After lunch we wandered down to the school to take a look at the location for our cuppings. A classroom had been emptied for this purpose. The members of the community weren’t familiar with coffee cuppings and the procedures, so some discussion about the setup took place. Tables, specially made cups (with a commemorative design), banners, scoring sheets, pencils, a water boiler, scale, pitchers, etc. all began to appear.
As items were located several of us wandered down the main street of the town, which runs from the church at one end along the crest of of the hill. From what I was told, Monserrate means something like “serrated ridge,” after the appearance of the mountain. Small houses of various designs line the street; many with tarps out front in the street with coffee drying in parchment (an outer husk to the coffee bean that is removed at the dry mill before shipping). Others dried coffee openly on their roofs, in parabolic sun driers, or with raised Kenya beds (an elevated screen to allow better air circulation) of varying sizes. The coffee from Monserrate is grown by 42 individual producers in the community, and each uses their own processing setup to get the coffee from cherry to parchment. This includes pulping, fermenting, washing, and drying the coffee, and the autonomy of each farmer’s production is what distinguishes their individual microlots.
The processing stations were built by the community with funding from USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and help from ACDI/VOCA (Agricultural Cooperative Development International and Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance), who provided engineering and material assistance. In the 1990s coffee prices plummeted and struck this community hard. At the time they weren’t producing such high quality coffee. The coffee was sold and transported wet to buyers at a much lower price. Out of necessity the people started growing coca along with coffee, bananas, citrus, beans, and other products. It was the help of ACDI/VOCA that allowed the community to stop growing coca plants and build the infrastructure to produce high quality coffee. This was a welcomed change for Monserrate, as their coffee is now purchased at a much higher price and the illicit market has been removed from their community. Currently the exporters of the coffee, Racafe, help with technical assistance to the growers. Monthly visits address issues that come up, and Racafe helps determine if a producer’s coffee is of high enough quality to join this growing coffee community.
The producers of Monserrate have an interesting mix of farm usage. Some of the lots are quite small (backyard size) while others are larger. As far as I could tell, all of the farms had banana and citrus trees interspersed with the coffee trees. Some were growing other crops. We saw red beans being dried next to coffee. The coffee trees in Monserrate are primarily the Caturra or Typica varietals, although I was told Catuai and Bourbon are also grown. The elevation ranges from about 5,100 ft to 6,000 ft. It rains a lot at Monserrate, even during “drier” seasons, and this is one of the difficulties faced at Monserrate. In order to preserve the quality of the coffee it needs to be dried relatively quickly. This is why the use of solar driers and Kenya beds is so important to the quality. The solar driers allow drying to continue during rain, and add a gentle amount of solar energy to the process. Some producers were using Kenya beds inside of solar driers, adding air circulation. To compare, at Finca Vista Hermosa in Guatemala the coffee was dried exclusively on patios since the dry season is, for the most part, dry.
We walked to the end of the road to one of the larger farms, which had spectacular views of the terrain. It was late afternoon, and in Colombia the sun goes down around 6pm. We walked back to the church scratching fresh bug bites, shared shots of Aguareinte (a licorice flavored liquor), climbed back into the jeeps and headed back to La Plata for dinner.
Next I’ll report on “cupping day”. 42 coffees in 6.5 hours!