Diafanor atop his farm "La Divisia"

The Cost of Specialty: Exploring Specialty Coffee with Cofinet in Quindio, Colombia

"Our trip to Quindio is one we’ll be processing and thinking deeply about for years to come, but experiencing specialty coffee from an entirely different point of view was both inspiring and thought-provoking. Frankly, the average age of coffee farmers in Colombia is 57 years old and the influx of new, younger farmers is at an all-time low. Additionally, every interaction we had with producers was consistently wrapped up in themes quite contrary to the current pace and expansion of coffee in the States. It made us ask ourselves the question, “Maybe specialty coffee isn’t built for scale?”

A view from the top of Jardines del Eden

“I find great satisfaction in my work and sharing my coffees. As I told you, I really like everything about my job. But the favorite part is to see the work finished and that it turned out well. I wouldn’t trade my farm or my life for anything, it makes me happy.” - Leonid Ramirez

Leonid Ramirez

Last month we took a week-long trip to visit our friends at Cofinet in Quindio, Colombia.

Night Swim’s first trip to visit coffee producing partners was meaningful, sobering, and inspiring. We spent our days tasting coffees, visiting coffee farms, and spending quality time with Juan, Maria, and Ana. There’s so much I could say about our time in Quindio, but I’d like to simply highlight our trip and make some observations. I’ll leave the conclusions up to you, reader, but I think making an honest effort to think deeply about our current coffee culture would do us well and honor the people that dedicate their lives and resources to growing these tiny fruits that we depend on so heavily.

And it goes without saying - my view is a narrow one and my purpose is specific. Myriad viewpoints exist that one could analyze specialty coffee production from, however, for our purposes I’d like to isolate this one singular experience in Quindio and allow that perspective to shape this discussion. In other words, specialty coffee is unbelievably complex and multi-faceted. Rather than attempting to bring the whole topic into critique, I’d rather share an experience simply as an experience. What might be observable in Quindio, and perhaps Colombia as a whole, may not be relevant in other coffee growing regions or for other people.

Coffees during anaerobic fermentation at La Pradera

Welcome to Quindio -

We stepped off the plane onto the tarmac in Armenia, Colombia and were immediately struck by the landscape. The sheer scale and beauty of the valley we found ourselves in was breathtaking: rolling mountains in the background, soaring palms, tropical birds in varied song, and pillowy clouds listing lazily across the crystal blue sky.

Juan, the director of sales for the US market and our point of contact, picked us up from the airport and we started winding our way through the mountainous cityside. We stopped for a late lunch at a traditional restaurant a few minutes from La Pradera, Cofinet’s processing center and our home for the week. Cofinet is owned and operated by Felipe Arcila, a fourth-generation coffee farmer that has fostered his family’s generational investment in coffee production into a well-resourced, agile, and high quality international coffee importer. La Pradera is home to Cofinet’s headquarters, drying facility, fermentation center, and well appointed accommodations for visitors.

La Pradera’s grounds are meticulously cared for, lush with citrus trees, hundreds (and I mean hundreds) of brightly colored birds, and tropical vegetation. The sight seemed almost unreal - greens so deep and full with colors so vivid it’s hard to describe without making it seem artificial. It seemed unbelievable that we were afforded the privilege of spending the coming days there. What a treat and an honor.

Coffee cherries ripening at Jardines Del Eden
Hand sorting fresh coffee cherries

Monday -

Monday morning arrived as the sun rose over the Andes mountains. At 6am the workers arrive at La Pradera and begin tending to fermentations, managing coffees in various stages of drying, and hand sorting fresh cherries from Cofinet’s farms or their coffee growing partners throughout Colombia. After breakfast, we walked down to their quality control lab and cupping room. Juan and Camilo, Cofinet’s QC manager, had a cupping table already prepared for us. Featured on the table were blender equivalent coffees, Cofinet calls them Reserve, Regional, and Regional Plus lots. Most of these coffees are purchased in full cherry from producing partners across the country. Cofinet hand picks these producing groups and pays premiums over the C price and Colombia’s internal price differentials.

