Earlier this month I traveled to Colombia with Counter Culture Coffee to film interviews and document the work of small-scale coffee farmers there. The last email I received before our departure read simply, “rain jackets!” I dug out my old rain slick from the closet and as I slipped my arms through to check the fit, the sleeves tore off. Whoops. Thankfully there’s an REI on the way to the airport.
One reason why coffee is a major part of the Colombian economy is the tropical climate, it can grow and be harvested year round. The new rain jacket certainly came in handy, off and on, all day long. One of the largest contributing factor to the taste of coffee is altitude; generally, as elevation increases the flavor profile of coffee becomes more pronounced and distinctive. Running North from Chile, the mighty Andes Mountains split into three different ranges in Colombia. Our contact joked that there’s always a mountain to cross if you want to go anywhere in the country, sometimes there’s even a road.
After arriving in Bogotá we flew South, to the small city of Popayan (Elevation 5,770 ft.). It took two tries to land our small plane there due to the heavy fog, but once we were on the ground we loaded up into a serious off-road rambler and headed to the first farm. There were eight of us in the beast of a vehicle. I was riding in the very back, with Jesus. Perhaps due to the twisting curves and questionable roads, many vehicles in Colombia carried a blessing written across the windows and / or an image of the man himself to help keep everything between the ditches.
Motorcycles are the vehicle of choice, in spite of the rainy climate. I witnessed a number of impressive poncho-over-the-bike approaches. It also seemed like muck-boots were the kind of Christmas gift that lets the campesino in your life know you really care about them. And what about the marxist guerrillas you might ask? Well, they always enjoy a good book. But seriously, in the past few years Colombia has increasingly become a more stable country. When I first heard about the project, I thought back to an chilling story about a nightly radio broadcast for families wishing to send messages to their kidnapped loved ones — a startling indication of just how many people were being held against their will during those dark years. In 2012 The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, announced they would no longer participate in kidnappings for ranson, though they have kept silent on the status of hundreds of civilians still reported as missing.
During the week-long journey everyone we came across was warm and welcoming, none more so than Gloria Tejada. Her home was quite beautiful. A wall of lush tropical plants buffeted the back patio and peeked out at you from inside the covered courtyard. We ate arepas and listened to the rain on her roof as she told us how her husband had recently passed on after a prolonged and painful illness. She manages a small-scale farm near her home to keep busy and her coffee is continually part of Counter Culture’s La Golondrina project, which sources only the best lots of each harvest from around the Cauca region.
The primary aim of this trip was to help Counter Culture produce a film for presentation at The Specialty Coffee Association of America Symposium in April. Nathan Brown, seen here censoring himself from the camera in an otherwise beautiful horse pasture, took off his Counter Culture Marketing hat and put on a pair of headphones to run audio in our field production crew, nicknamed Groupo Fantasmo (slight name variance from these incredibly talented folks). We worked closely conducting 12 separate interviews lead by Kim Elena Ionescu, Coffee Buyer & Sustainability Manager at CCC, on the topic of microlot coffee production and the impact on farmers in the region.
It was one small part of a larger survey commissioned Counter Culture and conducted by Virmax, a specialty coffee exporter in the region and our gracious hosts during the trip. You’ll have to wait until the Symposium for any more details; in the meantime watch a cut of Café Sense to fill your cup. All in all it was an incredible project to be a part of and I thank them for the opportunity to witness the other side of java production. Here’s a nice little moment that gives you an idea of what it’s like to be a kid growing up the montanyas of coffee country.
(there’s no audio, don’t worry)