April 19, 2019

How Colombian Coffee Producers Are Experimenting With Processing


Colombia is well-known for producing washed coffees with acidic and clean profiles. But this doesn’t mean that Colombian producers aren’t also open to experimentation in processing.

In 2018, I was a guest on Ally Coffee’s Champ Trip for the winners of the US and World Coffee Championships. Over the course of one week, we visited specialty coffee farms in Nariño, Huila, and Cundinamarca. Here, I met several producers who were trialling different processing methods.

Read on to learn about how some Colombian producers are experimenting with non-traditional processing methods and how this can open access to the market.

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farm worker turning coffees drying in african beds

Natural processed coffee dries on a raised bed on Hacienda El Obraje in Nariño, Colombia. Credit: Alejandra Muñoz Hernández

Traditional Processing Methods in Colombia

Although some Colombian producers use natural and honey processing, the traditional method here is washed processing. This involves removing the skin and mucilage from the cherries before drying, leaving just the parchment and silverskin intact. The fruit is typically broken down by controlled fermentation and then removed using water, hence the term “washed”.

Coffees processed using the honey and natural methods have increased sweetness and body, caused by the fermentation of the fruit left on the beans during drying. But in washed coffee, the focus is on the unique flavours and aromas of the beans. Washed coffees are popular in the specialty world because they allow consumers to taste the variety and the terroir, not the processing method.

In Colombia, most coffee farmers process their coffees at their own facilities. Washed processing works well in most climates and requires less labour and monitoring than other processes. But, of course, it requires a large amount of water and the resulting clean, bright cup will make any subpar qualities in the coffee obvious.

Learn more in Processing 101: What Is Washed Coffee & Why Is It So Popular?

washed coffees drying in raised beds

Washed coffees dry in parchment on raised beds at Hacienda El Obraje. Credit: Alejandra Muñoz Hernández

Natural Processing at Hacienda El Obraje

Each year, winners of the US and World Coffee Championships are given the opportunity to travel to origin. 2018 was the third year Ally Coffee sponsored the Champ Trip, which facilitates relationships in the coffee industry. On the first day, we visited Hacienda El Obraje, a 40-hectare farm in Tangua, Nariño at 2,200 m.a.s.l.

Pablo Guerrero is the producer behind Hacienda El Obraje. He tells me that his farm mainly grows Caturra and Geisha, alongside smaller volumes of traditional varieties such as Castillo.

You might also like: Geisha vs Bourbon: A Crash Course on Coffee Varieties

rows of african beds with naturally processed coffees

Coffee cherries are natural processed at Hacienda El Obraje. Credit: Alejandra Muñoz Hernandez

Pablo tells me that he transitioned to specialty coffee over about five years. He says that he focused on improving his processes, taking more care with every stage, including picking, processing, and storage.

“We work to produce the coffee that the buyers want, because in Nariño we can produce different kinds of coffees,” he says. “We are trying to make the coffee not just acidic but also sweet.” This balance between sweetness and acidity is what brought Pablo to introduce natural processing to his farm last year.

“We are known for our washed coffees, but last year I talked with Ricardo [Pereira, the COO of Ally Coffee] and Jose Gomez, my business partner, and they said that the world was asking for naturals,” he explains. “We decided to try it, just to see how it goes. We did a small lot, and took it to Seattle. Ally tried it and they said they want this coffee, so we started to produce this kind of coffee.”

ricardo pereira and pablo guerrero in a drying station

Ricardo Pereira (left) and Pablo Guerrero (right) talk about market trends at Hacienda El Obraje. Credit: Alejandra Muñoz Hernández

Hacienda El Obraje now uses natural processing with several varieties of coffee. “We’re using natural processing with Caturra and Castillo, but our best coffee is Geisha,” he says. “Next year, we will have Pink Bourbon. We’ve started doing both washed and natural to see how it goes.”

To produce natural processed Geisha, pickers take only the best ripe cherries. They let these selected cherries rest in coffee bags overnight before placing them on raised beds in a greenhouse. After two days they move the cherries to another greenhouse in which the heat is more concentrated and the drying process is faster. The cherries stay in this second greenhouse for about 28 days. When the weather makes drying in greenhouses impossible, they use a mechanical dryer.

The result is a coffee with an exceptional profile. In cuppings at Hacienda El Obraje, the champions on the Champ Trip noted flavours of rosehips, vanilla, and black tea. Acidity and sweetness were beautifully balanced.

cupping coffees

Champions on the Ally Coffee Champs Trip cup coffees from Hacienda El Obraje and other origins. Credit: Alejandra Muñoz Hernandez

Cold Fermentation at Finca Monteblanco

Rodrigo Sanchez and Claudia Samboni have been producing coffee for about 16 years. Both are from coffee-producing backgrounds and are the fourth generations of their families in the industry. They grow and process coffee at Finca Monteblanco, a farm at 1800 m.a.s.l. in Huila.

Rodrigo tells me that the couple opted to produce specialty coffee to differentiate themselves. “We started to plant the farm, and looked for ways to do something new,” he says.

He tells me that they learned about selective cherry picking and how to improve their fermentation tanks. They changed their infrastructure to improve quality, including building raised beds. Rodrigo tells me that to produce specialty quality coffee in just a few years, they had to work constantly.

