Women in Coffee

Gaitania - a village nestled in a wild and beautiful valley in southern Tolima, Colombia. From Bogota it takes 11 hours in a small bus, crowded with people, chickens and dogs. And it’s worth it.

At the end of this journey, about a week ago, we met with the winner of Colombia’s 2015 Cup of Excellence competition, Astrid Medina Pereira, plus a whole host of other cafeteros (coffee growers) living in the area.

In fact this small hamlet produced six of the top 31 winning coffees this year. And as we quickly realized, coffee in Gaitania isn’t just a man’s business. Women also grow it, and to very high standards!!  

Astrid inherited her farm, named Buenavista, from her father Aureliano, a local community leader killed by the world’s oldest rebel group, the FARC.

Despite this and other traumatic events, she and her husband Raul have worked hard on the 10 hectares of coffee plantation, sowing mainly Caturra, Castillo and Colombia varieties, although we also saw some Yellow Bourbon.

The rich soil, abundance of fresh water and the farm’s high altitude (1800m – 2000m above sea level) all helped to grow the prize-winning coffee, plus “the love we put in”, Astrid told us.  

At 38 years of age and with two children, Astrid comes across as a very genuine person, passionate about her business and caring for her community. And just because you’re a coffee farmer doesn’t mean you can’t have your nails and hair done like city women, she told us. Here, here. Well said.  

One of the points she insists on most is the need for better education in the area, so Gaitania’s children have the tools to move forward. Kids with better education will be better farmers one day, she points out.

Amazingly, this year was the first time Astrid participated in the Cup of Excellence, making her victory all the more remarkable.

Buenavista’s coffee was rated 90.2 out of a total of 100 points by the panel of international judges that travelled to Colombia to taste it. Proceeds from its sale will help finance improvements on her farm, including new stands for drying the beans, Astrid told us.

Two doors down the road in Gaitania lives Edith Enciso Yasso who won the Cup of Excellence in 2006.

The award helped Edith secure a permanent buyer who pays above-market prices. In fact, Australian roaster Campos Coffee sells a bag of her coffee for about $30, she says.

Edith is a smiley and determined woman, with lots of experience in the coffee business. Walking around her farm, named 'La Isla' (island) because it’s flanked by two rivers, one can really appreciate the effort that goes in.

Workers are treated well and the coffee is grown under the shade of orange, cedar and banana trees, in line with Fairtrade (FLO) and Rainforest Alliance certifications.

Perhaps surprisingly, 31 percent of farms in Colombian coffee areas are owned by women, giving them a greater say in local decision-making bodies, plus a higher salary and more control over their daily lives. And when Astrid, Edith and their fellow cafeteras are producing 90-point coffees, that’s something we can all celebrate.

A coffee in the Galapagos

Mention the Galapagos Islands and most minds turn to oversized tortoises, blue-footed boobies or maybe Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution.

There is, however, a small coffee industry on the volcanic rocks that sit in the Pacific Ocean, about 900 kilometers west of the Ecuadorian coast. And as we discovered on an amazing trip to the Galapagos earlier this month, the beans they produce are surprisingly good.

Surprising (at least to us), as the best Arabica is typically grown at altitudes over 1500 metres in mountain ranges like the Andes in Colombia or the Ethiopian Highlands.

As we sat in a café surrounded by sea lions in the main town on San Cristobal island, we wondered how it was possible to produce such a smooth and flavorsome brew as the one we were sipping.

The answer, according to Nicolas Malon, is microclimate.

Nicolas is head administrator at Hacienda El Cafetal, San Cristobal’s main coffee plantation. We met him at the Mockingbird café where he told us about the island’s relationship with coffee while treating us to an improvised tasting session.

Manuel Julián Cobos brought coffee and sugarcane to the Galapagos in 1879. The red bourbon variety to be specific. Since then, like the sea iguanas and numerous finch species, the coffee has adapted well to the volcanic soil and the island’s unique microclimate, shaped by the Humboldt sea current

Arriving from the South, the cold current hits the hills of San Cristobal and creates low lying clouds during the 'Garua' dry season (June to November), creating conditions similar to those at altitudes three or four times higher, Nicolas says. Thanks to this specific microclimate, Hacienda El Cafetal successfully grows coffee at an altitude between 140-350 metres.

The 500-hectare farm is organic, certified by the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA), with coffee grown under the shade of avocado, guava and the native scalesia and matasarnos trees. In fact, in line with bird-friendly certification rules, they are required to have about 8-12 species of tree in a 25m-radius circle.   

This diversity and the Galapagos’ unique climate and soil helps produce the great coffee, Nicolas explained as he monitored two cocktail blenders and took orders.

Despite restrictions on machinery use and the bureaucratic difficulties in bringing workers over from mainland Ecuador during harvest time, Nicolas and his team at El Cafetal are producing a well-balanced coffee with great body and delicious notes of nougat.

If only it were more available throughout the archipelago (where a cup of luke warm instant coffee can set you back $2.50!!) About 70% of the production is exported because at $30 a pound, it’s expensive for sale in most local bars where the culture of good coffee has yet to take off.

Luckily that doesn’t diminish the truly unique experience one gets from a visit to these impressive islands. 

Elusive Venezuelan coffee

A couple of weeks ago we packed our bags and took the short flight from Bogota to Caracas, crossing the snowy peaks of the Andes to check out the coffee in our neighboring country.

Then we drove west, headed for Venezuela’s coffee zone. Navigating sign-less roads and dodging some of the most erratic driving on the planet, we eventually made it to Portuguesa state, the main coffee-producing region.

Venezuela used to produce lots of really good coffee, mainly Arabica varieties that flourished at the end of the world’s longest mountain range. But it seems economic policies over the past decade haven’t helped the country’s coffee industry, or so we were told.

Several coffee growers we met with complained about the difficulties in securing seeds, fertilizers and essential farming equipment, hampering production. In fact Venezuela’s coffee output has slumped over 70 percent since 1998, according to the
National Federation of Venezuelan Coffee Producers, or Fedecave.

Another big problem are government rules that effectively force farmers to sell their coffee below the cost of production. This acts as a huge disincentive, with many switching to cattle or simply leaving farming altogether.

As we sat in the home of local producer Fermin, sipping his delicious coffee that will never make it to market, we wondered what the future is for Venezuela’s coffee growers.

We certainly hope they can get back on their feet again, and put Venezuelan Arabica back on the menu in cafés across the globe.

Cocoa

A bit like cheese and wine, chocolate and coffee go very well together. So, why not? While touring the area, we made a short deviation and stopped at a cocoa farm.

Venezuela’s cocoa varieties are known for their fine flavours and considered among the best in the world, superior to most of the cocoa that comes from the Ivory Coast, the top producer.

We visited the Hacienda San Cayetano in Carabobo state where
Rodrigo Morales showed us around his plantation of orange and cocoa trees, including one over a hundred years old.

Rodrigo makes his own chocolate – named Valle Canoabo - among the most delicious we’ve ever tried! We stocked up with as many bars as we could buy and headed back to Bogota, happy to have seen how incredibly beautiful Venezuela is. Maybe one day it can also fulfill its huge potential to become a major producer of high-end coffee and cocoa.