Colombia 2007 – Bogota

Back when I was in Moscow Jose Arreola asked me if I would be interested in coming down to Colombia to do some barista training and workshops and to help push up their competition standard. I agreed and Anette and I headed down to Bogota, and after a few days in Armenia it was time to head to the Expo where the Colombian National Barista Championship was being held.

Colombian National Barista Competition

Colombian National Barista Competition

The competition is still very young there – this was only its second year. The first thing that happened was that Anette, Salvador and I each jumped onto a competition station and began making drinks for the judges evaluation. After this they asked Fabian (their first champion, who didn’t compete this year), Salvador and I to do an 8 drink presentation to the judges and to the people who were watching what was happening on the stage (the show was open, even though the competition wasn’t going yet).

Salvador doing an 8 drink run

Salvador doing an 8 drink run

It is always nice to watch other baristas work, especially when the pressure is not on. Highly caffeinated we left and headed out for a little food with Anette’s friend Margarita and family and Salvador’s sister and her husband. Bogota seems quite carefully divided into different sections, with restaurants often grouped together. The place has a great atmosphere at night.

The second day was a little more judges calibration and then Anette and I were asked if we wanted to judge – which we of course did! We were both assigned as techs – taking half a day each. I hadn’t tech’d much in the past and you forget how intense it is – how attentive you have to be. I did enjoy the challenge over the 4 days though.

Tech Judging

Tech Judging

People would constantly come up and ask what I thought of the standard, and I was honest. For such a new competition the standard was higher than I expected. Like any competition there is a range of baristas when it comes to preparation and performance. I wish I was tasting more though – I didn’t get many shots from competitors.

On the third day I was told that I would be doing another presentation – this time a full 12 drink presentation, ideally my WBC one. This was quite a challenge and in the end I just scraped by – thanks to Monica who ran all over the show tracking down pots and pans and stoves and some tobacco (I ended up using a cigar). The presentation was quite fun. Again I was on after Fabian and Salvador who were each a lot more prepared than me. I didn’t get to see Fabian’s as I was setting up, though I saw Salvadors – he did the alginate sphere’s though not of coffee – instead it was of a green japanese tea leaf. Very cool! He is a great performer, a very skilled and dedicated barista and one to watch for Copenhagen. He also leant me a load of his stuff which was very kind!

Salvador Benitez creating his signature drink

Salvador Benitez creating his signature drink

What was nice about these three performances is that the judges were often members of the audience invited up to taste the drinks, amongst them were a couple of the baristas who had competed earlier and were hungry to see and learn more.

Once you win the WBC you kind of assume your competition performance days are long behind you, and often this is quite a relief. I tried to relax into my performance though I was keenly aware that I was a bit out of practice and knew next to nothing about the coffee I was using and had had little time to dial it in. Still – I managed to keep the judges entertained:

Keeping the judges entertained

Keeping the judges entertained

After our performances there were photos, a lot of photos. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever been photographed as much as I was in Colombia. It was, in some ways, terrifying. When I am in the UK I pretty much forget that I won in Tokyo, but when I travel to coffee events things like that really remind me. I even got to sign memorabilia for little kids (another one ticked off the list of things to do before I die!).

What’s great about these type of events is the sense of community, meeting so many baristas and communicating in a cumbersome manner in my bad Spanish (I am working on it I promise). Both Anette and I had a lot of fun teching and it was frustrating that we had to leave to catch our plane straight after judging the last of the 6 finalists. We found out by text later that Blanca Bernal (who works for Amor Perfeito – Luis Velez’s company) had won. Her presentation was very solid – and the drinks must have been good as she survived running a little overtime and making a few little errors in the sig drink. I think she will do well in Copenhagen and congratulations to all the finalists – looking at the scores it was very close indeed.

Hopefully I will see Jose and Salvador in Mexico (a man can dream) before I seem them in Copenhagen and I hope to catch up with other baristas soon.

Me, Salvador Benitez and Fabian Marin

Me, Salvador Benitez and Fabian Marin

P.S. Andres Carne de Res is great! A crazy restaurant/club holding 3000 people and a couple of girls with fake plastic breasts who come and sing you a song with a little band, wishing you “Welcome to Colombia!” – as long as someone asks nicely. Thank you Margarita! Thank you to Patti and Julian too for being kind hosts and a lot of fun.

Colombia was great and I really hope I get to go back again and maybe see more of the city, and maybe a little less coffee!

Colombia 2007 – Armenia

Occasionally being jetlagged can be a good thing.

Anette and I arrived into Bogota on Sunday evening, and collected by our host – Luis Velez – and dropped at our lovely hotel with the worrying news that in order to catch the 6.15 flight to Armenia we would need to be up at 4.30am. Thankfully we slept
straight away and the as we were still 5 hours ahead internally it wasn’t too painful to wake up then.

