For many of us coffee is more than a beverage; it's a story, passion, a ritual, a destination itself. Traveling to the places where great coffee grows, many times the economic backbone of a region and the cultural underpinnings of country folk, sets in motion our wanderlust, our learning hunger, and our curiosity. There are so many places to see in this world, so many things to learn, and yet little time to achieve it all - all while keeping in mind that the more we learn, the more the knowledge one craves. Thus, we need to keep traveling. A virtuous cycle? Maybe - we'd like to think so.
Last March we made a trip that would inspire any coffee connoisseur. The destination of choice was Huila, a province in the southwestern part of Colombia, known for its agricultural products. The Magdalena river, Colombia's biggest, bisects it from South to North, irrigating the lower section of its fertile lands. The elevation range spans from sea level all the way up to perpetually snow-capped mountains (17,600 ft). The myriad of microclimates, in combination with Huila's farmers' prowess, have made possible a jump to the top of the board in terms of domestic production, above and beyond traditional provinces such as Antioquia. This alone is quite impressive for a province that 30 years ago was nearly unknown amongst the coffee superpowers. If you add to the list the cup quality and recognition that some of Huila's beans have achieved in the international arena, the feat seems quite historic.
The trip started in Bogotá on a lazy Sunday, after a night spent dancing and drinking a few too many aguardientes, taking the windy road that goes through Silvania, Fusagasugá, Espinal, Guamo, Saldaña, Natagaima among various other small towns. First stop was Neiva, Huila's capital, home to almost 500,000 inhabitants if you count surrounding suburbia, about 5 hours away. The elevation change (from 8,600 ft. to less than a 1,000 ft.) in less than 200 miles gives you a sense of all the landscapes you get to see along the way. Temperatures rose from the mid 60's to mid 90's (°F), with a gentle and constant breeze.
For foodies, fruit stands along the road offered exotic selections with indescribable tastes and shapes, arepas (a Colombian corn tortilla), fresh cheese wrapped in banana leafs called quesilllo, and fish stews (right off the boat, from the Magdalena river) were the highlights. We had a quick snack (a popsicle made from fresh fruit, a city favorite) and went to bed early - the next day was scheduled to begin bright and early, as things usually do in Colombia's country side.
We hit the road around 6:30 AM to drive deep into coffee country. The first stop was a farm called Tamaná, close to a small town called La Plata. The owner is Elías Roa, one of those characters you fall in love the minute he introduces himself. He offered a combination of a big smile and calloused hands that don't shy away from hard work. A soothing presence in many ways.
With a soft voice he starts talking about the different experiments going on in the farm - exotic varietals, special processes for microlot selection, new drying patio, the involvement of Norway's most famous barista in the farm's QA program - while trying to downplay his achievements. "I'm just a humble beneficiary of this land's exuberant generosity. I try to do the best I can".
He walks us through most of his property's landmarks (natural springs included) while explaining his perspective on the coffee business. Then he graciously invited us to tour the facilities where he processes his famous beans; a few of the pickers smile as we moved through their working spaces. A hectic yet methodical atmosphere contrasts with endless hills to the brim of coffee shrubs serving as background.
During a hearty lunch (traditional sancocho - thick soup with whole chicken pieces accompanied by generous carbs like yucca and plantain, garnished with avocado), Elías introduces us to his business partner Tim Wendelboe. Tim is a famous Scandinavian coffee guru with four titles as barista world champion and a chain of coffee shops in Norway. He's an authority in all matters concerning Tamaná's coffee production. The two of them have partnered to improve quality, with Tim spending 6 to 8 weeks out of the year in this remote area to feed his passion, as well as placate his appetite for learning about a crucial part of what makes coffee truly great - growing the cherries and processing the beans.