The Other Side of Coffee

The smell of fresh coffee cherries waiting to be picked in the morning is nothing like the smell of the first shots you pull out of the espresso machine when dialing in the grinder.

The department of Nariño is almost entirely devoted to coffee production. In small batches the coffee is drying on the streets waiting to be sold to the Federation (FNC) or companies such as Starbucks. There is a lot of potential for specialty coffee and Kuba, Rebecca, Aukje and I were able to come over because the Argote family understand this potential.

We arrived right in the middle of the harvest season, thus we got our hands dirty on picking cherries, washing, drying and sorting (basically the whole process before the beans are exported to Europe).

We finished the first week with a paycheck that barely covered the cost we made on buying chocolate from the only shop to keep us going. Our fellow pickers Fredi, Hugo, Ybette, Adrian and Marjorie picked about the same about every day as we did in a week.

In the second week we went to the local high school to emphasize the importance of speaking English. I asked the children whether their parents work with coffee, on which they all replied yes. The second question leaves me concerned about the future of Nariño as a coffee region: 'Who's planning on succeeding their parents?'. Most heads were shaking no, others replied whether it is possible to study in Europe. 

The lack of opportunities, low wages and tough labour will cause the region to drain empty. Offering the farmers a better price is the first step to prevent this from happening, but more measures are necessary.  Higher wages for the pickers, education about coffee processing and motivating the people involved in the process are examples to stimulate the area.

Just before leaving we did a cupping of three bad and three good coffees with the other pickers to show them how we experience the product that they produce. We thanked them for their effort of picking the ripe cherries and tried to show as much appreciation for their work as possible.

Muchas gracias to the Argote family and everyone we met for showing us the other side of coffee.

Meanwhile on Meko's farm

Hola amigos, we would like to give you an update from the other farm the TSU Field Barista project brought us. We are staying in a beautiful little village called Rosa Florida. The owner of the farm “San Miguel” is Hernando “Meko” Gutierrez. Meko has a beautiful farm and is a 4th generation coffee farmer, and he really understands what he is talking about. All the decisions on the farm are made by himself and his ‘right-hand’ Jon. For example the fermentation process, everything is all done by eye and on their own experience. 

We will not be able to taste the new harvest at the time this article gets online but so far the quality of this years harvest seems great! Although Meko is a 4th generation farmer for over 35 years he is still really eager to learn from us. For example, we are now trying to make some natural coffees. The results will follow soon.

So far so good, but lets take a look on the other side of this great coffee! There are two major things we would like to bring forward. Let’s start with a well know fact: 

 

1. Climate Change

Last year this region had a lot to suffer, especially from “Fenomeno Del Nino”. El Nino is a shifting period of almost no rain that occurs around every 7 years. Normally, in this time of the year, the coffee plants obtain water so they produce new leaves and flowers and become a healthy plant. This years “El Nino" was during the formation of flowers (a coffee plant first grows a blossom which transforms into a berry). Because of the low level of water, a lot of plants had a hard time opening and remaining the blossoms of coffee! This means that there is a really low amount of coffee that we can pick and an even lower income for the farmers. The flowers that survived the dry season produced beautiful, rich cherries. These are the cherries we are picking right now.

 

2. Low Wages

The other big problem is the amount of money pickers earn a day. For example, if you are a really good picker you will pick around 100 kilo’s of cherries a day. The pickers earn around €0.12 cents a kilo so that will make around € 12 a day! You can discuss if this is a good or bad salary (lets skip that part). But the reality is that for the next season a lot of pickers won't come back because another big Colombian industry (!) pays much better. 

 

What does that mean? It means all kinds of things, but we can not let that happen! So our next few days in Colombia we have to find a way of not letting that happen. What if you have to pay a little extra for your coffee? So we can help out these hard working people in Colombia and they can invest in their future! 

Apart from these problems, Colombia is great. We feel really welcome and especially Meko and his lovely wife Yolanda are taking real good care of us. And what to think of the food, the farmers and all the other people we meet, they are all amazing! Mostly they are really keen on showing us the world they are living in, to drink a cup of coffee with them or invite you to a local lunch.

We would definitely advise you to get over there and get your hands dirty. If you have any ideas please let us know so we can discuss them with the farmers over here. You can reach us at stefancoster@hotmail.com and / or skip@dontskipcoffee.com. 

#02 - Genova - Para mi familia colombiana

“Juan you have a beautiful country” was one of the first things I said when arriving at Pasto airport. Juan answered “Thank you, its also your country now”. 

The Argote family is so warm and lovely. I couldn’t have wished for a better home during my stay here. 

Mi madre y mi padre are wonderfull loving people, every morning we are greeted with a “buenos diaz” and although we don’t always understand each other because of the language barrier we’ll understand each other eventually. 

Mi madre y mi abuela make the best food together with the maid. It is like eating in a restaurant all day long. From breakfast to diner it is so delicious especially the empanadas! 

Mi abuelo is a quiet man who says that he understands us when we laugh, and we laugh a lot here! This weekend we're celebrating his and mi abuela's birthday - felicitaciones!

The other pickers we work with on the field every day, Hugo, Ibeth, Adrian, Freddy and Marjorie are so nice to us. We laugh a lot at the end of the day when the coffee is being weighted and during the day they help us finding our lane as we often loose ours. 

