Naora, a Masterpiece is born
High in the Colombian Andes, Nespresso has developed a late harvest coffee with a startling new flavour and production method. This is the story of how coffee growers have been working with nature and honing their practices to produce wondrous results.
WELCOME TO THE DEEP FORESTS OF THE WESTERN ANDES, THE MOUNTAINOUS BACKBONE OF COLOMBIA’S SANTANDER DEPARTMENT. THE CITRUS TREES AND SUGAR CANE ON THE LOWER SLOPES SHOW THE FINGERPRINTS OF HUMANITY ON THE LANDSCAPE. Up here at an altitude of 4,000 ft however, it takes a bit of time among the twisting bushes and dazzling orchids to realise that this seemingly wild plant life is actually planted, cultivated and pruned. Why is this forest so carefully maintained? It is a treasure trove, where precious coffee plants are protected from the heat of the sun by the tall plants and their foliage. People are hard at work in the dark green depths of the undergrowth, picking the berries and filling their yellow baskets. We’re here on a morning shift in November 2011, and the recolectors, experienced pickers who have been carefully selected by grower Santiago Salazar, are working slowly, on an unusual type of job. They are used to picking the cherries when they boast a deep red glow, to ensure a perfect coffee. Berries that have been hanging on the branches a bit longer, and are turning brownish-red or even deep purple, are best avoided. Today however, their boss has asked them to pick these darker cherries. Santiago has even delayed the harvest a fortnight to give the fruit extra time to ripen! A late harvest? Claro. That’s right. But this is unheard-of for the recolectors in all the time coffee has been grown here in Santander.
“JUST THE RIGHT TIME!”
Night is falling at Santiago Salazar’s farm, El Calapo latinesque tiles and whitewashed walls date back to the time of the Spanish conquistadors. But Santiago is not thinking about tradition, as he oversees the weighing of bags stuffed full of these unusually brown cherries. Five months earlier, when the experts from the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) [see Nespresso Partnership] offered him the opportunity to join Nespresso’s late harvest project, he jumped at the chance – he’s a man who enjoys taking a calculated risk. In this new project, the FNC and Nespresso offer assurance; they are trusted partners. Santiago wipes his brow. There’s little time to lose: the cherries are heading for de-pulping, followed by a 15-hour fermentation process, which will strip them down to the essential. They are then dried before the green coffee is shipped to the cooperative. Santiago Salazar’s work is finished at this stage. But the adventure continues with two men, the instigators of the whole project. They are here in person at El Calapo farm to watch the harvest, and it is easy to sense their excitement. Edgar Moreno, with his shaved head and short grey beard is the FNC Expert Adviser, and former head of the Quality Bureau in Bogotá. The other figure, his eyes sparkling behind little glasses, is the Nespresso Coffee Expert. Alexis Rodriguez is like a philharmonic conductor whose skills draw the notes and harmonies out of Nespresso Grands Crus and Limited Editions. “We’ve got them at just the right time!” says Edgar, holding out a palmful of plump berries, glowing like amethysts, agates and garnets. They are not the pure ruby-red of a traditional harvest, but the promise is there to be seen. Alexis pulls out a refractometer to measure once more the sugar content of a berry. Excellent. Precision is everything. It is a guarantee of a perfect, consistent aroma, which is essential for Nespresso. Alexis’s face breaks into a smile. He’s a man of precision, but a dreamer too, and this has taken him back to the start of this crazy yet pinpointed journey.
