by Tony Querio, Director of Coffee
There is a certain something special about coffees from Colombia’s Huila region. Sweet and extremely balanced, these are the types of coffees I want to bring home to my family. Everything you look for in a workhorse coffee is there — round bodied, rich sweetness, and depth to their flavors, but they also have a little lovable wildness. Something happens to coffees grown here that gives them wild overtones in the cup that transforms them from simple crowd pleasers into daily drinkers, that I find myself returning to over and over again. In our time searching for the perfect Huila coffees to fill this role for Spyhouse, we have developed a deep love for the towns surrounding Pitalito. San Agustine, Acevedo, Timana and Pitalito itself — each of these calls to mind a distinct set of flavors I love and often a specific cup.
Just a few weeks back, our owner Christian and I joined Cafe Imports and Banexport for a crash course in the micro-regions and magical weirdness of these towns. Our Colombian exporter, Banexport operates a receiving station, warehouse, and lab in Pitalito, lead by the deeply skilled Jairo Ruiz and Elkin Guzman.
Our journey began with a tour of Elkin’s experimental farm, Finca El Mirador, co-operated with his Mother, Fanny Vargas. Elkin is a trained agronomist who uses his farm as a laboratory. Through repeated experimentation, he has made himself into an encyclopedia of the many elements that must be considered to maximize a coffee's potential. Stopping at a rare hybrid between Caturra and an Ethiopian heirloom, Elkin and his wife Dani list the ideal sugar concentration for the harvest of all seven varieties they produce, in descending order, along with their average density. These are stated with earned confidence, not simply as a theory or guess.
Moving to his wet mill, Elkin breaks down the ideal fermentation process for each varietal and the complexities of his alternative fermentation experiments. Further along, we enter a blue shaded solar dryer. Through research with university students, they found this color allowed the perfect UV spectrum to pass for ideal drying. While certainly beneficial to the final output, these are not simply self-serving experiments designed to maximize the quality of El Mirador’s production. This research is for the benefit of all producers that work with Banexport. He advises all members who will take the time on small changes they can make to increase their cup quality, and therefore directly raise their profit.
I leave El Mirador a little skeptical though. In my view, experimentation has perhaps been embraced a little too aggressively in the coffee buying world the past few years. Research is necessary to continue moving forward, but it seems "weird" has come to be synonymous with “special,” and therefore good. Unique experiences are immeasurably valuable, but to move forward, I am more concerned with repeatability both in terms of quality and enjoyability. On this day though, I need to hold my judgment until we taste the coffees.
Throughout the next few days, we dig through tables of regional separations, single villages, and micro-lot separations. I begin to build a map of flavors. Pitalito is marked by rich berry notes. Timana has the bright floral overtones I remember from first tasting it two years ago. The mix of varieties and terroir shape the markers that stand like flags for these regions. Elkin's guidance as a producer, agronomist, and roaster has helped these producers maximizes there traits.
At the end of the second day, we have a table set for us of seven varietal separations from El Mirador. Each has been harvested and processed in an ideal manner. As we work through this table my mind is spinning. This is not a normal table. I begin to doubt myself as I look at my notes. These coffees are all so distinct and my scores keep climbing. After everyone has completed their scores, I sneak two bowls back with me to slowly sip every drop I can get. When the group's scores are revealed, Elkin and Dani beam with pride as two of their coffees receive 92 points, nearly the highest scores I have ever seen. Their diligent work has paid off.
Following that table, we jumped back into the trucks to visit one of the stars of Banexport’s work in Huila. We drove through rainstorms in the back of pickup trucks for well over an hour to reach Finca Nueva Zelandia, owned by Jairo Quiñones, in Alta Cabuyal. Jairo worked as a picker for eight years, saving everything he could in order to purchase a farm of his own just six years ago. His diligent labor continued and led him to place in the top ten of the Best of Huila competition the past two years.
This isn’t the limit of the exceptional uniqueness of this region. Walking through farms we saw plant mutations that seemed impossible — Pink Bourbon with Typica characteristics. We cupped separations of a spontaneous mutation of F6 that has scored a 94. As with all great trips, we came away inspired and with more questions. We have more stories to tell and special coffees to share from this special place, but those are for another time.
photos by Christian Johnson, Owner/Founder