Early in 2010, on a trip through South America, we got the chance to visit some coffee farms in Southern Colombia. Parts of them were shaded by plantains and guamo trees, the rest exposed fully to the sun. Most of the coffee trees themselves were stalky and packed with white flowers called "azahares," though some were tall, unruly and full of fulvous fruit.
Farmers peeled the fruit, known simply as “cherry,” in a wet mill with a hand crank. A few of them let the pale seeds sit for 24 hours, fermenting in the cool mountain air, while most just left them overnight, rising early to rinse them in natural spring water.
Some of the farmers dried them on cement patios while others used raised bamboo and plastic mesh beds. They raked the coffee into rows and covered them up when it rained. They stored the dried seeds in sisal bags and transported them into town on the backs of mules or on top of colorful municipal buses.
At the town’s cooperative, a man in charge poked a little hole in each sack and shook out a bit of the seeds, which he called “pergamino” (or parchment coffee). He hulled the parchment coffee in a little sample mill and carried the green beans that came out into a glass booth, where he sorted out the ones with physical defects. He let the farmer know how much the cooperative could afford to pay him or her based on Colombia’s internal price of coffee — which we later learned was directly tied to the previous day’s Arabica prices in dockside warehouses in Europe and the United States. At last, a few employees of the cooperative grabbed the sacks and emptied them out into a growing pile of parchment coffee from other farms in the vicinity.
It was impossible to tell which coffee belonged to which farmer. No one had tasted them before dumping them into the pile. We wondered how anyone could know what kind of tree, patch of land, amount of ferment time or way of drying was responsible for what each bean tasted like. From the cooperative in that little mountain town, the pile of coffee would be trucked off to a dry mill somewhere on the way to port, where it would be mixed in with more coffees from other regions. At port, it would sit on pallets before being loaded into a container and raised over the railing of a ship. The ship would travel thousands of miles to a distant port, where the coffee would be offloaded into an importer’s warehouse and eventually delivered to a roaster.
We wanted to halt the supply chain back at the moment the coffee lost its identity – it’s connection to that farmer who harvested it. Inspired by the coffee blossom, we set to work on “Azahar,” which is now a line of single origin coffees traceable to individual farmers across Colombia. We teamed up with local coffee professionals and friends back home and built a tiny dry mill and roasting works, allowing us to individually hull and hand-sort the parchment coffees we bought before roasting them. We began interviewing farmers with outstanding coffees, linking their interviews to each bag of Azahar with unique QR Codes, providing coffee drinkers with a tool to trace each coffee back to a single farm and a single human being. We allowed farmers to let the world know what it was they believed made their coffees special.
We learned that it was possible to add value to coffee at its source, retaining more money for the developing economy of Colombia, while paying higher premiums to the farmers we worked with. We also learned that it was possible to lock in more amazing flavors when the beans we roasted were fresh, without being subjected to the trials of humid ports and the open sea. In the process, we cupped hundreds of coffees, developing unique roast profiles for the best ones.
We began selling our coffee to different cafés and restaurants in Colombia. Recently, we opened our own café in a recycled shipping container in Bogotá – a testimony to our belief that Colombians deserve to drink their best coffee, rather than exporting all of it to foreign countries. Now, we’ve begun to fly a small part of it to the US, where you can find it on our online shop. Not only is it fresh roasted, it’s also farm fresh, with all the sweetness, brightness and flavour that only recently harvested coffees can afford.
Tyler Youngblood, Co-Founder
Jayson Galvis, Director of Quality
Keith Schuman, Co-Founder
Jerónimo Jaramillo, Director Armenia