Specialty coffee is a term that I am well too familiar with. Working at Vesta Coffee Roasters has allowed me to see specialty coffee first hand. If I wasn’t passionate about coffee before this competition I attended in Colombia, I surely was infatuated with the specialty coffee production now. In the specialty coffee world, we rate coffees on a 100 point scale to evaluate the aroma, flavor, acidity, balance aftertaste and overall quality of the cup. Anything above 80 is considered specialty, with little to no defects. Cafe Imports created a competition for roasters to meet great coffee producers and reward them for their hard work. The competition is a great way to show producers and farms that roasters and buyers are willing to pay top prices for high-quality coffee and build sustaining relationships. Cafe Imports has partnered with Banexport, the export team in Colombia to work with farmers to up their game and get even better prices, keep young farmers in the game, and produce some amazing coffees. When the owner at Vesta Coffee Roasters told me I would be participating this year, I was beyond thrilled to be a part of this experience.
Day one consisted of a long boring day of travel and nerves from anticipation for an exciting trip full of new people and coffee experiences that I was ready to embrace fully. My anxiety had been with me all day (I’m not great on airplanes) because of all the unknowns of this trip, but my curiosity brought a sense of anticipation and dare I say, excitement to see Colombia, meet new coffee people and try great coffees from the Best Cup competition.
On day two there were too many exciting thoughts and nerves going on in my brain. I had gotten in so late that I had missed meeting everyone and exploring Bogota. At breakfast, I met Omar and Sam, two of the Cafe Import guys. Everyone was starting to gather around the front desk to check out and get ready to head back to the airport for our flight to Popayan. Each story made me realize I was on a trip with a bunch of people that shared the same passion, curiosity, and love for coffee. This was going to be amazing! We got off the plane and headed into the Popayan airport. The Banexport team was waiting for us with a genuine and exciting welcome. Smiles, Bienvenidos! And hugs! And around the corner, a colorful Chiva. It was beautiful! A traditional open-air van to transport us around Popayan for the next 4 days. I LOVED it! It was like the Colombian version of the Magic School Bus but for coffee!
After finishing lunch, we hopped back on the chiva and headed for the hotel. Andrew and Jairo greeted us in the room with name badges, swag bags, and glasses of wine. The Cafe Imports and Banexport team introduced themselves and explained a little bit about what we were in for the week. Over 1,500 farmers and producers had submitted their coffees for the Best of Cup in Colombia this year! The Banexport team had spent the last couple of weeks cupping and evaluating these entries to narrow down the top 30 for us to try and hopefully buy. They were super excited for this year and all the care and work that had gone into growing, harvesting, and processing to create the beautiful flavors that came threw in the final brewed cup of coffee.
Day three, this was it! First day of competition. We had our game day faces on. We started the day nice and easy with a calibration cupping. Cupping coffee is something we in the coffee industry do to evaluate the taste, flavors, and aromas of coffee. We start by slurping a small amount of coffee from a spoon to aerate and spread all over the tongue and palate to distinguish its body, flavor, acidity and sweetness. The first table was to evaluate four different coffees, (82, 84, 86 and 88-89) and make sure we were all on the same page about what flavors we were tasting and determining the difference in the quality of each coffee. It sounds a bit arbitrary and up for interpretation but it’s amazing how easily you can tell the difference from a good cup to a great cup to a substantial cup! Specialty coffees have their distinct characteristics, tasting notes and personality. Tasting coffee is a learned skill and I realized the hours of practice and blind tasting we do as a team at Vesta really paid off.
After the calibration cupping, we headed to the discussion room for snacks and to discuss our scores and tasting notes. The next two tables would include 10 coffees from the regional selects and 10 coffees from the farm select lots that would be available for purchase on a first come first serve basis. I couldn’t believe the amazing flavors coming from the cup for such affordable coffees. I could already start to see how these lots help the producers and farmers provide exceptional coffee at affordable prices in a sustainable way. And by building relationships with roasters that appreciate the hard work and are willing to pay fair prices for that coffee is important. And it’s what the Best of Cup Competition was all about. After a long morning of evaluating and caffeinating, we were all ready to hop on the bus for lunch and our first farm visit. I was nervous, yet again. I had heard stories of steep drop-offs, and near-death experiences of other origin trips. But this trip up the mountain was slow going. A storm had just blown in so we pulled down the window flaps and headed up the very bumpy road to Alvaro Andres Roldan Flor’s farm in Cajibio, Cauca.
