From the northern reaches of Nicaragua in the mountainous region of San Juan del Rio Coco, Madriz, comes a coffee with a majestic taste and an equally royal handle. It’s called Reyna del Cafe, or “Queen of Coffee” in English.
Get to the bottom of every cup
Colombian Excelso takes coffee lovers to new heightsFor many of us the mention of Colombian coffee summons the enduring vision of coffee farmer Juan Valdez and his trusty mule.
And with good reason.
We’ve seen the ubiquitous fictional character since the late 1950s in everything from TV and magazine advertisements to logos and stamps (pictured, above) as the iconic symbol of the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia. It seems the Colombians made decent coffee at the midway point of the 20th Century and invested heavily in spreading the word.
“Colombian was the most popular coffee (back in the day) because they had the best marketing,” says Eric Shabsove of Mountain View Estates Coffee. “They rode that marketing campaign for a long time, even when the quality of the coffee wasn't as good as some neighbouring countries.”
But that has all changed, says Shabsove, whose Toronto-based roastery imports coffee from around the globe. “Colombian coffee is the real deal now: great coffees with the perfect balance and acidity. You can light roast or dark roast the beans, or you can put them in blends. And it’s a washed coffee so it's also a very clean cup – quite enjoyable to drink both in the morning and afternoon.”
Shabsove is not alone in his admiration for Colombian java. The prevailing belief among coffee aficionados is that Colombian coffee is once again a leader in world coffee. And a great deal of its resurgent success, understandably, stems from where the beans are grown. In this case, Excelso Coffee is from the state of Huila in south-western Colombia.
Huila a good cup
The area is incredibly diverse in terms of climate and landscape: the southern part of the region grazes the Andes Mountains, which helps create an unprecedented growing capacity.
Most coffee-producing countries only harvest once a year – some are fortunate enough to harvest twice. Not so in Huila, which is near the equator, boasts near-perfect weather, and sits at a considerably high altitude. “This coffee is unique because of the weather and the altitude and the Andes Mountains nearby,” says Shabsove. “They harvest this coffee almost all year round.”
There’s such an abundance of trees that some will go dormant. “But when you’ve got this kind of soil and this kind of weather, you'll have flowers beside coffees that are beautiful cherries. That's just what's amazing.”
That's also why the beans are handpicked, says Shabsove. “Because you could have a flower, you could have a green bean and you could have a red cherry ready to go, so you have to pick each one separately.”
What does Huila’s diverse climatic conditions and fertile soil mean for coffee lovers? Quite simply: a variety of high-quality, well-balanced beans with near-perfect acidity.
It’s produced in a micro-lot structure, where producers pick the ripe cherries, which are then washed, dried and processed into dry parchment. The product is then sent to a central hub where the coffee is sorted for quality and readied for export.
Ultimately this coffee is destined to leave a very good taste in your mouth.
Who are the growers behind Colombian Excelso coffee? The Cooperativa Departmental de Caficultores del Huila, or Cadefihuila, for short.
Cadefihuila was established in 1963 by just 19 members with the goal of uniting the many small coffee producers in the region. Their mission? To increase their members’ income, attempt to solve social and economic problems, and protect against an instable coffee market.
Their numbers grew considerably in the 1990s, as producers from other areas of Huila joined the group. This created the large and multi-departmental co-op that Cadefihuila is today. The co-op now comprises 4,000 members from 25 municipalities across the state.
In 2014 the organization became Fairtrade certified, which has fortified their mission to support their members in shaping a sustainable future for their business. They are able to offer the best possible price to their coffee producers, as well as provide technical services, farming products and access to international markets. The organization continues to grow and remains committed to becoming a world leader of specialty Colombian coffees, in particular.
Their many social initiatives have turned heads in the industry. “They have scholarships for the children of the producers, that’s one area that they focus strongly on,” says Shabsove. “They also do a lot of medical projects for their members and the people that participate in production. So they do a lot of good things for the people and Fairtrade helps them as well.”
Certainly the Fairtrade premium is an asset. Investments have been made in training on environmental criteria and on how to farm sustainably without damaging the ecosystem’s biodiversity. One notable project is currently underway to renovate the plantations to combat la roya (leaf rust disease).
Cadefihuila has also made great progress in providing coffee infrastructure, such as drying and milling facilities, to their members. The intention is to develop infrastructure further and upgrade water treatment systems. The group has also developed a business and marketing strategy for their coffee.
The co-op now has two technical assistance teams – one for agriculture and the other for environmental sustainability. Training in crop management to boost quality and yields has already resulted in higher production levels.
A certain Colombian coffee grower, standing alongside his four-legged companion, could hardly be blamed for beaming with pride.