Back in December of last year, when things were still Hunky Dory, I travelled to the highlands of the Southern Colombian Andes. There deep in the interior, lies the province of Inza, or as the locals call it La Tierra Adentro (The Land Above). This magical place is ideal for growing coffee. There is essentially always a harvest taking place, as the conditions are very consistent year round. This is due its altitude, close proximity to the equator, the rich volcanic soils, and other less tangible assets that are inherent in the magic of this place.
The goal for this trip was to connect with the leadership and members of Asorcafe, the producer association (CO_OP) of Inza. We have been buying coffee from Asorcafe, through Red Fox Coffee Merchants, for each of the past 3 years, since the beginning of Color. Additionally, we were to participate in the harvest “Brigada” or windfall buying rounds, in which we taste through upwards of 60 pre-screened samples in order to identify the top 5 coffees and award them price rewards and recognition.
This was my first time to Inza. One can get there one of two ways: from the Huila capital La Plata or from the Cauca capital Popayan. During the rainy season, both ways can be very tricky and dangerous to navigate due to landslides, mud, and general sketchiness. Luckily, it was December and it was at the tail end of most producers' main harvest, the dry season. The truck ride up was beautiful and bumpy, but generally uneventful. The main highlight being the vistas above the famous Rio Paez, which flows all the way to the Carribean Sea from Central Colombia.
Upon arriving in Pedgregal, it was time for introductions and cold beverages. Aleco, head of Red Fox, has been coming here once a year for almost 20 years, and know everyone very well. Also on the trip was Sweetleaf Coffee Roasters out of New York City, who were participating on the trip for the 5th time. It’s always nice travelling with true coffee professionals, not only for their incredible knowledge of the area, but things always just go more smoothly. If you’ve ever travelling in South America, you know that things can move very slowly or simply change unexpectedly, and you have to know how to react and roll with the flow.
The tasting format was set up around 5 sessions in which we sampled and evaluated 10-12 coffees during said session. When tasting these fresh coffees, one has to have a general understanding that fresh coffees taste differently than coffees a few months off of harvest. Generally, the fresh coffees taste less articulate and a bit nuttier than they will do down the road. Once you can look past this however, the really great coffees will jump off the table and stand out even more than normal. The process of evaluation involves blind tasting the coffees and giving them scores out of 100 points based on sweetness, mouthfeel, flavors, and vibrance. The range usually ends up between 83-84 for the lower scoring coffees and 88-89 for the highest scoring coffees. While this range sounds small, the coffees in the upper echelon of this range are hugely different and are memorable cups. Below is a photo of this tasting round about to begin:
The coffees from this area show a unique juiciness, that is complemented by a range of fresh clean fruit flavors and topped off with deep sweetness. Red Fox proclaims them as the most “complete” coffees in Latin America. That is, they aren’t lacking in any category. I am inclined to agree. Once you start drinking them and then try something else, you may find something that is missing. We just love sharing these coffees with you all because of this!
After getting through the line-up, we definitely had some stunners and some very delicious everyday drinkers. The quality was lovely and everyone was excited. In particular, I scored 2 coffees at 89 points, extremely high. They were laden with tropical fruit flavors and jumped off the table. The rest of the crew agreed and these were selected as the top two coffees. I also selected a couple 87 point coffees to bring back. One of them was from producer Eibar Rojas, who as it turned out was also the manager of the local collection center, where the farmers bring their parchment (unhulled coffee). Before the awards ceremony, there was just enough time for a visit to Eibar’s farm!
Eibar was excited I loved his coffee and was stoked to show off his operation. We travelled by dirt bike, 20 minutes up the road to the entrance to Eibar’s house and farm. He lives on the property full time (not always the case on some small plots) and his house is the center of the operation, with the drying taking place on the second floor of his house! He grows a few varieties of coffee plants here across several different plots. Mainly he grows yellow bourbon, caturra, colombia, and a small percentage of castillo. His two dogs watch over the property and bounce through the coffee trees like tigers through the jungle. The views are simply stunning. We hope to buy Eibar’s coffee for years to come.
Finally we headed back to the Asorcafe HQ for the final award’s ceremony and party. As this represents a whole year’s worth of work, it is a big deal for the producers. They are paid premiums based on what their coffee is scored. The pressure is on to get everything right! The ceremony kicked off with Aleco from Red Fox giving a beautiful speech about his commitment to the producers. He’s been working in the zone for so long and with increased competition in the area and more importers trying to poach the best producers, he remains as steadfast as ever. We are here to support that commitment!
As for the coffees, the two ones that I loved, I was able to purchase. As it turns out those were both the two winning coffees! We secured both lots. The 1st place lot was from Maria Josephina Diaz and the second place lot was from Basilio Pillimue. We will be releasing both of these coffees in the coming month as Artist Reserve’s. We also purchased coffees from Eibar Rojas and Walter Penna, all through Red Fox, who handle the logistics for us. Finally, we built a custom Inza lot. This will serve as an approachable yet complex regional lot. A model for what coffee from Inza can be. We will offer this a little later in early summer.
Below is a photo of me and Maria. We’re so happy to be able to share her first place coffee with you. Look for it in June! In the meantime, check out our Barista Reserve Walter Penna lot and our “Blaze On” Moxie Collaboration offering from Eibar Rojas. Wonderful examples of Inza coffee.
Cheers and Adelante!