40 Hours in The Life of a Colombian Green Bean Buyer
Sourcing green coffee is not a Condé Nast experience.
“At the crack of dawn, I put on my boots and head out to the fields with a local farmer. I spend the day talking with farmers, slurping sancocho, staring at the misty topped mountains, and drinking the best coffee in the world.” This is what most people assume I do – and at times, this is what I do. But it is only a tiny aspect of my job.
So today, allow me to share with you a green bean buying trip I went on in Colombia. From how I made my purchasing decisions to traveling from farm to farm, you’ll experience it all – and understand a little more of that seed-to-cup journey.
SEE ALSO: 7 Green Bean Defects Roasters & Producers Need to Recognise
Day 1: Getting Ready
44:45am: I wait for my bus to unlock so I can get a seat near an operable window on the only bus from Bogotá that day. The morning air bites through my beat up denim jacket, poncho, and flannel shirt.
I know I should be nervous about the area I’m going through, but don’t feel it. The route from central Tolima to Planadas in southern Tolima has a reputation for armed conflict and, more recently, it’s been affected by violent organized (and disorganized) crime. In the past, I’ve taken the back ways through Neiva. Last night, however, I got a call instructing me to go the usual way, so here I am.
A fully pimped-out minibus, which felt like home by the end of the trip.
Day 1: The Journey Begins
5:15: The traffic heading out of the city, through sprawling slums, is gridlocked. The legitimate bus companies offer non-stop services and stringently control who gets on the bus. Cointrasur, the only Bogotá-Planadas service, does not.
We circle around south Bogotá and Soacha. The “steward” hops out of the moving bus and hassles people to get on the bus, which apparently goes everywhere. If they agree, the driver stops for one second – maximum. If not, the steward sprints in his battered dress shoes to catch up, shouting at the driver to wait up, and leaps into the open door.
8am: Barreling down the hills around Silvania, Cundinamarca, we come to a screeching halt in the left lane to pick up a woman in her 60s, who takes the seat next to mine. Her luggage has feathers poking out the side and I can hear whimpers. She tells me she has puppies and hens, but not why.
Day 1: Tense Moments En Route
10 am: We pass through Espinal, Tolima and the steamy mango groves at 800m.a.s.l. before descending further into bone-dry rice paddies where it is 90°F (°C). I lose my flannel shirt and still sweat. We’re travelling through an area that most still avoid for fear of encountering outlaws or worse.
An explosion rings out. We all yelp, and the bus keeps moving at full speed. Did we blow a tire or receive a warning shot? All the passengers debate this, but within 5 minutes we pull into a service station and sigh with relief. As the oven-bus bakes, the driver buys a coke, and the teenage steward expertly changes our tire.
Bone-dry central Tolima department around Guamo, right before the pavement stops.
Noon: We stop in a dozen small towns as the day progresses. I examine them closely. When things are bad, you can usually pick up on it: the number of people in the street, the looks on their faces, walking speed. I usually have little reliable intel (now is no exception), so I’ve learned to sense the vibe and keep my head down or take preventative measures when necessary. It’s not always as easy as looking for “FARC-EP” graffiti, which is also a good indicator.
But the mood in most of the towns is surprisingly jovial. People, mostly men, are out and about, drinking beer out front of stores or makeshift beer halls, Oktoberfest style. Blaring vallenato and ranchera music comes from tinny home stereos. “Camperos” (safari trucks) are everywhere, bringing farmers into town to sell their week’s produce and purchase provisions. They are stacked to the roofs with groceries, mattresses, fertilizer sacks, and people of all ages.
Beer hall in Ataco, Tolima
Day 1: Arrival in Planadas
4:30pm: I’ve arrived. I can’t find my contact or his truck, and am getting confused, interested stares from the townspeople. I sit down outside a bakery to get out of the limelight while I call my contact. I order the cold beer that I have been craving since my water ran out hours ago and enjoy people-watching.
Then an indigenous woman stops and covers her mouth and businesses’ overhead doors start closing. Confused, I look up at the baker who points behind me with her puckered lips (it’s a Colombian mannerism).
A tall thin guy in a red shirt and hat lunges into the street howling. A long pocket knife is raised over his head, ready to strike clumsily. Another guy backs away from him, a bleeding gash below his eye, howling back. The brave, hefty women that work in the store where they were both drinking rush out to restrain red-shirt.
I consider relocating inside, but I have a delicious cold beer and it’s that perfect time of evening when the cool mountain breeze begins to blow and the sun turns golden and soft. So I stay.
Central Square, Planadas, Tolima. The perfect moment of the day in Andean coffee country for a cold beer.
Day 1: Drinking and Meetings
I finally find Cacha, my contact, and his friends who suggest we drink a coke. I naïvely order a beer. The others politely follow suit. They suck down their beers before ordering another round. At that moment, I knew I was in for a lot of drinking – and that there was no way out.