After cupping the blend lots and planning for Night Swim’s blenders for 2024, we ate lunch and began the steep and winding drive to Cofinet’s crown jewels, the Jardines Project. We walked through large portions of Jardines del Eden and Jardines del Encanto. Jardines is the Spanish word for “garden,” and to say we walked through the gardens of Eden and Charm would be an understatement. Soaring from 1900 to 2150 meters above sea level, the Jardines Project overlooks Pijao, Colombia and its surrounding countryside. Here they grow both Red and Yellow Gesha, Java, Pink Bourbon, Improved Typica, Sidra, and Striped Bourbon. As we walked, Cofinet’s European Sales Director, Santiago, explained the history of the farms, detailed the varieties grown there, and shared fresh cherries off of the trees. 

The farms at Jardines are quite unique in that they focus their efforts on quality and not quantity. You’ll notice that the coffee trees are planted unusually far apart with the grass and underbrush meticulously maintained to accentuate each tree's ability to grow freely and access life-giving nutrients from its soil. Jardines del Eden was planted first and as Cofinet grew in size and their high-end coffees grew in demand, they purchased Jardines del Encanto and began their work anew. Encanto is roughly double the size of Eden, and was previously home to droves of cattle. With nutrient rich and undepleted soil, Encanto sits within a microcosm of perfect growing conditions for truly delicious and singular coffee. 

Wilder with his favorite variety, Chiroso
Greeted by Wilder

Tuesday -

On Tuesday, we began our day cupping through a couple of tables of washed microlots and estate coffees from Cofinet’s long standing producing partners. A good portion of these coffees were grown on the farms that we planned on visiting later that day. Tasting these delicious coffees post-processing and then seeing those very cherries on thriving coffee plants just hours later was an experience that meaningfully connected the fruits to the hands that cultivate them.

After the cupping session, we loaded up the truck and headed across the county to the adjacent farms of Santa Monica, Casa Negra, and Maracay. Nestled at around 1300 MASL, these farms cultivate an astonishing amount of coffee, including Castillo, Pink Bourbon, Gesha, Papayo, and Chiroso. Witnessing the meticulous care and attention given to these farms, we were struck not only by the diversity of coffee varieties but also by the sheer dedication of the approximately 70-80 pickers who arrive during the harvest season. 

We got to meet our new friend Wilder, our guide and a caretaker of these farms for 40 years. Wilder greeted us as he hopped off his motorcycle with a machete swaying on his belt and a huge smile on his face. One thing was immediately clear: this man loves what he does and the crops he cares for. His energy and connection to the land were both inspiring and a reminder that specialty coffee comes from people. It isn’t the elevation, the soil, the varieties, or the processing that makes coffee special. Without the human beings that dedicate their lives to caring for each ripening cherry, coffee as we know and love it simply wouldn’t exist.

We strolled through each of the three farms with Wilder, asking him questions about the coffees, his experiences, and what things he enjoys most about his life on these farms. What struck us most was his flippant acknowledgment that he’d been caring for coffees for only 40 years. His attitude was one of humility and child-like excitement that he had so much yet to learn.

Diafanor atop is farm, "La Divisia"
Cherries being hand picked
Diafanor enjoying a cup of one of his coffees

Wednesday -

Mid-week arrived faster than we’d like, but brought with it some really special opportunities. We began the day in the cupping lab as usual - but today was a treat! We spent the morning cupping through samples of naturally processed exotic varieties from the Jardines project and a select few other producers that grow some truly remarkable and singular coffees. Anaerobic Javas, various Geshas and Pink Bourbons ornamented the table as Juan walked us through their origins and how they were processed. 

After we wrapped up our lab session and ate a quick lunch of roasted chicken, potato soup, and avocado salad, we made our way back up the now-familiar road to the Armenian mountains where much of Quindio’s coffee production takes place. Today was a unique treat, however, as we climbed up and up to the home and farm of Diafanor Ruiz. Diafanor is a very established and world renown coffee farmer and environmentalist. His farm, La Divisia, is situated at about 1800 meters above sea levels and is home to incredibly steep swaths of Castillo, Una Cafe, Red Gesha, Pink Bourbon, Sidra, and Popayon.

