At Azahar, we combine our senses with art and science to convey the fruit of each farmer’s labor. And we do it with virtually no intermediaries.
Whereas coffee generally travels from a farm to a cooperative, to a dry mill, to a port of departure, to a port of arrival, to an importer’s warehouse and finally to a roaster’s factory, in our case it almost always travels from a farm to our own dry mill and roasting works.
Not only does this provide for much more transparency in the process, it allows us to build lasting partnerships with our producers, who are never more than a phone call away. At the same time, it allows us to roast some of the freshest coffees in the world.
We negotiate parchment coffee directly with farmers. The premiums we pay them are tied to the quality of their coffee in the cup, rather than the commodity grade of their raw material. Sometimes, we pay cooperatives or grower's associations a fee for helping us store the coffee and implementing quality control at the farm level.
What we look for are stand-out coffees, full of flavor, sweet and well-balanced; and we are accustomed to pay well-above market price for them, allowing the farmers we work with to invest in their families and their farms. However, rather than priding ourselves on how much we pay above market, we tend to focus more on profitability, working together with the farmers to negotiate premiums that justify the extra work they put in to meet our quality standards.
Throughout the year, we travel to remote parts of the country to visit these farmers. And we do our best to help them improve by providing them with constant feedback from the cupping lab. However, much of the time we’re just there to check up on them and learn more ourselves. More often than not, they show us things we’ve never seen or didn’t believe were possible.
After a farmer’s parchment coffee arrives on a truck or in the back of a jeep at our dry mill and roasting works in Armenia, Quindío, in the heart of Colombia’s Coffee Axis, we cup it to make sure it’s what we purchased.
Once everything checks out, we lose no time getting it into the hopper of our little dry mill. There, the beans’ parchment skin is hulled off before they fall into a series of perforated screens, designed to separate the beans by size -- allowing us to roast the most uniform batches possible.
Azahar is all about giving full expression to the terroir and husbandry behind each and every farmer’s coffee, granting coffee lovers once-in-a-lifetime access to some of the world’s most delicate aromas and flavors.
While our roasting equipment is outfitted with thermostats and software allowing us to measure and reproduce unique curves, Azahar's Director of Quality, Jayson Galvis, and Head Roaster, Julian Morales, rely heavily on their senses to trace the evolution of each batch as it passes through the drying phase into “first crack."
At “first crack,” the internal temperature of the coffee beans creates an exothermic reaction, causing the beans to expand while separating the oxygen inside them from the carbon dioxide and giving off steam.
This usually occurs between 390 and 410 degrees Fahrenheit and coincides with what is known as the Maillard Reaction, when the beans’ natural sugars react with amino acids to form molecules responsible for the coffee’s unique aromas and flavors.
At “second crack,” which occurs around 440 and 450 degrees Fahrenheit, the cellulose structure of the beans actually begins to break down, releasing oils trapped inside them while giving the coffee a glossy look.
We never let our coffees reach “second crack,” as our goal is to highlight rather than smother the irreducible terroir and husbandry that when collated and carefully ushered through the various stages of processing produce a truly interesting and at times beautiful cup. In other words, we don’t go to great lengths to seek out Colombia’s most interesting coffees and then overcook them.
Nonetheless, we do aim to caramelize each coffee’s sugars enough to balance the different acidities, ranging from citric to berry- and apple-like, with body and sweetness.
Much of the magic of this fragile balance is achieved between our 30-kilogram Portuguese-made cast-iron roaster and our cupping lab, where Jayson, Julian and Azahar’s barista, María Isabel -- all three licensed Q-Graders -- work carefully to calibrate the best roast profile for each coffee.
After we’ve got a particular lot of one farmer’s coffee hulled and sorted by bean size, we then meticulously sort the beans by hand, removing any defective ones before carrying them over to the roaster.
While electronic sorting machines have recently replaced a lot of people trained to sort beans by hand, they simply don’t do as good of a job in our opinion. That said, it’s also important for us to create jobs in a part of the country that suffers from some of the highest rates of unemployment.
Once each batch has cooled and the beans’ volatile aromas are locked inside, we blend them back together with the other roasted batches of different bean sizes from the same lot.
Within hours they are hand-packaged and sealed in bags color-coded by each region and marked with a little gray sticker providing detailed information about each lot, as well as a QR Code linked to a video interview of the farmer responsible for the beans inside. One-way valves allow carbon dioxide to escape, while preventing oxygen from getting in and oxidizing the coffee.
Before shipping to another country, the Colombian Coffee Grower’s Federation performs quality checks on each lot of coffee we plan on sending out. They test the green beans we’ve prepared in one of their laboratories; and then they test the final product of each lot we’ve roasted by pulling bags at random from the boxes we use to export.
Once we’ve obtained the Federation’s approval, the coffee flies from Armenia to Bogotá, where it passes through an antinarcotics inspection before catching its international connection. Within a matter of days after roast, it’s up for sale on our online store and ready to be distributed stateside.