The people I share this experience with are great as well, part of the family, we shared a lot of good days and some hard, tired and humid days together and I'm especially glad I met Rebecca and hope to visit Scotland soon! 

And of course there is Juan Pablo, mi mas querido amigo. He helps us understand the spanish language and whenever we want to do something he will always say : Yeah, sure, let’s go! He’s eager to learn from us and proud to teach us. He’s the perfect host and takes great care for us. 

There is less then a week left of our trip and I don't want to say goodbye.

I wish I knew how to thank this wonderful family for making me feel at home even if I’m 9000km away. 

Last night we went to see the Colombia - Peru football game at the local pub. We were wearing our Colombian shirts we bought the other day and shouted along with the locals whenever we missed a goal. 

We won! And everybody was hugging and dancing all night long. I felt Colombian that night, and everyone made me feel home. 

First Impressions

"El hombre", my phone dictates. "The man", I reply. "Correct! You gained 10xp and reached your daily goal!". Well thank you for the praise, mister smartphone and thank you for the lesson! 

I quickly realized I am a bit late with my Spanish Lessons, English is not spoken by too many people here. Thankfully Juan Pablo is fluent and helps us with our first steps in Colombia. He welcomes us with his father at the Pasto airport after a long day of traveling. Ready for a little lunch, we excited to visit Meko, also a coffee farmer, where part of our team will stay and join in this years harvest. 

After a tour around the farm and a woodfire cooked lunched our group splits up again and we head out to Juan Pablo's farm, another hour and a half full of windy roads and beautiful views. I quickly become aware that the coffee harvest season is already halfway. The concrete gutters and patios are filled with drying coffee, still in their parchment, catching dust and dirt from all the cars, bikes and trucks. But, optimistically, I tell myself that most of that will be cleaned off once the coffee loses it's parchment after hulling. A thing that catches the eye immediately is that all the coffee is dried in very small batches. Realizing that this is reality in a mountainous region where it might be impossible to have very large scale coffee farms. All these nano lots probably just end up together after hulling and give their characteristics of that region through the joint effort of hundreds of small coffee farmers.

After we arrived at Juan Pablo it was clear that he was able to do things slightly different. His coffee farm is big enough to process his own coffee. He gave us a tour and very proudly presented us with his raised drying beds, probably the first once in the region, telling us how This Side Up's bonus was able to finance this project. A very manageable way of achieving a higher coffee quality. The coffee has more airflow around the beans so they have a better chance to dry more evenly and prevent mildew from getting a grasp at it. It also forms a barrier from all the dirt on the floor and all the animals that walk around on the farm.

Juan also processes his own coffee in his own small wet mill. He showed us his new fermentation tanks, "this is the first time we have used them. The year before we weren't able to ferment them, they just went straight through the machine washed of all the fruit and mucilage". This has also been a fruitful result from the bonus This Side Up was able to offer.

Very pleased with all the new experiences and impressions and feeling right at home, we wished everybody good night after dinner. It might be seven 'o clock but all of our eyelids already fall down as we get ready for bed.

"Buenos noches and gracias for the food!!" I say as I walk away from the dinner table. So thank you for those Spanish lessons, dear smartphone, they already came in handy.

#01 – Rotterdam

“One black coffee please.” Says the man across my bar. 
I explain to him the different sorts of coffees we have that day, a soft nutty and peach like Ethiopian, a dark chocolate and raisin like Kenia and we have a sweet and milk chocolaty like Colombian. 
“The Colombian please.”
As I grind the 14 grams of coffee and wet the Kalita filter I think of the fact that in about two weeks I’ll be working, harvesting and washing coffee on a farm in Colombia.

I think of the funny way coffee gets to you.

The first stage : You drink coffee, this for most people starts with adding a lot of milk and sugar but maybe you’ll grow out to be a coffee drinker that drinks it straight and black. Anyway, you’ll develop a taste for it, your kind of coffee, just the way you like it, this is were you may be entering

Stage two: Making coffee. You’ll experiment with some recipes, maybe even try some different roasters. This can go on for a while and maybe you’ll enter

Stage three: You’ll discover the different origins and their specific flavors and a whole new world opens up to you. If you have entered this stage, there is no turning back. You’ll never be able to just drink coffee, you’ll taste it!  (Warning: this stage may include friends being afraid to serve you coffee at their homes)
The next stages vary from discover cuppings and developing your taste even more, roasting coffee, trying to master every method from espresso to Chemex etc.

In two weeks time I’ll be from drinking coffee, making it, cupping the coffees we roast, process the coffee and harvesting it, to maybe even planting coffee! I’ll shoot like a kamikaze through all these stages that I have been in for almost six years.

I can’t wait to help the Argote family and although I have been on a coffee farm before I never actually worked on one. Will this be the last stage? Will this answer all my questions or will it raise even more questions? I don’t know.

“Here is your coffee sir, enjoy!”

Maybe this will be the cup that awakens his interest, maybe this will be the start of his coffee passion/obsession like it was mine when I first drank a good filter coffee, I hope so.

It’s not the caffeine that is addictive.

It’s the product itself.