Last winter, our bar manager Adam and I took a brief trip down to New York City to meet Tyler Youngblood, one of the founders of Azahar—Azahar is a roaster, cafe, and exporter based in Bogota, Colombia. They focus on small farm micro-lots and community blended coffees; they are a relationship driven company that believes in long-term buying practices that reward sustainability and coffee quality. Though our initial interaction was brief, I felt confident that this was a company we wanted to do business with.
This summer, I finally had the opportunity visit Tyler in Colombia. I flew down with a small group of green buyers to buy coffees, and to help strengthen our relationship with Azahar – big thanks to Todd from OLAM for helping make this trip possible! Here’s the day-by-day breakdown of the trip.
We started our first day by traveling to Armenia, where Azahar’s cupping lab is located. The lab is brightly lit, outfitted with wooden tables and large windows. Out back are a few cows, and a stunning view of the Colombian countryside. Once settled in, we began tasting coffees – the cupping focused on coffee primarily from the Nariño area.
We started with several blended lots, coming from small sub-regions across the area. These coffees were not dynamic enough to be sold as micro-lots, but as blended groups, they scored quite well. The next two rounds of cupping were focused on micro-lots. These coffees were awesome – cups ranged from bright lemon to sweet raspberry, to peach, to blackberry. Overall, we cupped 35 unique coffees that day.
The next day we got to go and visit some of the farms. Colombia’s geography is much more intense than anything I’ve experienced. Mountains tower well over 2,000 meters, and are densely packed making driving quite difficult. Tyler believes this high altitude helps give Nariño coffees a longer lifespan, as many are stored above 2,000 meters after being washed.
The first farm we visited was owned by Julio Cesar Montenegro. His farm was larger than most in the area, and was kept neat and tidy. While there, we got to watch them wash coffee post-fermentation. Mucilage was removed from the seed with water as the coffee moved down a channel. Bit-by-bit, washed coffee was moved to the drain where they separated the remaining pulp from the seed.
Unlike Julio’s farm, most farms in the area are relatively small. Many farmers inherit land from their parents, who will often evenly split land between their children. As a result, farm sizes have been continually getting smaller.
The next farm we visited showcased this problem of land distribution quite prominently. Marcela Garcia was one of 12 children – each child received some of their parents land. As a result, each farm is quite small.
At her farm, there was very active group of bees. While cross-pollination is not necessary for coffee plants to produce fruit, it does help increase cup quality. Her coffee scored well, and was among my favorites on the table.
After this farm, we visited Finca San Antonio. This farm was heavily shaded, and also had very active bees. Because their farm is so small, they use a plastic tub to wash their coffee. Coffee is allowed to ferment in the tub dry for 16 hours. The tub is then filled with water. Coffee is stirred, floaters are removed, and the tub is then drained. This process is repeated until the coffee has been cleaned. The coffee is then dried on a patio. Their coffee was also among my favorites.
Tyler invited us to judge a microlot competition that Azahar had set up with the co-op Cafe de Huila. Many farmers from around Huila had submitted coffee to be judged. These coffees were narrowed to the top 60 coffees. Our job was to grade the coffees along side cuppers from the co-op, so the top 10 could be determined.
Flying into Neiva, Huila, the landscape was remarkably distinct. Neiva is located at around 450 meters, so the climate was much warmer with unique vegetation. Most mountains here are 1900 meters or lower – it was easy to see why coffees from here cup so differently than from Nariño.
We tasted through 30 coffees, breaking each table into 10 cups. After each round of cupping, we would debrief, sharing scores and cupping notes.
The next day, instead of cupping at the co-op lab in Neiva, we traveled to Algeciras, where a coffee festival was being held. While driving there, it was hard not to notice the large military presence, with guards placed all along the road. I learned that this city had been controlled by the FARC military group up until this past fall, when they signed a peace treaty with the Colombian government.
The microlot competition was the big focal point of this festival. In additional, there was a regional Barista Competition taking place. Many vendors had set up, mostly focusing on supplies for farmers, selling fertilizer products or offering financing solutions.
We started cupping in a roped off area – as we cupped, a crowd formed to watch the process. After cupping the 30 coffees, we moved down to the main stage area where we formed a large circle of chairs. The 60 farmers who participated in the competition sat down with us. They asked us questions, ranging from “Why did you decide to travel here?” to “What types of varietals should I grow?”. It was a very humbling experience, and quite exciting to have such a direct feedback system in place.
We moved back to the main stage for the final announcements of winners. First they presented a few achievement awards to people within leadership. Next, they announced the winner for the barista competition. As someone who has competed in the past, watching this was quite exciting for me. Lastly, they announced winners for the microlot competition. The top 10 farmers were awarded pieces of farming equipment – the top 3 winners were given a cash prize as well. All of the top 3 farms were owned by women. Women owned farms are still uncommon across Colombia, so this was an exciting moment.
The coffees from Huila had some very sweet strawberry, apple, blueberry, and melon characters with some leaning towards honey, custard, and vanilla.
We got to visit a couple of the winning farms – both of which were located in Algeciras. The first farm was the 6th place winner, Finca El Kiosco. We were shown around the property by the farmer’s daughter, as he was in the hospital after injuring his hand in a demucilager. Their farm cultivated predominately castillo. Instead of washing their coffee, they remove all of the mucilage with a demucilager, and then dry the parchment. This process uses much less water, which is both more environmentally friendly, and can produce a unique flavor profile.
Next, we went to Finca Buenavista, the 3rd place winning coffee. This farm was only accessible from a thin pathway going straight up the mountain. It was about a 30 – 40 minute hike to get to the farm, which was located on a very steep incline. The land is so steep, that pickers have to tie themselves to trees so they don’t fall when harvesting.
The farm owner Ederleth was very moved by our visit – we were the first group of people to visit her farm. Her farm was larger, and was full of different varietals including a lot of yellow caturra. She expressed interest in experimenting more with separating red cherries from yellow, and different processing methods. All of her coffees are dried on raised beds. The view from her farm was absolutely amazing.
When we went to leave, it started to downpour. As it was the dry season while we were there, this was fairly unusual. Ederleth told us it was a good sign that we brought the rain. Good sign or not, walking back down the narrow path in the rain was a bit scary.
The number of delicious coffees we cupped while in Colombia was truly impressive. Limiting my purchases to a handful of different coffees was exceedingly difficult. That being said, I am very much looking forward to sharing the micro-lots we selected. Look for the release of our micro-lot series later this fall.