Four of us travelled to Armenia – Anette and I, Martin Velez (Luis’s son) and the Mexican barista champion Salvador Benitez. The flight across is surprisingly short, possibly the shortest I’ve ever had – you only just get up to cruising altitude before you plummet back to earth. In Armenia we were hosted by Jaime Raul from Agrado. Agrado is an extremely interesting place. It is the focal point for the coffees in that region – Quindio – and the local FNC organisation have decided that for Quindio the only way to go is towards quality. So at Agrado – a medium sized farm – they have set up an impressive cupping lab and research facility. I’ve never seen anything like it. Talking with Jaime Raul gives you a very different perspective towards coffee. He dislikes the idea of a coffee chain, a very linear path for coffee to take. He would rather that the ends of the chain met to create a circle through which knowledge is traded and coffee improved. It was great to wander amongst the trees on the farm and taste the cherries at different stages of ripeness (the difference is amazing!) It was important for me to better understand the raw materials and the growing and picking.

Anette amongst the trees

Anette amongst the trees

Jaime Raul also turned my focus onto coffee pickers. The quality of the crop that they pick determines so much, but picking only the ripest cherries is hard work especially when you are paid by weight and there will always be some level of temptation to pick indiscriminately. At Agrado they not only pay a premium for a better quality harvest but try to look after the pickers as much as possible and get them as involved in coffee as possible. I don’t know of anywhere else in the world that provides espresso and cappuccino from a Linea in their lab for free to all the pickers – brewing coffee from the trees they harvest.

La Marzocco Linea at Agrado

La Marzocco Linea at Agrado

We toured the farm a little and then had a beautiful coffee break. They have a large section of bamboo forest and in the middle, down by their water source, they have built a place to sit and have coffee. The lab hosts growers from all over the region – to teach them to cup, to teach more about agronomy and when groups visit they all head down to this patch to drink coffee and talk about what they taste. It is probably the most incredible place I’ve had a cup of coffee.

Coffee break at Agrado farm in Armenia

Coffee break at Agrado farm in Armenia

We spent most of the afternoon cupping – first coffees from other regions, some familiar (like Huila) and some not. We did three flights, and then we played with the espresso machine for a while. One of their staff was practicing as she planned to enter the National Barista Competition this week. After that we cupped more coffees – this time from Quindio and there was some really lovely stuff on the table. I confess it was not a region I knew much about, but I think their drive towards quality is paying off and it is a name that will become well known in the next few years.

Anette and Jaime Raul at Agrado

Anette and Jaime Raul at Agrado

After this the rain came – the huge, torrential rain that we never get in the UK, and we headed back through the washed out roads to our hotel in Armenia. The next morning we went to the local FNC headquarters to talk more with them about driving towards quality in Quindio and to get our reactions to Agrado. From there we headed over to Almacafe to see the parchment coffee being processed. I’d seen something similar in El Salvador but you always learn something new and it is always interesting.

Parchment warehouse at Almacafe

Parchment warehouse at Almacafe

We also cupped in their lab a little too – Anette’s razor sharp tastebuds picking up a little phenol in a couple of cups, though it wasn’t very strong. I wish I was better at defect cuppings! (Something we did a little more of in the afternoon). Having stolen fruit from a tree growing outside the warehouse we headed back to Agrado to cup some more and also see some processing that they do there.

Cherries being weighed and checked at the mill

Cherries being weighed and checked at the mill

I had missed the harvest when I was in El Salvador so this was the first time I had seen processing of coffee cherries up close. As much as you can understand from books and pictures nothing beats seeing unripes float, or watching a pulper squeeze the seeds from the flesh. They do quite a rigorous pulping and selection before the coffee hits the fermentation tanks at Agrado, but the coffee they end up with is great. The are also constantly using their own crop for experiments – be it different drying methods or different shade systems. They log everything with great detail at the cupping table. I find it very exciting and promising for coffee in the future.

Pulping coffee

Pulping coffee

And this was all we had time for – we had to head back to the airport for another bumpy hop across the mountains to Bogota so we could land in more torrential rain! Up next will be a post about the barista competition happening here. I am judging and Salvador and I did some demonstrations but I will post more with pictures soon.

I know I’ve missed a load out but I will try and update when I get the chance!

There are more photos at Flickr or have a browse below:

Off to Colombia tomorrow

Really looking forward to it. Will try and post from there – depending on connection of course. Memory cards emptied, camera batteries charged and a few barista bits and pieces packed.

Hopefully gonna get to a few farms, and I think it is harvest time so lots of delicious cherries for me. (I hope anyway!)

Sorry if I am a little slow on the contact forms/consultancy requests for the next week and a bit.