In January, Rosi and I flew to Colombia to attend the Mejor de Huila competition and auction organized by InConexus and Royal Coffee. We met up at the Bogotá airport with our fellow cuppers, an international coterie of coffee professionals from Asia, Europe and the US, to catch a flight to Pitalito in Huila. From Pitalito, we took a bus to what would be our base for the next few days, el Hotel International in San Augustin. We checked in and met with our InConexus hosts, led by the founder of the company, Adriana Villanueva. Adriana presented an overview of their work and goals, emphasizing the importance of economic and environmental sustainability and gender equity. The company agronomist, Pedro Henao, presented a fascinating lecture on the geology and growing zones of Huila.
This area of Colombia is where the Andes splits into 3 different mountain ranges, Western, Central and Eastern, creating the Macizo Colombiano, or Colombian Massif. Over 70% of Colombia’s potable water comes from this region!
We capped the day off with drinks, tejo and dancing, as a band played traditional Andean music. For the uninitiated, tejo is a game where you throw a heavy, metal puck (the tejo) at a little ramp covered in clay. In the center of the ramp is a small target containing gunpowder so when you throw the tejo and hit the target just right, it makes a loud explosive sound. Basically, it’s the best game ever.
The next day was our most intense series of cuppings, scoring the 30 coffees that made it to the final round of the competition. We started the day with a breakfast of arepas and fresh fruit and then met Inconexus’s quality control team. Inconexus received 350 samples from 10 municipalities in Huila for this competition. Their expert QC team tirelessly winnowed these samples down to the 30 coffees we cupped that day.
All 30 lots in this competition were very small. Samples represented lots as micro as one 70kg bag all the way up to a whopping 18 bag lot. The cups on the table really did represent the best of what this region has to offer: sweet, creamy coffees with citrus, floral, and brown sugar flavors.
We took the opportunity that day to tour Alicia and Cicerón Gomez’s farm, Finca Filadelfia. Don Cicerón gave us a tour of his 3-hectare farm while he and Don Pedro (the agronomist) explained the importance of trees on a Huila coffee farm. Coffee in Huila is shade grown by default. Erosion is a huge concern, so maintaining trees with extensive root systems is imperative. Farmers also plant fruit trees throughout their farm for food and as an additional cash crop. In addition to preventing erosion, trees enrich the soil with fallen leaves and provide shelter and food for migratory birds, who help to keep the insect population at bay. Shade also slows down photosynthesis, which slows down cherry ripening, providing more time for natural sugars to develop, producing a sweet and complex cup.
Don Cicerón and other farmers also brought up the serious challenge climate change presents to coffee farmers. One of the main impacts is that the rainy season has shifted so rains start while cherries are ripening. The increased rainfall soaks the cherry and flattens the cup flavor. Shifting rain patterns also mean that harvest times are shifting. Farmers rely on migrant labor for picking, so if coffee cherries ripen in the middle of a different crop’s harvest elsewhere, there won’t be enough labor available to harvest coffee. This makes it difficult to plan out the harvest.
On day two we cupped the top 20 coffees, and after Inconexus tabulated scores, they set the table once more with the top 10 coffees. After this rigorous cupping session and a quick lunch, we took a colorful chiva bus to meet the farmers who produced the coffees we had been cupping. We convened in an open-air restaurant next to the breathtaking Rio Magdalena. Having the opportunity to sit down to share a meal with the farmers and talk about agroecology, coffee varietals, bees, and everything else coffee related was a special experience. Some of the buyers on the trip brought roasted coffee from their companies with them so they could brew it for the farmers. Fueled by coffee and Club Colombia beer, we ended the night with dancing as a brass band played.
After a sleepy breakfast, we gathered to discuss the coffees to hear the final scores from the competitions. The winner of the competition was a surprise to no one, a beautiful flower bomb Geisha from Leonor Mosquera’s Finca Buena Vista. Buyers broke off into huddles to plan for the auction taking place that night. We had a tasting of coffees from the different growing areas of Colombia and then hit the road to visit the San Augustin Archaeological Park. This 116-hectare park is the largest assembly of prehistoric sculptures and religious artifacts in South America, consisting of 600 stone statues, earthen mounds and stone tombs dating back as far as the first century. Some of these statues stand 20 feet high, and the difference in styles among them is striking. Archaeologists believe that only a small portion of these statues have been found and excavated.
Finally, it was time for the auction: The top 20 lots were going on the auction block, and the farmers who produced those lots would all be there. We gathered in the hotel’s ballroom to have a leisurely dinner together and enjoy some entertainment before the auction began. We were treated to a band playing Colombian folk songs and a surprise folk dance performance from a local dance troupe.
The auction went on late into the night, spilling over to the early morning hours. The final lot, Leonor Mosquera’s #1 gesha lot sold at the very end, and in an exciting twist someone unaffiliated with a coffee company jumped in and placed the winning bid! Exhausted but smiling, we took our group photos, gave lots of hugs and congratulatory handshakes to the farmers and called it a night.
On the final day, we got up early to get on a bus for our final farm visit. We drove to Palestina to visit Doña Leonor’s farm, which she runs with her 8 siblings and her niece, Angela, who’s a self-taught agronomist. Finca Buena Vista lives up to its name, with a sweeping view of the valley where the town of Palestina is nestled. Angela led a tour of their 12-hectare farm, which is planted with 6 different varieties of coffee trees. Finca Buena Vista also has a new wet mill with three tanks where they carefully control fermentation, taking brix readings of the beans along the way to measure the sugar content.
After a delicious home cooked lunch of ajiaco, a delicious chicken and potato soup, chicken legs, fresh fruit and a couple shots of aguardiente, a very strong anise-flavored liquor, we said goodbye to our gracious hosts and hit the road again. Our last stop was Inconexus’s regional dry mill in Garzón, where Huila farmers bring their parchment coffee so it can be carefully dried, hulled and bagged. From there was a very long but scenic drive to the Neiva airport for the first of several flights back home.
Having the opportunity to learn more about the people who produce the coffees we cup every day in our office was an invaluable experience. Making connections with people is one of the reasons I’ve chosen a career in coffee. Helping to bridge the gap between the producers and buyers was a real privilege.