Brewing a Better Future
One day, some colombian farmers who were looking to improve the quality of their coffee discovered that nespresso was helping some of its suppliers to work as a co-operative on the most challenging aspects of production. This is the story of an encounter that is set to make a big difference.
Eldorado may have been nothing more than a golden dream, but several historians suggest that this legend, kept alive by hoteliers across the new world to keep the conquistadors coming in, was inspired by a historical rite of the savannah land around Bogotá, now the capital of Colombia. It is said that on the day of his coronation, the Emperor of the Chibchas was coated in gold dust and immersed in a lake, covering it with golden sand like a gold mine touched by King Midas. Today, Colombia’s gold grows on trees and it is luring in a new generation of gold panners, who go by the name of “buyers”. These seekers of rare commodities are now racing to get their hands on coffee from a country that has become the world’s third largest producer. Coffee has been cultivated on a commercial scale in the Andes for over a hundred years. In fact this area, which overlaps with the agricultural region of Paisa, is nicknamed the “coffee belt” and is home to a small number of prosperous farmers of recent European descent, who decided to invest their futures in coffee.
Forget the baroque, tropical visions straight out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. The author grew up in the Magdalena region, which is something of a Colombian Mississippi delta home to banana plantations lined with balsa-wood huts on stilts, moth-eaten colonial palaces and sleepy siestas. This region, so dear to Marquez, has become a stereotype for the whole of South America. Jardín, on the contrary, lies in a very different setting at the northern tip of the Andean Cordillera. The locals are industrious, prudent, resourceful and have a deeply sarcastic sense of humour, like all pioneering communities that have had to fight for their own survival. They prefer the bittersweet liquorice tones of an aniseed liquor to the straightforward taste of rum, and the sharp cut of the panama to the wide inlaid rims of the vueltiao hats that are proudly worn in the Caribbean. It is a majestic region, a bit like the Alps in summer, but with the spontaneous air of naïve art and the rounded forms of a Fernando Botero sculpture. Everything exudes warmth and life – the temperatures, the clouds of yellow butterflies, the fans of the Traveller’s Palm, the lipstick-red kisses of the Flame Trees and the russet feathers of the birds of paradise that strut like toucans. Sometimes you think you are alone in virgin territory, but when night falls, the mountains are lit up by little points of light, like spectators at a concert waving their lighters. Driving along the road, you pass farmers on horseback armed with machetes as long as swords, white-washed farmhouses with painted red bases, as if they were trying to keep their feet clean, and buses that are out of this world – like big, painted timber cages mounted on ageing chassis carrying a heaving mass of labourers, banana bunches, chickens and school children. And then, from time to time, you come across shrubs no higher than a vine stock, which look from a distance like cabbage plants stuck between the starshaped branches of the banana trees. These are coffee trees.
Nespresso has unearthed a wonderful coffee in Jardín, nestled 1,400 m up in the Andes.
Half of any coffee’s flavour comes from the processing that takes place immediately after picking and as each coffee grower often follows his own procedure, the quality can be variable and not always satisfactory. In this part of Colombia, plots measure 7.5 acres on average. They used to be fewer and larger, but they have been divided up over the years due to inheritance practices. Working co-operatively on some stages of production would optimise efficiency, but that often fails because of the fiercely independent mindsets of the entrepreneurial smallholders, who are not keen on mixing their coffee - presumed superior to their neighbour’s - with everyone else’s. Nespresso had been working here for many years and was actively seeking a group of coffee growers who would be prepared to work together to produce coffee beans using a common coffee-cherry processing centre. While waiting for growers to come forward, our teams offered individual advice to each supplier affiliated to the Nespresso AAA Sustainable QualityTM Program. The “AAA” abbreviation designates excellence in three areas: selecting the highest-quality coffee, improving the production model and working to protect the environment and enhance the living standards of growers. Those affiliated to this programme are encouraged to improve their practices, in exchange for which Nespresso makes a long-term commitment to pay them prices above the market value for each batch that meets its quality criteria.
One day, some of the growers decided to try the idea of a co-operative processing centre funded by Nespresso. They came from the town of Jardín and most of them had been working with the Nespresso AAA Sustainable QualityTM Program for some time. When the Nespresso tasters first visited this pretty little mountain town featuring flower-decked balconies, an intriguing neogothic church with chrome-plated spires and cars straight out of a collectors’ guide, they discovered a wonderful coffee with rich aromas of wine, enhanced by hints of citrus. At first, Nespresso simply helped each individual grower to enhance the quality of their coffee beans. Now, however, the growers declared that they were ready to work together.
Not far from Jardín is the hamlet of La Arboleda, where Luis Alfonso, aged 43, lives with his wife and four children. He works La Finca La Esperanza from dawn ‘til dusk to produce ten thousand kilos of coffee each year, employs two workers and lives in a charming little clementine- orange house that seems extremely prim and proper in the face of the challenges that the home and family have doubtlessly survived. “I have been with Nespresso since the beginning. My daughter is studying to become a nurse and the three others are still at school. I no longer have any children working on the farm. I get up every day at five o’clock in the morning, milk the cows and take breakfast to my workers. Before, I used to have to work the full day up to five o’clock in the evening, but now I no longer process my own coffee cherries. They are delivered straight to the co-operative the day they are harvested and I have free time to grow my own vegetables and bananas.” Each cherry, or drupe, contains two beans wrapped in their mucilage, a transparent membrane which covers them like flesh. “When I was still processing my own coffee,” continues Luis Alfonso, “I had to depulp it immediately after harvesting and ferment it to get rid of its mucilage, like you blanch a tomato before removing its skin. I then had to wash it within twelve hours (or it started to rot) and run it through a water-based sorting system to separate out the good beans – the over-ripe coffee floats and takes a different path to the rest. Next came the drying stage, in a clean area. At this point in the process, the coffee is always like a sponge and absorbs everything around it. If, for example, you dry it with your washing under a glass canopy, it will take on the flavour of washing powder.” The final step in the process is to take the bean to a sorting centre for shelling, which leaves the green coffee. This is the product that gets roasted and ground before arriving in your cup.