La Parcelito, is a 12-hectare farm with several varieties, including Caturra, Typica, Pink Bourbon and Castillo. As the rain slowed down, we toured the farm. We were shown Alvaro’s processing and anaerobic fermentation tanks. Alvaro told us about how he works closely with the Banexport team to improve the processing of the coffee cherries to improve quality and flavors in the cup of coffee we drink, agricultural practices to grow, strong and healthy varieties, that aren’t typical for this growing region in Colombia, like Typica. During harvest, boards are used to evaluate the ripeness of the cherries and incentivize pickers to look for quality cherries over quantity.
Walking around the farm and seeing how little and fragile the coffee trees look made me realize how delicate the whole process of coffee is. Every little detail in the chain has to be just right to get those amazing flavors in our morning cup of coffee that sometimes we take for granted. I couldn’t believe how much labor and intention goes into every aspect of the agricultural and harvesting processes to the fermentation and drying processes. It was becoming very clear how truly amazing the specialty coffee industry is, and how important it is to pay for this kind of labor and effort. You could feel the family’s excitement and genuine gratitude for us being there and Alvaro’s passion for his farm and sharing his labor of love with the world.
On day four we had three cupping sessions, we were to evaluate the top 30 coffees and narrow down the top 15 selections that would be available for the live auction at the end of the week. This was some grueling work, cupping 10-12 coffees at a time and evaluating each cup, the flavor profiles, which coffees we liked and deciding which coffees would work well on the menu at Vesta. In the discussion room after each cupping session, we continued to be amazed by each coffee’s unique tasting notes and individual characteristics. And this day was just to narrow down the top 15. Every coffee tasted so amazing, which made my decision easier and harder at the same time. I'd knew we would be able to get a great coffee, but deciding which coffees our customers would love was the tricky part.
After lunch, we made our way back up the mountain to Juan Martin's farm. This 25-hectare farm, located in Sotara, Cauca is the experimental farm run by Banexport. At 2050 M.A.S.L. this was the highest altitude and we could feel it right away. As we walked down the steep and treacherous terrain, I could feel my lungs working overtime. Each section had a different variety of coffee, some were tall, with their limbs spread out, like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Other varieties of trees were shorter, only coming up to my waist, almost shrub-like, with dark shiny leaves. Each variety of coffee trees looked different and made me realize why each coffee variety tastes so different in the cup. It was also insane to see the Harar variety, next to the Ethiopian varieties, next to SL28 and SL34. You’d have to go to several different countries to be able to see and get these types of varieties. And they were all in one place! But here, on this one farm, they were systematizing and formalizing these agricultural innovations. To push the limits of what can be done in coffee and to pass along this knowledge to farmers and producers without any risk to them. The most exciting thing is the wet mill and laboratory that is still in development. The idea is to design a sustainable, efficient and environmentally-friendly wet mill that can be used to bring out the full potential of each coffee that is processed there. With a laboratory on-site, Banexport can provide on-site cuppings for QC and enjoy the wonderful labor of love. As we finished our tour of the farm, the weather could not have been better. As the sun went down, we headed back up the hill, very slowly mind you. That altitude was hitting us on the way back up but afforded some wonderful picture breaks of the golden rays setting over the mountains. At the top of the mountain, a tent had been set up for dinner and dancing with the Banexport team.
Day five, the final countdown! That’s right, after yesterday's cuppings, we had narrowed down the top 15. And today was the day to taste some of the best coffees I’ve ever had and decide which ones we wanted to buy in the live auction the next day. No pressure, right? And wow, these coffees were stunning! On day one of the trip, the Banexport team had said this year’s competition was impressive and now we could see and taste how overwhelmingly right they were. The last cupping session was the varietals and experimental fermentation table that were only available in a silent auction. They are special, rare varieties (Pink Bourbon, Geisha) and ways of processing (Natural and mixed-fermentation) that have very unique flavor characteristics in the cup. It was hard to choose, each coffee was very distinct and lovely. I decided to sit back, enjoy the echoing cacophony of slurps and trust my gut.
After lunch, we headed to our last farm visit, La Clarita from producer Tirsa Montilla Lopez. Situated in the Sotara mountains, La Clarita is a real beauty, run by a female producer that fell in love with coffee after retiring from the judicial branch in Cauca.