After 5 rounds, I convinced my companions that we should get back to Gaitania so I could meet up with my association contact, their boss. My companions, being of mestizo blood, were in bad shape. We began the 45 minute semi-off-road jaunt with reggaeton and champeta music pounding in the truck.
8:30pm: I meet the association leaders and we immediately get down to business. I fight through the clouds in my mind to speak about the intricacies of coffee processing, economics, and sociology for two hours.
Finally, they turn me over to their aunt. I sleep soundly on her wool mattress despite the vallenato music from the beer store below, where the area farmers are busy spending their week’s coffee income.
Day 2: A New Day in Gaitania
I wake before my alarm for the second day, and marvel at the view of a 500 meter tall vertical ridge bordering the town. After an awkward exchange with auntie in her pajamas, I take a frigid shower and prepare for a big day.
Auntie offers me “water” which is cloudy and yellow, and gives me a 30-minute Herbalife pitch. I attentively absorb, owing her that at very least for the generous hospitality.
A quiet Monday morning in Gaitania, Tolima
Day 2: Work Begins
After a hearty breakfast, Emmanuel and I put on our botas pantaneras (ubiquitous rubber farm boots) and sombrero and are off to the first farm on a dirt bike. We weave along the dirt path through dense forest and sporadic farms, forge 3 creeks, and get lost in the complex trail network before arriving.
Finally, we approach the first farmer, Julio, He’s milking a cow in front of the house. We greet him; I am introduced as the guy who helped him sell his coffee to X roaster last season. He excitedly extends his milk-soaked hand to me, shouting “¡mano de leche!” (milk-hand!)
We move to his open-air dining room for a coffee, where he admits to us that he doesn’t even like coffee. Then he tells us the story of how he was a finalist in Cup of Excellence 10 years ago, but soon after that everything fell apart. He lost a leg when he stepped on a landmine (remnant of the former guerrilla stronghold). At the same time, la roya hit his farm and he lost everything.
But Julio tells me, having renovated and recuperated, he knows he can get back to where he was. I explain our direct-to-roaster model and pledge our support for his family and farm; he accepts.
Julio’s family take over milking the cow while we talk business.
We hike around the farm, complementing the family’s hard work and giving gentle recommendations – including throwing away the 1000 Catimor seedlings he has in the nursery. I answer Julio’s questions about his market, specialty roasters, with whom he has never had contact. We also discuss how he can continue to improve quality by optimizing processing and varietal selection.
We need to get to the next farm, but before we can finish saying goodbye (a lengthy process), Julio’s wife traps us with a big bowl of sancocho and a plate of rice and eggs. It is utterly unforgivable to refuse someone’s home-made sancocho.
Julio Muñóz leads us past his son’s house to his Typica plot.
Day 2: Blocked Roads
Noon: We’re off on the dirt bike again, winding through dirt trails for another 45 minutes to the next farm. We pass incredible jungle scenery, going up and down impressive inclines.
We follow the same routine at the second farm, accepting several glasses of guava, orange, and lime juice, checking out the coffee trees and processing infrastructure, and chatting with the farmer.
But then she tells us a truck has fallen off the trail, and we can’t get back to town for at least two hours.
Luz Mila González with her family.
We decide to risk it, however. Eventually, we come across a group of about 30. Sweaty and drinking pink apple soda, they’re gathered around a terribly mangled WW2 jeep used to move the week’s produce and supplies for several families. It had veered off the cliff loaded down – so they got word to the community, offering apple soda for help pulling it back up with ropes.
The association consolidation point in town.
Day 2: Cupping Coffee
2:30pm: It’s time to return to town and cup the coffees that had come in. Finally, after two days of traveling and pleasantries, it’s the tangibly productive piece of the trip. I want to check out coffees from the producers to whom we’d already made commitments, and see which other farmers we would be able to work into the program this season.
To my great disappointment, I can’t approve any of the 30 samples on the table as microlots (86+ points by our requirements). I record detailed notes for each farmer of things to examine and experiment with in processing to improve quality.
(Though none hit mark that day, several producers adjusted and reached the 86-88 range later on in the harvest. Many of the others we used in an association blend.)
The perfect time of evening.
Day 2: Returning Home
8:30pm: After one more extended goodbye and thank you, I’m back with Cacha in the truck that had brought me here from Planadas not 24 hours before. I need to catch the 9pm overnight bus to Bogotá for my morning meetings.
I get there just in time to buy the last ticket for this packed bus. I’m dirty, sweaty, exhausted, and damned to the middle seat of the four-wide last row, which is on top of the rear wheels, between three full-grown men. My knees are near my chin because I’m too tall for Colombian-designed busses. Loud, tinny, reggaeton music blares from the mobile of the guy next to me, ranchera from the speaker above, and ballads from the woman in front that tries to recline her seat into my knee every few minutes.
I slide my camera memory cards, my most valuable possession, into the watch pocket of my jeans just in case. Longing for my bed in my quiet apartment in Bogotá, I swallow two motion sickness pills with a serendipitous sedative side-effect, and prepare myself mentally for the 10-hour ride home.
Perfect Daily Grind
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