The Nespresso AAA Sustainable QualityTM Program encourages coffee growers to improve their practices.
Nespresso and one of its main suppliers in Colombia, the growers’ export co-operative Expocafé, opened a small fermentation and washing workshop at the centre of La Arboleda, together with a drying centre about fifteen minutes’ drive away, where it gets the perfect amount of sun. The laying of the foundation stone for the mini-centre in La Arboleda took place on 20 July 2010, two hundred years to the day after the events that led to the independence of Colombia. The mayor of the village gave a speech in which he could not resist comparing Nespresso’s initiative with the “Admirable Campaign” of the Liberator Simon Bolivar. It is true that the introduction of coffee has done more for these remote heights than any political initiative of the last two hundred years. So any step forwards in this area is treated as a big event. The project has also caught the attention of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the ACDI/VOCA, an NGO which specialises in supporting agriculture in developing countries. Both organisations have pledged their support to Nespresso’s campaign.
Many farmers are now part of the Nespresso AAA Sustainable QualityTM Program, encouraged by the example of others and attracted by a reliable and legitimate customer, technical advice in the field or the idea of a lightened workload. While the men signed up for the project with enthusiasm, their wives looked sullen at first, silently disapproving. When asked why they had hesitations, they explained: “Our husbands always used to ask us to do the fermentation and drying for the coffee that they collected. In exchange, they let us sell the dirty beans at the market to buy clothes.” Instead of leaving them to keep themselves busy making jam, the co-operative commissioned them to run a nursery. They now sell the seedlings they grow to their husbands and thus play an active role in the conservation of ancient varieties, the loss of which would deprive Colombian coffees of their distinctive aromas.
JUST LIKE WINE
Marino Restrepo, the local programme co-ordinator, comes from Manizales, a city sometimes known as the “world’s coffee capital”. He cuts a poetic figure with his bushy moustache, deep voice and an intense look that hints at the stormy power of his mind. “Apart from the processing procedure, which brings out the flavours that are already there, the aroma of coffee is produced by the combined effect of the variety and the micro-climate (soil and climate conditions). I read somewhere that coffee growing is forty years behind wine growing... When New World wines started threatening the French wine-making industry, it responded by refining its characteristics, its local character and its production techniques. That is where we are at now, in Colombia.”
While vines bear a crop for an average of forty years, coffee trees need replacing approximately every twenty years and it takes around 3 years before they bear their first crop of coffee cherries. Coffee growing is no easy life. It is a difficult operation which is entirely dependent on a fragile shrub. Studies show that it blossoms best in a shady environment with good biodiversity. Shade means that the coffee tree can devote the energy it would have spent keeping cool on producing excellent fruit. Added to that is the fact that here in Jardín, the small size and steepness of the plots makes mechanical harvesting techniques impossible, thus enforcing a detailed, attentive and manual approach. In addition, the Nespresso AAA Sustainable QualityTM Program recommends that the use of chemicals be gradually phased out. The days of the Green Revolution have gone, with its brutal paradigm of forced productivity with a total lack of respect of nature that was the Taylorism of developing economies in the 20th century.
The ladies run a nursery and sell the seedlings on to the producers.
THE FLAVOUR OF COFFEE
There are 845 farms in Jardín, most of which already work with the Nespresso AAA Sustainable QualityTM Program. Some are improving very quickly and Nespresso already buys half of the coffee submitted to the cooperative’s quality inspection process. Soon, a large part of the area’s coffee production will meet Nespresso’s standards of excellence. After six years studying agri-food engineering at the University of Antioquia, Liliana, the daughter of coffee growers from the region, has decided to use her expertise to help farmers working with Nespresso. She travels from farm to farm listening, observing and sharing her knowledge, in order to help them avoid defects in their coffee. Each failing detected in the taste is a clue to weaknesses in the coffee production process. Oscar Andrés, 27, in his white overalls and baseball cap, is a “sensory analyst”. He dilutes some ground coffee in a cup of hot water, smells it and sucks in the hot contents, followed by a cup of the same coffee cold, saturating his taste buds. Becoming a taster requires a good sensory memory to distinguish each of the notes contained in every cup. It is a skill usually reserved for importers, leaving producers ignorant about the acceptability criteria of their product. Now specialists are being trained up in Colombia and Nespresso is encouraging them to stay.
THE AAA SUSTAINABLE QUALITYTM PROGRAM
Nespresso is committed to seeing 80% of its coffee from Colombia and other countries sourced via this programme by 2013. This is a key aspect of the EcolaborationTM initiative, which is based on a long-term partnership with suppliers working towards three goals: sourcing the highestquality coffee, using an environmentally sustainable model and enabling farming communities to reap the long-term benefi ts. The programme’s specifi cations combine standards from Nespresso and the NGO Rainforest Alliance, a specialist in the challenges of tropical agriculture and creating a culture of sustainability. The initiative is complemented by technical assistance funded by Nespresso. Its advisors consult on a diverse range of issues including coffee-tree growing, setting up natural barriers to protect rivers from pesticides, keeping accurate records for tracking and tracing purposes, and more.
Text : Julien Bouré - Photography : Olivier Gachen