In 2016, we were introduced to three farms of varying sizes in the Nariño department of Colombia. We bought three coffees through the FNC’s quality contest that year. We visited the farms in April to discuss future options for collaboration. Following those visits, we made a great effort to have the coffees from Santa Rosa, El Arroyo and Finca El Para in our lineup again this year. Last year, the producers received a big premium for being a Land of Diversity winner. We couldn’t maintain the same price level this year, unfortunately. Yet, to encourage the producers in their hard work, we worked out a bonus system with a second payment going back to the producers directly.
3 Generations of coffee family tradition at Finca El Para
Finca El Para is located in the municipality of La Unión, in the Nariño department of southwestern Colombia. The estate lies high in the Andes mountains, where the mountain chain splits into the three ranges that define half of Colombia’s surface. El Pará lies close to the equator. Because of this location, the estate experiences clearly marked seasons. The “winter” season runs from September to December and from March to June. The Colombian winter brings lots of rain. The rest of the year are the “summer” months, with sunny days and stronger winds. Most of El Pará’s production (92%) is produced in the first-semester harvest from March to July. Their mitaca harvest only accounts for 8% of the farm’s annual coffee production.
Carlos & Caterine
El Pará is currently owned and managed by Carlos Erazo and Francisco Fabián Erazo. Caterine Lorena Arturo Solarte is in charge of quality control. Carlos and Francisco inherited the farm from their father, who bought the land 51 years ago and turned it into a coffee producing estate. He originally planted the estate with yellow Bourbon and Caturra varieties. After some time, they started the collaboration with CENICAFE, Colombia’s national coffee research institute. Caterine and Carlos work together with their agronomists for soil analysis, planting systems and farm renovation schedules. Next to that, El Pará follows Good Agricultural Practices during the season and harvest. Caterine is also in charge of quality control during every step of the post-harvest process. She has a degree in chemistry. With her knowhow, she greatly helped improve the quality of El Pará’s coffee during post-harvest.
Furthermore, El Pará enrolled in a CENICAFE program for experiments with disease-resistant varieties. El Pará also participated in a program for shade tree planting to combat the effects of climate change. Next to that, they study the potential of Californian worms to create organic fertilizer creation and its application on the farm in collaboration with the University of Agronomy of Nariño.
Castillo – a life-saving choice
The farm is split up into 15 lots. This separation is essential to keep track of the farm renovation schedule and to identify the lots with varieties under experiment. The average age of the coffee trees is only five years. This young age is due to the bad roya infestation that hit the region in 2009. That year the weather phenomenon La Niña brought a lot more rains and mild temperatures to Colombia. This climate is favourable for the spread of Roya. Up to then, most of the farm was planted with the yellow Bourbon and Caturra varieties. Since these varieties are not disease-resistant, even at this altitude, a dramatic 90% of the farm was destroyed by Roya and had to be replaced. The only part of the farm which was spared was a lot under experiment with the resistant Colombia variety. After the dramatic Roya year, the choice for a disease-resistant variety was easily made.
For all buyers of coffee, it is important to understand this reality on a producer side. Of course, everyone would love to work only with the highly esteemed Caturra and Typica varieties. Until the reality of the current climate situation comes knocking and diseases wipe away the entire crop of a plantation. The thoroughly refined Castillo variety, or other disease-resistant hybrids, should not be frowned upon by the specialty industry. In the first place, because it is a safeguard for so many vulnerable coffee producers who can easily lose their entire source of income with the traditional varieties. And secondly, because the potential for cup quality of the variety has been proved on various occasions, especially at high altitudes. El Pará was one of the farms which participated in the Borderlands sensory trial that compared the cup quality of Castillo versus Caturra. (Read more on the project here)
In the more than 50 years that El Pará is producing coffee, many different post-harvest practices have been tried out. The team always searches for ways to improve quality and productivity. In the last 15 years, they have been searching for ways to reduce the production of wastewater in coffee processing. To achieve this, Finca El Para is equipped with a BECOLSUB module. This technology reduces the amount of water used with 95% and can remove basically all mucilage after pulping. This rules out the need for any additional washing. If wanted, it can also be set to leave on some mucilage, a feature applied during processing at El Pará. They intentionally leave on 10% of the mucilage, which will give the beans more complex flavours during natural fermentation.
After the day’s harvest, the team of pickers brings their cherries to the processing unit. In the high season, El Pará employs 60 pickers. Each bag is weighed and the administrator notes the volume. Next, the bags are emptied in the flotation channel for a quality check. Unripe cherries, floaters and other unwanted elements are taken out. El Pará has two machines for depulping, each with a capacity of 1500kg of cherry per hour. After depulping, the parchment goes through the BECOLSUB module for water-free “washing”. Then the parchment, with a little bit of mucilage left on, goes into the fermentation tanks for 12 hours of dry fermentation. After this, the parchment is graded in the grading channel, and at the same time washed shortly to avoid fermentation during drying.
El Para has four options for drying coffee. The drying method depends on the expected quality of the lot. Early pickings will be dried mechanically, for example. During the peak of the harvest, the lots producing the best quality will be dried on the patio or tables. The large bulk will be dried in the mechanical drier to maintain productivity levels.
- mechanical drying: parchment is mechanically dried for 24 hours in a controlled environment. The temperature of the drying tower is kept between 30 and 35°C. El Para uses mechanical drying because of the climate. Since harvest is done during the rainy season, it would be impossible to dry the parchment in due time. Also, the total production volume of El Para is too large to dry on tables. The cherries would just start fermenting on the drying tables. Mechanical drying helps prevent overfermentation and fungus formation on the parchment, resulting in less defective beans. The two drying towers together have a capacity of 2000kg of parchment.
- drying patio: during 5 days in full sun from 9am to 3pm. The coffee is turned with wooden rakes every 25 minutes. Outside of these hours, the parchment is not covered, but stored in fique bags. Each drying day, the beans are spread out in the morning and recollected in the afternoon. The patio has a capacity of 600kg parchment.
- Casa Elba drying house: the drying house has a moving roof, which is opened during the drying days from 9am to 3pm. In case of rain, the roof remains closed. The parchment takes 7 days to dry in this shade-drying system. It has a capacity to dry 280kg of parchment. The parchment is turned every 30 minutes
- drying sieves: during 5 days in full sun from 9am to 3pm. Every 20 minutes, the parchment is turned. After 3pm, the sieves are moved to an aired shelter until the next morning. The 15 sieves have a capacity of 15kg of parchment each.
The dried parchment is stored in fique bags for a resting period of one to two months. Then the FNC’s cupping team evaluates the quality, so it can be marketed to international buyers.