The cherries at the tip are ready to be picked. The middle ones are just about there. And the greens on the bottom aren't even close.

Coffee is a fruit

Back in 2017, the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy did an online survey of 1000 US adult consumers and found that approximately 7% of them (extrapolated to ~17.3 million) believed that chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Scientific rigor of the survey aside, the complexity of global supply chains means that many Americans don’t know where the things they buy come from– and it’s not just the where/who… it’s also the what/how. It wouldn’t be enough to get chocolate milk at a farmers’ market if the consumer isn’t actually talking with the farmer to find out the process of making the chocolate milk doesn’t necessitate a brown cow. But… this also requires that consumers actually care about the what/how. The reality is, most consumers don’t– especially when they don’t have to.

So it’s never a surprise to me when, in a country where coffee flows freely at Dunkin or McDonald’s or Cumberland Farms without any consideration of what/how coffee is, I tell people that coffee “beans” are actually the seeds of a cherry that grows on a tree (or plant or shrub, as you will), they are in disbelief. After all, if coffee is barely grown in a country such as the US (save for Puerto Rico, Hawai’i, and high-end coffee in select parts of Southern California and the Texas Rio Grande Valley), then how is a consumer to talk with a farmer? And when something can be so cheap and ubiquitous as coffee, why should a consumer care? And yet we know from literature, that consumers still display prosocial behaviors to faraway people.

Last week, my Fulbright travel authorization came through right in the nick of the weekend for me to book a trip out to Zipacón– a municipality about 40km (25mi) outside of Downtown Bogotá, as the crow flies. However, the crow doesn’t really seem to fly to Zipacón, making the trip about 75km (45mi) over a 2.5 hour drive through hills and switchbacks and over some roads that would blow out most cars’ suspensions. Apparently some of the back roads are called “camino real,” (royal roads), which were stones on the paths because royalty/nobility was not allowed to touch the ground. However, because of this, they have protected patrimonial status and cannot be touched– even for the sake of the infrastructure improvement that is needed for farmers to move their harvests around.

Nonetheless, I was excited. This was my first visit to a coffee farm and obviously, one of the reasons I came to Colombia to do research for Fulbright (sometimes though, I think I picked an overachieving sabbatical, and regret not doing a recharging sabbatical). And insofar as farms go, I managed to get to a major producer in the area for the first trip: La Palma y El Tucán.

PyT is an interesting place. There are two farm areas (the other being Las Nubes) across about 18 hectares (~45 acres) and each area has about 10 glamping-style cabins. One has hiking/biking trails and a social hall, where there’s a restaurant and live music on the weekends; the other has an outdoor coffee bar and facilities for coffee education, where week-long courses are offered almost every month on everything from financial management, to agricultural techniques, to training for competition judging. Most certainly, there is debate over the merits of coffee tourism. However, coffee tourism does give consumers a chance to learn about coffee in ways that are completely impossible to do in NCDCs. Plus, though glamping may be overkill, it is still an additional revenue opportunity for the farm. PyT is comprised of about 12 different subbusinesses, giving them quite a bit of opportunity to leverage their founders’ capital. PyT was not always a coffee farm, meaning that it effectively was re-built to what it is today.

I got in around lunch, where I met with Diego, who, along with his wife Lina, runs the hotel. After lunch, I settled into my cabin for a bit. The cabin itself was nice, accentuated by the yellow bourbon trees that surrounded it. Up until this point, the only coffee trees in person I’d ever seen were some sickly-looking trees at the Montreal Biodome, the Copenhagen Botanical Garden, and once at Tiny Arms Coffee– after all, coffee needs the right growing conditions, which usually aren’t in NCDCs, not even in artificially created biomes. So the idea that I was surrounded by healthy, productive coffee trees literally at my cabin door, was a bit awe-some for me.

Inside the cabin, the bathtub had a glass pane that overlooked more coffee trees. And outside the cabin, there was both a balcony and a hammock canopy right over some of the trees. As I watched the sun set over the valley, it was difficult not to feel romanticized inspiration, despite the seriousness of being there for work. The fact the cabins had no wifi and barely any cell service raised the stakes for connecting with the surroundings. I went back to the social hall for a nice dinner (almost all the food at the social hall is sourced from fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy either from PyT or from neighboring farms– and it was all delicious) and got to chat with Diego and Lina for a couple of hours. I went back to my cabin afterward and proceeded to write up some notes from my discussion with them before attempting to sleep outside on the canopy. It didn’t take, so I went inside the cabin for the evening.

The next morning at breakfast, Diego and I got to chat some more and then he drove me down the road to the wet mill for a tour of the farm. Though the coffee trees by the hotel do get fully harvested (they are about a week away from being ready for harvest), a lot of the various microlots are located on the other part of the farm near the wet mill (the operation hub where the cherries are “produced” into beans). Though there was no coffee being produced yet (it’s still kind of in between Colombia’s dual harvest periods), Diego was able to explain their harvest processes and then walk me through the production process at the mill.