PERFECT FIRST CUP
Rewind to Switzerland several years earlier. The laboratory where Alexis Rodriguez works has vast windows looking out over Chasselas vines, the last vineyard in Paudex, an old winery village on the banks of Lake Geneva. Nespresso’s coffee-blending maestro has been watching on, season after season, fascinated by the work of the wine-growers. There are very few vineyards in Colombia, but vines and coffee trees have this in common: they require a perfect blend of nature and human creativity. With a late grape harvest, unusual flavours can be created in the wine. Might the same be true of coffee? It seemed like a worthwhile adventure, but it couldn’t be done without a skilled partner. Alexis started out by contacting Edgar Moreno at the FNC Quality Bureau. The two men had known each other and enjoyed working together for several years. In Santander, Edgar chose a farm to use as a testing ground and then sent samples of the green coffee, according to Alexis’s instructions. Each sample featured one aspect that had been slightly altered: dry or wet de-pulping, fermentation time or over-ripening. The most promising results came from the over-ripened sample, associated with a late harvest. The problem was that the coffee berries tended to drop to the floor once the normal harvest time had passed. The experiment was put on hold. But everything changed when a farmer from Tolima department told Edgar that there was a variety of coffee plant, the Castillo, whose cherries stayed firmly on the branches. Alexis Rodriguez remembers his first cup of Late Harvest – a perfect first cup. It was a breath of fresh air, an incredible aromatic blend of blackcurrant and blueberry notes. Pure pleasure in a cup. A meditation aid. Back in the lab, Alexis and his team celebrated – they had a masterpiece on their hands! All that remained was to define the quality protocol and the exact time of harvest, a consistent process for perfect production. The aim was to produce sixty 20-tonne containers of over-ripened green coffee, in order to create a Nespresso Limited Edition that reflected this perfect first example in every way. Its name is Naora, a blend of “Now” and “Ahora” in Spanish. Just the right time.
PEOPLE AND THEIR LAND
The Naora project required land with outstanding qualities – land that had never been used by Nespresso before – in order to subtly enhance its original flavour. Tolima and Santander, with their well-drained volcanic soils that force coffee trees to thrust their roots down deep, like the vine, drawing up nutrition, were the perfect match. The other part was the human element. Farmers, agronomists, and recolectors all needed to be won over to the idea of delaying the harvest by a fortnight. Picking anything other than ripe red cherries is heretical to coffee traditionalists! It took hard work by Nespresso’s teams, up on the slopes of the Colombian Andes, to make contact with the farmers. A number of specific meetings were held with the Extensionistas, the 1500 FNC field advisers. These professionals, with skills in production, environment and farmers’ welfare, are respected and listened to by the growers. They were won over by the plan, and spread the word to the farmers. The Nespresso protocol had been carefully developed. Refractometers were to be used to determine the sugar content and the exact degree of berry ripeness. The plan was to fully cover the risks and liabilities of the farmers for this unusual project. Once all this had been clarified, the Extensionistas looked for charismatic figures in each community, people like Santiago Salazar, who others would follow. Come November, more than 350 famers had signed up. In the end, 750 joined the adventure, to offer the volume and quality required for the new Naora Limited Edition.
FLAVOURS AND AROMAS!
It is November 2011, at El Calapo farm. The late harvest green coffee is drying in the sun, reminiscent of the raked sand in a zen garden. Santiago Salazar is studying it with Alexis Rodriguez. As the beans flow through his fingers, the farmer thinks back to his childhood days, playing with a rake twice his height as his father worked. Back then, no one would have dreamt of picking cherries that weren’t deep red. The coffee grower climbs into his pick-up, loaded with white sacks, striped with purple: the mark of Nespresso’s late harvest coffee. Santiago drives down the track from the farm to the main road, and heads to the cooperative. Further quality control is planned – a few hundred grams of green coffee will be taken from the sacks for testing. Once their “parchment” has been removed, the coffee beans will be sorted and counted, with the care and attention a jeweller pays his precious gems. Then the verdict will come. Santiago is not worried. He knows what is in the sacks and the care that has been put into this special harvest. The sun is now at its zenith above the Andes. Yesterday had been a special day at El Calapo farm, with Nespresso holding an informal ceremony to congratulate the growers who had been part of the Naora project. The atmosphere buzzed with the satisfaction of a job well done between trusted partners. With an “N” print cup in hand, the farmers enjoyed the moment, chatted and raised toasts. To progress! To quality! To development! To flavours and aromas! And on their faces, the glow of excitement for other projects and new traditions.
Text : Francis Dolric - Photography : Julián Lineros