Rodrigo Sanchez and Claudia Samboni at El Triunfo, Colombia

Rodrigo Sanchez and Claudia Samboni at El Triunfo, Huila, Colombia. Credit: Alejandra Muñoz Hernández

Rodrigo says that the idea of using cold fermentation occurred when he was watching a documentary about wine and realised that many of the processing steps are similar to those used in coffee. “The fermentation time and the type of cultivation are very similar to what we do in coffee,” he says.

So they started to do trials. “We found that the optimal point for cold fermentation is between 10 and 13°C,” Rodrigo says. “At temperatures above 25 to 30°C, alcohols develop. We want to avoid those alcohols so we wash the coffees to remove mucilage. But with cold fermentation, those sugars can be attached to the beans for a longer time.”

Cold fermentation allows sugars to remain on the beans for longer, increasing sweetness and body, but keeps bacterial activity in the desirable range to avoid ruining the profile with alcohol notes. The result is coffee with balanced acidity, sweetness, and body.

Read more in How Does Fermentation Affect Coffee Flavour Development?

walking between caturra crops

Walking between Caturra crops on Finca Monteblanco. Credit: Alejandra Muñoz Hernández

Rodrigo tells me that he and Claudia are only producing small amounts of cold fermented coffee – they have the capacity to produce four bags every three days. But he says that it is profitable and that customers are enthusiastic about the cup profile and quality.

“We hope to produce bigger quantities to sell more,” he tells me. “To have a bigger production of cold fermentation we need to reach consistency, to be able to reach the same quality every time.” He tells me that they hope to soon have a dedicated cold room exclusively for cold fermentation.

coffee cupping table

James Tooill, US sales manager at Ally Coffee, (left) and Cole McBride, 2019 US Barista Champion, (right) cup coffees from Finca Monteblanco. Credit: Alejandra Muñoz Hernández

Why Experiment With Processing Methods?

If washed coffee is in demand and a well-established method in Colombia, why are some producers choosing to experiment with other techniques? The decision depends on individual resources, including infrastructure and economic support. However, for some producers, a new processing method can mean better cupping scores, increased market access, and greater profit.

Jose Gomez is a coffee producer from Nariño and the business partner of Pablo Guerrera. He tells me how new processing techniques raised his coffee’s cupping score. “I worked with specialty coffee, but I sold the coffee from my farm as commodity. Then we started to do some experiments with honey processing and we realised that the cup profile increased. From a cup that originally scored 82, we got an 88-point cup profile.”

With new methods comes risk: it takes time to learn a new technique, money to invest in equipment, and there is the danger of ruining a lot with improper processing.

Yet Jose tells me, “There are no specialty coffee farms, but specialty producers.”  He advises producers to find support in quality laboratories like those provided by the cooperative his farm belongs to, Cooperativa Cafés Especiales de Nariño. Here, technicians evaluate the quality of coffee and can provide feedback and advice to producers.

Jose says that many producers don’t measure the quality of their coffees but that evaluation is important to improving quality. “If we do not measure, we don’t know where to start,” he says.

coffee flowers blooming in colombia

Coffee flowers at Hacienda El Obraje. Credit: Alejandra Muñoz Hernández

New processing methods can allow producers to offer high-quality coffees with a unique selling point, such as natural or cold processed Colombian coffees rather than more typical washed ones from this country. This is one way to gain attention from the industry and increase market access.

Jose tells me, “We started producing Geishas, experimenting, and sending samples, and this got us the attention of some people. Our first step was to show a great product. A good product opens doors.”

Rodrigo tells me that producers should aim to have buyers visit their farms to make direct purchases, and that this depends on producing high quality coffee. “We have to forget that we produce coffee for a commodity market and realise that we can also produce better coffees, and that clients can go directly to our farms and find our coffees. We have to become exclusive coffees,” he says.

washed and natural coffees drying in raised beds

Washed and natural coffees dry on raised beds. Credit: Alejandra Muñoz Hernández

Pablo tells me that he believes that the specialty coffee market is growing but that it isn’t easy for all producers to access the market.

“I think there is a misunderstanding about the concept of the specialty coffee market,” he says. “People think that they can change all the coffee to specialty, but it’s not possible. The specialty world is a low percentage of purchasing in world production.” He tells me that good marketing and promotion are needed as well as good quality.

Producing high-quality coffee can also open the door to national competitions and allow beans to be chosen by baristas for professional championships. For example, Rodrigo earned the top score in the cup-quality contest by fertilizer company Yara Colombia in 2017.

people picking ripe cherries from hand

Rodrigo Sanchez shows pink Bourbon cherries to the guests on Ally’s Champ Tour. Credit: Alejandra Muñoz Hernández

Ally Coffee’s Champ Trip provided a fascinating insight into coffee production in Colombia. All of the producers I met are focused on high quality and dedicated to improvement. They were willing and able to take a risk on experimentation.

So, next time you’re looking at coffees from Colombia, pay attention to the processing method and consider trying something other than washed.

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All interviews translated from Spanish.

Please note: This article has been sponsored by Ally Coffee.

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