at yourselves in the mirror people! You know you want it. You know you need this lot! I’ve got Florida at $4.60, can I get $4.70 from Bend Oregon? How about it Mr. Beach? Can we stretch to $4.70? Up goes the paddle… raucous cheers in the room…$ 4.70 from Mr. Beeeeach! Texas has been quiet. Can we get some of that Texas love at $4.80? …$4.80 from Florida!! Texas, this one’s getting away!”
You had to be there, but hopefully you get the idea. Not only did all of the top ten sell, many above 4.00/lb., but the buyers asked that we auction all of the remaining lots and every producer in the room got to see his coffee sold. It makes me feel pretty good to think Senora Rivera could be by now sleeping in the new bed she mentioned. Coffee pays a lot of bills. I have had a lot of good days in the coffee business, but none any better than this.
Maybe a bit of a stretch, but I think salsa dancing can provide a metaphor for what Royal tries to do. I was lucky to find a brilliant salsa instructor who taught me this: It is all about connection. Connecting to the music— downbeat, upbeat, the clave, keeping your timing, all this is really important, but this connection alone will not get you to the best place. To go there, you need to connect with your partners. You need to learn that the point of being a good leader is to make the follower look good. And feel good. You need to help make this happen. When the connection is established, and you can dance connected to both the music and your partner, well, then it can be kind of magical.
In our business we connect with the coffee, and then we try to make connections with our dance partners, starting with those that grow and pick the coffee and then everyone further along the chain. It’s all about the connection.
Here, I want to thank to all who attended, our paths will likely cross in the future and I am looking forward to that.
And a word of admiration and appreciation must go out to Adriana Villanueva and the Inconexus team. The things you are doing in Colombia are historic. This event may not ever be topped, but Royal would be happy to help you try.