Wilfredo Ule Vargas: Finca Alcatraz and the Meaning of "Relationship Coffee"

Confidence is the foundation of friendship. If we give it, we will receive it.

-Harry E. Humphreys

Fast-forward two weeks…

The truck seemed to gasp as it heaved its heavy frame over the final segment of our 1780-meter journey above sea level. Destination: “Finca Alcatraz”, home of specialty coffee veteran, Wilfredo Ule Vargas.

Finca Alcatraz

Adam Koehler from Sightglass Coffee Roasters and Carlos de Valdenebro the director of Virmax Colombia sat on either side of me. It had been a bumpy hour and a half drive, but the sun was shining over Oporapa. The warmth in the air was a blessing for farmers in the region, as it had been a rainy last few weeks. Excessive rain meant longer drying times for parchment. Longer drying times for parchment meant a lengthier stint between paychecks.

As we rounded the corner, Wilfredo’s house came into view. He was already outside waiting for us. He seemed stoic at first, but Adam had assured me that Wilfredo was a rather funny man. Adam and Wilfredo greeted each other like old friends.

Finca Alcatraz and Sightglass had maintained a healthy and mutually beneficial relationship for the last six years, and it truly showed. Fixed pricing had certainly played a significant role in establishing their relationship. Over the years, it protected Wilfredo from the dangerous volatility of the market, and this safety net encouraged a steadfast effort for sustainable high quality coffee.    

As we walked into the main parlor, his wife and sons welcomed us in. On the wall near the door hung a framed 5th place award in the Colombian Cup of Excellence. Wilfredo was a young man. Still in his early thirties, but his life had been devoted to both farm and family, and it showed.

Beneficio

Adam was excited to see the farm again, and Wilfredo was eager to show it. As we walked through the hallway leading to his beneficio, I was shocked at what I saw. In elegant letters, right there on the wall it stated boldly, “this coffee is grown for Sightglass Coffee Roasters in San Francisco, California.” It was complete with Sightglass’s logo. I had never seen anything like it before. In all the farms I visited this summer, I’d never seen such a level of trust between a farmer and a client. As I stood there mouth still open, I thought, “Wow, this is the actual definition of ‘relationship coffee’.”  

The farm was incredibly clean and organized. His fermentation tanks were spotless, and his drying beds were top of the line. His parchment drying room was expansive and separated by both lot and variety. The physical parchment at our feet wasn’t plentiful, but it was uniform and well colored. Adam seemed impressed. As it turned out, Virmax was in the process of giving a loan to Wilfredo to improve the parchment room’s infrastructure. Soon, the walls would be mechanized, with the ability to lift up and down to regulate temperature. 

Carlos, Wilfredo, Adam, and I, stood for a while just appreciating each other’s company. Wilfredo then said something that similarly surprised me. He was interested in purchasing a drone. He said it would improve efficiency by allowing his pickers to search in the right spots for ripe cherries. He was equally interested in ways to conserve power by using solar energy. He was the first farmer I’d met thus far that mixed both tradition and modern technology. In conjunction, he would be an unstoppable force.

When it was time to make the downhill journey back to Pitalito, there was plenty of time for reflection. As the dirt trails turned to pavement, I thought about Sightglass and Wilfredo. Their connection is a wonderful example of how a farmer and roaster's relationship can go beyond just coffee. Very often, if fostered and cared for correctly, it can lead to friendship.