The coffee “bean” is a seed of a coffee cherry. In the top left picture, I removed the pulp and the bean from the skin of the coffee cherry. The skin itself can either be dried and used for cascara tea (which is sweet, fruity) or in the case of PyT, they dump it into composting (bottom left picture). There are various ways of processing pulp removal from the bean and that significantly affects the flavor of the coffee. Natural process, the cherries are dried whole on the drying beds (top right picture) and then everything is removed. Honey process, the skin is removed but pulp retained, the cherries are dried and then the pulp removed. Washed process, everything is removed and then the bean is dried. And then there are other additional innovations (like adding microbes to the fermentation tank, removing oxygen from the fermentation tank) that can affect taste.

There were a couple of opportunities where I was able to clarify elements of the business model that reminded me of Amazon/Amazon Web Services. We went from the wet mill to the compost facility that is the foundation of one of their other businesses, Biodiversal. Along the way, we had enriching discussions (several hours of data collection on the day) about the local industry, about their founding of the Neighbors & Crops program (Collaborative Coffee Source has a good write up of the program here), about some of their bioinnovations for coffee processing, and a number of other topics that raised more questions for me than answers (yes, there is far more in my data than I’ve let on here). And then, in the middle of it all, was a cafe amid the mountains, where we brewed some more yellow bourbon before heading back to the hotel for lunch.

At lunch, Lina and I were chatting about reverse traceability and the ability for producers to better understand the consumer side of market, when I heard a couple of guys speaking English (perhaps the first English I’d heard, outside of folks at the university speaking English to me). I started chatting with them and it turned out they were Canadians who happened to find the place, not because they knew anything about coffee, but because they were on holiday in Bogotá, were looking for a good place to stay overnight outside the city, and saw good reviews on TripAdvisor. Being the friendly Canadians they were, they invited me to go on their afternoon tour of the farm (more data collection!) with Lina. This was interesting because it gave me a chance to hear how information about the coffee was presented to “naive consumers.”

By the time this tour was finished, it was about dinnertime. After dinner, I decided to try again to sleep outside on the canopy. I was asleep for about an hour and a half before I somehow saw lightning and headed in before some rain.

Sunday morning, I got up for breakfast, where Diego brewed some really amazing Sidra. We chatted some more, and then the Canadians came by for a coffee tasting before leaving. We got to taste the same coffees from Libertario (PyT’s roasting/cafe arm, of which there are a couple here in Bogotá) as washed (Paz), natural (Libre), and honey-processed (Rock). After some more discussion over lunch, I finally said goodbye to Diego and Lina, thanked them for their all their discussion times, and was driven back the caminos reals, up and down and around, through Cachipay (noting a Nespresso-controlled area further down the road, as well as several farms for sale), back through Zipacón, and eventually getting into downtown Bogotá around 4:30.

Given glamping at PyT, I wasn’t sure how the weekend was going to go– especially since the environment was very much set up to present a “romanticized” version of coffee farming. Nonetheless, as far as data collection went, it was an extremely illuminating weekend (again, there was much more in the data than I’ve posted here). The rest of the week, I had some other things I needed to done (such as moving most of the things in my downtown apartment to my uptown apartment until I’m ready to wholly abandon the downtown one). There were a couple other interviews for data this week. And I got some additional theory readings to start tackling, thanks to my friend Karl Wienhold, and a Spanish-language book for context on Juan Valdez and the FNC.

Meanwhile, I’ve also got to go back and watch the Specialty Coffee Association’s video series on “Coffee Value Assessment” and look into that more, as there are definitely still institutional standards, policies, and power that seem to play substantive roles in how value gets locked up in NCDCs. A couple of years back, I caught an Instagram Story that someone posted during the SCA Expo (not sure if the original poster is still the account owner).

To me, the Story truly highlighted the issue with trickle-down economics as applied to coffee. On the one hand, there are $475 devices that are solely used to precision-automate WDT technique in espresso– all in the quest for the “god shot.” I don’t begrudge this part of value creation. The market for craft desires quality, precision, and consistency. But without the raw material, there is no shot. And I cannot readily find where that consumer side of the industry (gadget makers, roasters, etc) is returning equitable value back to the farmers without whom, there would be no god shot… because the consumers in Seoul, Portland, or Oslo cannot grow coffee. And if the folks who are talking to the farmers know of this fruit and try to get consumers to know of it, but aren’t helping farmers do more than take what they’re given, then something’s amiss for the long term sustainability of our brown drink.





One response to “Coffee is a fruit”

  1. David White Avatar
    David White

    My wife and I toured a coffee farm on the Kona coast of Hawai’i 25 odd years ago and became enlightened (to a degree that exceeds much of the consumers in the U.S.) as to the process that takes place on the coffee plantations. What I’ve never seriously contemplated until now is what you summarize in the closing of this blog. Namely: ”…I cannot readily find where that consumer side of the industry (gadget makers, roasters, etc) is returning equitable value back to the farmers without whom, there would be no god shot…”, which to me is a serious question worth pondering from a strictly consumer level.
    Glamping on a coffee plantation sounds like a unique experience aside from actually working on the plantation with the employees. I wonder if that experience exists anywhere.
    I am vicariously enjoying your sabbatical, Spencer.

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