After working for nearly six months in different cities across the US, our team finally met for the first time in person during our latest trip to Colombia. It was a mutually reassuring feeling of having made the right decisions in terms of people - we had a solid connection among the team members and roles look to be naturally sinking in as we move ahead. Some people insist in having the right tools to get the job done, but we like to put more emphasis on the human aspect. And we mean it. We got to meet each other, hang out as a group, develop that sense of belonging, and discuss our short term needs and contrast them with our long term goals.
One of the cornerstones of this company is to foster our inner wanderlust and enable our customers to live vicariously through the coffee tales we collect as we travel around the world looking for great coffee. This time around some of us were taken to familiar territory; Colombia is one of the most dynamic and renowned arenas when it comes to coffee. Its myriad of microclimates, its uneven geography that goes from sea level to perpetual snow-capped mountains, and its fertile soil full of rich organic matter make great conditions for great coffee. Hence, we felt like this trip was a natural way to start our journey as a team.
White Tale Coffee's team members have different backgrounds - finance, engineering, real estate, technology - that we feel complement each others'. Having such diversity has allowed us to effectively come together and devise a way to combine our different skills and put them to work towards a common goal: creating a company that offers best coffee experience, from soil to cup. Simple in words, complex in execution. From sourcing the best beans to telling their growers' tales as we make sure their efforts come to fruition as an excellent product when roasting their coffee. We work hard with laser-focus devotion to make sure our shared passion for great coffee with meaningful stories behind it makes an impact on both our suppliers as well as on our customers.
All of White Tale's founding team members were born and raised in Colombia. Therefore choosing our first meeting point was the easiest part. Planning the trip was the hard one. The logistics behind each team member's travel plans, accommodations, and caffeine supply, where some of the things we had to consider before committing to a strict schedule. Being Colombia such an exotic destination for some people I always want to make sure visitors have time to get a sense of the country they are visiting. A truly authentic impression is my usual goal since showing only the nice things would be a futile attempt to portray a different image. We are who we are; and it is what it is. Some Colombians struggle with the country's past but we think it should makes us better instead of bitter.
Colombia is a land of contrasts - poverty, wealth, exuberance, scarcity, violence, peace processes, mountains, deep jungles, et al. Its culture has significant differences with the American one, especially when it comes to the value of time. One theory we have developed over time among team members on this particular subject is the lack of harsh climate conditions in the Tropics as well as the absence of seasons. It's somewhat deterministic, but it's the only one that has make sense so far. When I talk about lack of seasons I mean not only that the weather and temperature barely fluctuate throughout the year (elevation change is the only determinant factor of temperature) but also that days and nights don't get shorter or longer, no matter the time of the year. So you can argue that there is actually no difference in planning a family weekend in February instead of August - maybe more or less rain. Driving in a city like Bogotá, where a five mile conmute can take you up to two hours stuck in traffic, underscores Colombians' distorted relationship with the clock. I have to admit I still have difficulties in that regard - even after living in the US for the past 5 years. So time management was of the essence.
ExpoEspeciales is a relatively new trade fair organized by FNC (Federación Nacional de Cafeteros), the powerful industry association in charge of running the coffee business in Colombia. You probably know about them if you have ever run into Juan Valdez's logo, standing right next to his mule. This subject requires a whole different chapter, which we'll get to when the time is right. For now we'll stick to the black stuff we strive for - indeed, great coffee.
We had a specific mission in mind and it was getting to know as many producers as we could during ExpoEspeciales, a trade fair which gathers most of the specialty coffee growers in Bogotá for a few days a year. This is especially valuable since most of them are scattered all over the country and traveling from and through the different coffee growing regions is time consuming as well as difficult. This strategic approach has to do with our obsession with the tales behind each coffee.
As part of the trade fair buyers group, we had field trip scheduled to Mesitas del Colegio, Cundinamarca where the FNC had arranged a visit to a microlot farm. Coffee was decent and we also got to mingle with some international colleagues - Japan, South Korea, Northern Ireland, Australia, and Denmark among others - with discussions revolving around traditional versus exotic varieties and the role of the end consumer in bringing to life the rebirth of an industry on the verge of change. Another topic lively discussed was the migration of younger generations into the cities, leaving the coffee fields where they grew up in the hands of their aging parents. Apparently, the hard work associated with coffee growing has scant traction among millennials who seek better opportunities by attending college and aiming at getting blue collar jobs. Alexander, a taxi driver constantly checking his smartphone while driving, gave his point of view when telling us about the wedding gift he had been offered by his mother-in-law - two acres of coffee fields in Planadas, Tolima. He said he preferred the perks of driving a cab even though he knew the plot is already producing coffee, FNC guarantees a minimum price for the crop, and he and his wife would only need to keep the momentum going. Many growers we have talked to have expressed their deep concerns regarding future labor costs. This is making everybody anxious while looking at the nascent specialty coffee industry as their safest bet. Interesting times, to say the least. Even for Alexander and his wife, who ended up turning down their wedding gift.
Something that really got everybody excited during our field trip was the blossoming throughout the coffee fields - we got to sneak a peak of what the next harvest might look like. Lush, white and yellow buds full of a strangely familiar smell usually emerge after coffee trees have been under water stress for a couple of months. The lack of water makes the trees aware of what could possibly happen if the rains don't come (e.g. El Niño), activating their reproductive instincts. This survival instinct paves the way to a new generation of seeds - the circle of life begins once again. It usually takes three years for a coffee bean to become a fully productive coffee shrub - two months in a seed bed, three in a plastic bag in the nursery, and then another thirty out in the field to fulfill its potential. Following FNC's guidelines, the trees are cut every three to five years leaving a short section (between a foot or two) of the main trunk standing; this technique allows the shrub to regrow quickly and vigorously. This pruning or "soca" activity is carefully planned in order maintain steady production levels throughout the coffee plantation. Finally, the entire tree is replaced with a new one every fifteen years. The result is a field of young, productive trees that can cope better with diseases like rust and coffee bore. This technique has been hotly contested since the FNC doesn't provide support for those who don't plant the varieties it recommends (i.e. Caturra, Castillo and Colombia). For those producers entering the specialty coffee world while experimenting with exotic varieties business is as foggy as the Andean rainforests surrounding their plots.
It was an instructive trip. We enjoyed it a lot and got to see a unique part of the country. One thing Pedro brought up and kept everybody wondering was if the wine theory has ever been considered when growing coffee - the best grapes comes from the oldest vines, which make the best wine. I'll guess we'll only know when we buy our farm and grow coffee ourselves. We'll make sure to keep you posted in that regard.
No trip would be complete without bringing back some souvenirs. We put special emphasis on this part of every single one of our trips. Therefore we would like to share our latest offerings with you. Enjoy.