Arriving at Bogota's El Dorado International can leave you breathless. Not only is the city surrounded by mist-shrouded mountains, but the altitude is a mere 2,500m above sea level... For the average Briton, it might as well be Everest!
Getting there at 4 am allowed me the opportunity to catch the sunrise, albeit through tired and bloodshot eyes. After a breakfast of arepa and scrambled eggs, it was a short walk to the domestic departures terminal to jump on my connecting flight to Pitalito, Huila. At this point, I was running through my head trying to claw back all those years of Spanish I took at school, frustratingly elusive when I really needed it. I need not have worried, it all came back in the end. It was here at terminal 2 that I met up with most of the motley crew who I'd be spending the next two weeks with.
After an hour’s flight through beautiful scenery (often being able to spot farms and drying beds from the air) we arrived at Pitalito Airport, by which I mean Pitalito's open shed with a tin roof. Flights arrive into Pitalito twice a week and it's quite the event. The sun was fierce and every sense was amplified. We had been informed that the team meeting us at the airport had been waylaid in traffic due to a fatal accident on the mountain roads the night before. We'd have to make our own way from the airport to our beds for the night.
We split up into two taxis and in our best Spanish explained where we wanted to go. Our taxi correctly turned off to Pitalito, our unfortunate comrades turned off to San Agustin in the opposite direction. Our taxi driver decided the best solution was to turn around and race after the other taxi (In Colombia, lanes are entirely optional and the speed limit is more of a suggestion). Bearing in mind we only had a basic grasp of the language and nobody in the other taxi spoke a word, we thought this was bound to end up in disaster as we raced past cyclists, motorcycles, trucks and even horse-drawn carts. Needless to say, we all made it to the hotel eventually and much laughter followed.
It was at the hotel where we first met Juan Felipe, owner of Invercafe, the dry mill in Pitalito, and a man of action. He took us to a relative's restaurant for lunch where we all ate like kings. Perhaps some of the best chimichurri sauce I've ever had. From there we were rolled into Juan's car and he took us to the Trilladora (dry mill). Even on a Sunday, the mill runs around the clock milling the parchment off the coffee and sorting by size, weight and colour before bagging up ready for export. There to Meet us was Maoro, the head of the El Carmen Association, Nicholas, one of the growers and Diana Salinas, the quality manager for Invercafe. We brewed some of the recent harvest and discussed it while having a tour of the mill. It was fascinating to see and I'm not sure my pictures do it justice.
With jet lag affecting us all we set off at 7am for the drive up into the mountains to visit El Carmen Association, where our Suarez Project Coffee comes from. It's set to be an intense day as we have to roast, cup and evaluate 60 odd samples, all under the scrutiny of the producers and their families.
The drive is stunning as we pass plots and plots of coffee, some even growing on the side of the road. Sheer drops at the edge of the road seem scary until you see groups of pickers harvesting ripe cherry on those same slopes.
We turn off the road for a bumpy ride up to Acevedo where we finally arrive. Greeted by around 65 producers and their families, a mix of curious, welcoming and wary (not all of the producers are members of the association). We initially had 62 samples to roast before we could even start cupping. When word spread that we were roasting and grading the samples to see who was in the association (and who needed help to improve their coffee) crowds of producers started showing up with parchment fresh from the drying tables for hulling so we could roast and cup their coffee too.
There are definitely trust issues, even after one year. The farmers have clearly been let down by empty promises before by other organisations promising the world and are wary of loose gestures. I feel our intentions are being weighed and measured very carefully. It's very easy to say the wrong thing and give false hope so we are all watching our words carefully. We hope to prove by visiting every year that we mean what we say and are worthy of their trust.
We break for lunch and a few games of Tejo, or Turmeque (it's great fun, look it up).
Sandra, the wife of one of the producers, kindly invites all 14 of us to have lunch in her modest house. The food was simple but stunning, a staple Colombian soup called sancocho followed by chicken, rice, salsa and avos and finished with a coffee mousse made from their own coffee!
We started cupping some of the samples, with a base score of 84 SCA points being required to make the association quality level, sifting out defective lots for further analysis (and then assistance) and lots scoring 87+ being marked for separation and micro-lot sales. We ended up only getting through 36 of what ended up being 100 samples, with further cuppings being squeezed in at El Fenix later in the week.
This whole concept is so fragile, we hold these producer's livelihoods in our hands, the weight of responsibility feels immense. It reminds me of how important it is to convey this to all of you.