The landscaping around the house was designed by someone with a good eye. The pops of color from the flowers brought a smile to my face. The house’s outdoor patio was lined with colorful plants in terracotta pots. It looked like something out of an Instagram influencer’s Pinterest board. We learned that, although the farm’s coffee quality was good, to begin with, the relationship with Banexport helped the farm improve it’s cup quality even more and also helped Tirsa improve the profit of the farm by getting fairer prices for the high quality of coffee the farm was producing. Tirsa made a point to let us know, during harvest, she prefers female pickers because they tend to pay more attention to detail and pick the best cherries.
Tirsa and her husband also wanted to make sure they contributed to their community. Recently, they donated part of the farm to build a school and sports center for the kids in the village to have a place to play and learn. When we visited, they were adding a new addition to the school for Tirsa’s plan of having a coffee farming and agricultural program for the community. As we left the farm, we could hear shouts and cheers from the neighborhood kids playing basketball as the sunset. From the farm, we headed to Teresa Pone la Mesa Restaurant for dinner with the top 30 producers and the Banexport team. It was a really special night to celebrate all the hard work that had gone on to create such an incredible competition and a great way to meet each other, learn more about the producers and build lasting connections to share this wonderful product with other coffee people around the world.
As we ate, everyone got up to introduce themselves and tell everyone where they were from. There were stories about the deep connections made despite language barriers, the inspiration felt from seeing that hard work and attention to detail in every aspect of the coffee chain, pride from the farmers and excitement in finding partners that are willing to pay fair prices to share incredible coffee with others who appreciate quality in the cup with each sip. I was blown away by all the female producers in the room and shared my appreciation for them and the inspiration I gained seeing their hard work, attention to detail and confidence to produce some amazing coffees. It helped me embrace my vulnerability and use that to ask questions even if I felt silly not knowing the answers.
Day six, after breakfast, we headed to Banexports dry mill. I was able to see the hull that surrounds and protects the green coffee seed being removed. This is also where the beans are sorted for size, and the defects are removed. Then their bagged, labeled, and ready to be shipped across the world.
Next, we headed back to the hotel for lunch with the producers and got ready for the auction. We walked over to the event space. As we turned the corner, we saw tons of people with signs and horns waiting to cheer on their friends and families.
We headed to the stage to find our seats, and get settled in. there was an air of excitement and celebration in the air. We listened to the Colombian national anthem and the anthems of the local regions of Huila, Narino, and Cauca. Everyone was announced and the auction was underway! The top 30 producers from the Best of Cup were on stage. The top 15 coffees would be part of the live auction. Each producer from the top 15 was announced before their coffee was up for auction. As each name was announced, cheers from the farmer’s family and friends would ring out from the crowd. Each coffee region would start chanting from sheer pride and excitement. It was a really special evening.
As the auction started, the bids started coming in slowly. But as the Aguardiente and Cerveza started flowing, everyone started to loosen up, and the evening picked up. The bids started getting higher and the excitement was building to an intense level. I started to put my paddle up and get involved. Everyone’s strategies were coming out, bidding wars were brewing. My heart was pounding from being nervous and also excited! But at the end of the day, these were all amazing coffee and there was a friendly comradery under the competition. Then came my chance! The next couple of coffees were from my favorite region in Colombia, Narino. We were in the top 5 and I was worried of getting outbid again. But the stars were aligned and I was able to win one of my favorite coffees of the competition. After the auction, I was able to speak with Jose Gomez and learn about his farm and all the hard work and years he’s put into producing some great coffee. I could tell he was surprise that his small farm got picked in this big competition and his coffee would be introduce to people all over the world.
The top 3 coffees were part of some of the tensest and fun bidding of the whole night. The clapping and cheers were so loud and full of emotion, I just sat back and enjoyed every minute. Everyone was excited to bring back the best coffee to their respective towns and communities and after an emotional roller coaster of a night, we were ready to eat, celebrate and dance. The next day we flew back to Bogota to leave for our respective homes. That night we went out to eat and spend some time with each other before saying goodbye to one another. It felt like the last day of summer camp. We planned to keep in touch and visit each other if we happened to be in town. And, of course, promised to share our beautiful coffees from Colombia once they hit our respective locations to remember each other and this special trip we had together. I can’t wait for this coffee to arrive at Vesta and share it with all of you!