Farm: Los Aguacates
Varietal: Colombia and Caturra
Processing: Washed - 48 hours fermentation and dried on parabolic beds
Altitude: 1850 meters above sea level
Owner: Luis Ernesto Nieto
Town / City: China Alta
Region: Ibagué, Tolima
Overall: Maple syrup, blackcurrant, apricot
Luis Ernesto Nieto – Tolima - Colombia
This unique coffee is produced by Luis Ernesto Nieto, a community leader for specialty coffee in the municipality of China Alta; around 15km as the crow flies from the capital of Tolima, Ibague. Although most of the coffee from the state comes from its southern regions of Planadas and Chaparral, our export partner in the region, Pergamino, has decided to focus on exploring this exciting region.
Luis Ernesto has been surrounded by coffee his whole life. A third-generation coffee farmer, Ernesto inherited his farm, Los Aguacates, from his father Don Ernesto Senior. Today, Ernesto manages his family farm along with his wife Cenaida and his oldest son Jaider. Luis Ernesto’s daughter, only 12 years old, already has big dreams of continuing the family tradition and becoming a barista. As well as supporting his own family, Ernesto is a community leader within China Alta, a municipality with lots of potential due to its climate and high altitude. Ernesto works with our export partner encouraging other producers to engage in specialty coffee programs in the region.
The department of Tolima at large is well known in speciality coffee circles due to its ideal, moist, growing conditions. The region sits on the Cordillera Central, in the middle of the three mountain ranges that run from North to South through Colombia, giving it a multitude of microclimates well-suited to high-quality coffee production. These mountains creep up fast, climbing form 1,300 masl to 2000 masl in a matter of 30 or 40 km (although this is on a back road that takes 3 hours). This is partly where the region gets its name, as the word ‘Tolima’ comes from the local indigenous language and means a “river of snow or cloud”. Due to the range in weather conditions, the growing environment changes greatly in different areas of the department. This means that coffee production is broken up into North Tolima - where generally speaking the main harvest is September through December - and South Tolima (such as where this lot is from), where the main harvest is March through June.
Initially known during colonial times for its rich gold mines, the capital, Ibague, is now a bustling metropolis of over 400,000 people, and truly connected to the coffee-growing areas around it. The city of Ibagué is also known as the “Ciudad Del Abanico”, translating to English as the ‘Folding Fan City’. This is because when you look at it from the sky, the rivers spread out over the mountains like a beautiful handmade folding fan. These rivers will travel down the mountains, supplying water for the rice and cotton farms below.
Tolima has historically been difficult to traverse. In recent years, the area was heavily infiltrated by the Colombian leftist army, the FARC. FARC presence contributed to the region’s isolation and gave the area a reputation as being unsafe and violent. Only since approximately 2012, as the Colombian government maintains peace talks with the rebels, has it been safe enough to travel to the district.
Coffee is the leading agricultural activity in the region, followed by the production of beans and the raising of cattle. These small scale farming activities provide the largest percentage of employment by a significant margin. The importance of coffee to the local economy and livelihoods cannot be overstated.
One of the main challenges in this remote area is the proliferation of ‘coyotes’ due to the difficulty of travel for many producers. Coyotes in this region are independent buyers (no coops, exporters, traders etc.), normally with small or very small operations who try to cut themselves space in the market by intercepting coffee growers as they are on their way to sell the coffee through regular channels.
Crucial to sustaining the speciality efforts in this isolated region, is Mercanta’s Colombian partner, Pergamino Exporters. Pergamino has set up a structure whereby associated farm lots that score above an 84 on the SCA scale, are purchased at a premium in line with the quality of the lot. Pergamino has previously established similar projects with other small producer organisations in Antioquia, Huila and Cauca, all of which have been successful in identifying high-quality lots from small producers and helping place these coffees at the market for a higher price.
Each farm for this lot processed their coffee using the washed method. After the red and ripe cherries are picked, they are pulped by passing them through a pulper. Producers in this region are overwhelmingly small-holders, each owning their own small mechanical or hand pulper; located on the family farm. Once pulped, the parchment coffee is next placed in large tanks and fermented for roughly 48 hours, to remove the remaining mucilage. Some producers in the region will add several layers of wet parchment over a few days, which are thought to add complexity to the fermentation process and final cup profile. Finally, once fermented, the coffee is removed and placed on raised parabolic beds to dry, until moisture reaches below 12%. Tolima is blessed with some of the best drying conditions in the country due to the micro-climate and high altitude of the region, providing lower relative humidity, more wind and more sunny days than other areas of the country.
Once processing is complete, the 40 smallholders working with Pergamino in the region will transport their coffee to Pergamino’s hub located in Ibagué. Here, Pergamino has a warehouse and a cupping lab, enabling them to separate our lots by quality. Producers in the region will typically drop off their coffee once a week, amounting to around 100-500kgs of parchment. Once a lot has been analysed, the bags are separated into their correct lots, ready for export.