A Bean Counter's Bean Encounter

Having spent the majority of my professional working career in accounting departments, my opportunities for work-related trips tend to be few and far between.  So when I heard that there was an opening on an upcoming origin trip to Colombia I quickly offered to fill the spot.  I figured it was an ambitious request that would likely be shot down, but I was very happily surprised when “the powers that be” at Virmax and Caravela not only said I could go, but should go!  Before I knew it, an email with the trip’s agenda was in my inbox and a few short weeks later I was on a plane to Colombia for the first time ever.

I spent the first couple days at the Virmax Colombia office getting to know the Colombia-based team and the evenings getting to know the streets and shops of Bogota.  It was great to visit the office and put a face to all the names of people I had spoken with on the phone.   They are a fantastic group of people, and I highly recommend stopping in for a visit if you ever find yourself in Bogota.  

Tuesday night I met up with Badi, Jake, and Robby in preparation for our trip to Huila.  Jake is from Novo Coffee in Denver and Robby is from Merit Coffee in San Antonio. Wednesday morning we boarded a plane and were off.  

The Pitalito airport built in 1978, with the renewed direct flight from Bogota to Pitalito, Huila

The Pitalito airport built in 1978, with the renewed direct flight from Bogota to Pitalito, Huila

We were above the clouds for the majority of the flight, but when we began our descent we dropped below the clouds to see the stunning Huila valley surrounded by the cordillera central to the west and the cordillera oriental to the east.  We did a slow loop over what looked like it could be either an airport runway or an old unfinished road. We then swooped down and arrived at the airport at Pitalito.   

A 5 minute drive later we were at the Virmax warehouse.   We were greeted by a friendly staff of employees who showed us around the facility.  After a quick lunch, we were back in the truck heading up into the surrounding sierra to visit our first coffee farm.  Before the trip, I remember looking at the itinerary and wondering how we would possibly fit all the listed activities in.  I quickly learned that it can be done, and is done, by running a very efficient and timely agenda with no extra time to spare.

Jake Brodsky and Matt Kolb, about to get dusty

Jake Brodsky and Matt Kolb, about to get dusty

Jake and I offered to sit in the back of the truck on the way to our first visit to a coffee producer.  Sitting in the back gave us some time to take in the surrounding views and watch the world of Colombia pass by.  It also left us with a nice layer of dust on our clothes by the time we arrived at the farm.

The Guarnizo family in Tarqui, Huila

The Guarnizo family in Tarqui, Huila

Upon arrival at the farm we were greeted by the Guarnizo family, who belong to the El Paraiso growers’ association. The property had a phenomenal view back down to the valley, which must have been close to 3000 ft below.  Robby had recently purchased coffee from this association and was excited to meet the people behind the coffee.  They were gracious hosts and brought us coffee and lemonade before taking us on a tour of their farm.  

After the tour, I got out the Virmax drone for its inaugural flight on an origin trip.  The highlight of the flight was seeing the family’s surprise when the drone went straight up 100 feet and began flying around their property taking photos!  While the flight was a great success, the film was average at best - I don’t expect to be hired anytime soon for my drone flying skills. I did get some fun photos of the farmers from the air, like the one below.

Drone view of the Guarnizo home.

Drone view of the Guarnizo home.

After the flight Robby got out his computer and showed the family the video from the drone.  He also showed them pictures of coffee bags Merit had created for their coffee.  It was clear the family was very appreciative of the visit and loved meeting the people who purchase their coffee.  

Robby Grubbs showing the Guarnizos Merit's new El Paraiso bag design

Robby Grubbs showing the Guarnizos Merit's new El Paraiso bag design

The following day we set out early to visit another Virmax warehouse in La Plata, which is a scenic 3 hour drive from Pitalito.  Upon arrival in La Plata we teamed up with our Virmax counterparts for a cupping of several coffees from the region.  These cuppings are valuable to the Virmax employees in Colombia, because they provide an example of what coffee characteristics purchasers are looking for when they cup coffee.

Yonger Chaux, the Virmax quality analyst in La Plata, Huila

Yonger Chaux, the Virmax quality analyst in La Plata, Huila

After the cupping we set out to visit the coffee farm of Jhon Freddy Lizcano, who is part of the San Sebastian del Poniente coffee.  When we got to the farm, we were again cordially greeted by their family.  The farm offered equally incredible scenery as the prior day’s visit.  The family also exuded the same pride for their coffee.

Jhon Freddy Lizcano showing some ripe cherries on his farm in La Plata, Huila

Jhon Freddy Lizcano showing some ripe cherries on his farm in La Plata, Huila

Both of the visits to the coffee producers’ farms were major highlights for me.  It is amazing to see how simply these people live, and how proud and content they are.  They have been lucky enough to be born in one of the most beautiful regions in the world.  I left the trip feeling pleased in the knowledge that through spending a little extra on quality coffee from small producers, I’m contributing to the farmers’ ability to continue to live on their farms, with their families, in the beauty of Colombia.  I am very appreciative to have had the opportunity to visit Colombia and learn about the coffee process as a whole, especially with such a fun group of people.   

Saludos!

Matt Kolb