Here I sit in Denver International Airport, which harkens me back to my last visit here – a redirected, winter storm transfer from Dallas while trying to return home from my first trip to Colombia. Those are some sweet and fresh memories. Colombia, number two on the world volume production specialty list, really was a trip!

Can I get a good cuppa anywhere in an airport? SBC, another undercover version of SBUX, which both, with their bitter, over-roasted, mass produced brews – suck, is all that’s around. Looks like the local guys have been forced out by the big pockets. It’s really a shame for those of us who prefer GOOD COFFEE.

Invited by Willem Boot to serve as a cupper on a new appelation developement project in January ‘07, this trip promised to be special. Colombia coffees, although showing varied character, mostly through enhanced acidity from select production regions, such as Huila, are familiar and appealing to me for their mild, caramelly-sweetness, making them a very accessible and enjoyable cup any time of the day. Arriving in Medellin, the fashion capital of South America, we stayed the first night in a hotel, came together as a group and departed the next day for a mountain-road journey up to Antioquia.

Antioquia is a smallish coffee producing region located at 2000+ meters SW of Medellin. We were guests of the largest private coffee grower in Colombia, Don Ernesto Garces and his daughter, Christina, who operates their specialty division, Cafe Montes Y Colinas. Our escorts included several federal army and private armed guards, there with us to insure our safety should any unwelcome trouble arise (foreigners are still a hot kidnapping commodity for FARK, the right-wing rebels, who would rather force the cutlivation of Coca on local farmers, than see them do well by coffee).

As we traveled steep ascents and descents I came to realize first-hand why the Colombia pro cyclists are such strong climbers. These passes make Tahoe’s Kingsbury Grade and Ebbet’s Pass seem minor in gradient and length. Locals on the commute, whose only manner of transportation is the bicycle, would hang onto the rear of slower traveling trucks for miles-long, steep tows up these passes, letting go on top for a bomber ride down the other side.

We arrive on a clear and sunny Sunday afternoon in the provincial town of Concordia, where we are welcomed as esteemed guests and treated to a special coffee festival parade, complete with mules ladened with everything from building materials to coffee seedlings to green coffee bags, precisely balanced to keep the mules moving. (Load a mule lopsided and it will stand firm, going nowhere.) Local beauties adorn village floats brimming with Concordia’s numerous and profuse flower varieties.
Our team of cuppers consisted of eleven people from several countries: USA, the Netherlands, Panama, Austria and Colombia. Hotels were not an option in Concordia. In groups of three, we were led to different residences, where we were to be hosted by families of coffee professionals associated with the Garces family. Meals were prepared by a loving group of ladies and served in one of their humble homes, which was directly adjacent to, and used to be a section of, the town’s central church.

With Colombia’s coffee production and export being primarily controlled by the FRC, Federal Coffee Control, the program we were here to participate in was to assist the farmers with recognizing and rewarding quality production of “heirloom” varietals, which included caturra, catuai and bourbon and inspire those not currently focusing on higher-end production, which would allow a break-away from government-controlled cultivation of heavier, commercially familiar cultivars, cattimor, which are then mass-blended prior to export to provide Colombia’s well-known “richest coffee” in the world, never to be recognized for any “extraordinary” unique cup character.

The next five days consisted of blind cupping sessions held in a local schoolroom – with a view (see photo) – experiencing coffees with such extraordinary forward flavor characteristics such as red fruit, passion fruit, high-tone-lemony citrus, cacao, Jasmine flower, and coffee blossom.

Nights consisted of cultural events, indigenous and traditional dances, music performances by local youth orchestra and singing by the local youth choir. Don Ernesto would invite us to his “office” inside a local market, where our glasses were never empty of local lager beer or the region’s locally-produced drink.

Several afternoons trips were made to different parts of the region to experience the farms, their residents and delicious and bountiful local meals. In addition to mules as the choice for spedition, horses are definitely a local passion. The Paso Fino Colombiano, a gaited and beautiful horse, were in great numbers and offered quite a spectacle for us gringos.

As I sip my favorite Colombian coffee I am taken back to those sweet and special days we spent in Concordia. Thank goodness for Colombians!

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