Diafanor is a singular man, focused purely on the privilege he has of caring for La Divisia, the people it employs, and the coffees it produces. Diofanor’s commitment to both the coffee and the people working on his farm was palpable. The farm not only produces stellar coffees but also reflects Diofanor’s dedication to their community. 

La Divisia employs double the hands a farm of its size typically needs because Diafanor feels like it is his divine calling to share his wealth, his resources, and his property with as many people as he possibly can. As we explored the reaches of his farm, Diafanor introduced us to every person we saw, sharing their name and how long they’d been a part of his team. Everyone greeted him with a warm smile and seemed to truly care for the work they were doing. What struck us most was Diafanor’s commitment to growing deep and not wide. He explained to us that his coffees sell out almost immediately, and his demand is ever-increasing. However, he has no intention to scale at an aggressive rate. He makes decisions intentionally, taking every potential consequence into consideration and acting only when he deems fit. Throughout our three hour visit, he kept repeating that he doesn’t want to grow fast, instead that he intends to grow long. He knows that specialty coffee production is a far-sighted endeavor and is not tempted to chase quick trends or suddenly shift his production rhythms at the beck and call of others.

After our hike through La Divisia, we spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying time with him, his family, and the score of dogs and cats that inhabit his home. We got to brew one of his coffees for him, roasted by Juan Camillo for his cafe in Armenia, and walk around his property fawning over the flowers, succulents, and greenery. The implicit value of La Divisia painted clearly the implicit value of specialty coffee. It is slow, intentional, human, and remarkably complex. I think it’s easy for us to overlook this amidst our American context where delicious coffee is readily available in such a way that might encourage us to forget that high-end coffee is a luxury and not a commodity proffered to us to satiate our early morning caffeine deficiency.

Evan and Leonid meeting for the first time
Leonids Coffee Cherry Fermentation
Lunch with Leonid
Leonid Ramirez showing us his drying coffees

Thursday -

In what seemed like a blink of an eye, Thursday’s sun rose over the Andes and brought with it a day we will never forget. We started the day tasting through samples of Cofinet’s crown jewels - their competition level coffees and their fruit maceration experiments. These coffees are expensive, incredibly complex, and truly singular in profile. The competition coffees are wildly small lots, meticulously hand-sorted, fermented, and processed with only the highest levels of care and attention to detail. We also tasted coffees co-fermented with various fruits and yeasts, including ginger, mandarin oranges, peach, and our particular favorite, the native Colombian fruit, Lulo.

As we wrapped up our cupping, the Cofinet team had a surprise for us. They had planned a surprise visit to a farmer we have worked with and love, Leonid Ramirez. We bought coffee from Leonid for the first time in 2023 and it turned out to be a highlight of the entire year for us. Leonid’s farm is way, and we mean, WAY up in the mountains of Quindio. The journey took us a good two and half hours and required us to park in the town of Genova and hire a Willy (think an old Jeep) to take us to the top where Leonid and his family were waiting for us. When we arrived, Leonid’s wife had prepared a delicious lunch for us that we enjoyed with their family as we got to know each other and hear briefly about what Leonid had been working on. We also got to give Leonid a bag of his coffee that we roasted. His eyes lit up and he asked if he could brew some now for us to enjoy. Traditionally, coffee in Colombia  is brewed by boiling the grounds in water on the stove and adding Panella, a raw brown-sugar. We stood around and enjoyed the coffee while I got to speak at length with Leonid about why he is a coffee farmer, and what keeps him excited and motivated to keep learning, experimenting, and caring for his farm.

He said this, “I find great satisfaction in my work and sharing my coffees. As I told you, I really like everything about my job. But the favorite part is to see the work finished and that it turned out well. I wouldn’t trade my farm or my life for anything, it makes me happy.”

Leonid is young, as coffee farmers in Colombia go, and has the unique privilege to grow, pick, process, and dry his coffee at his home. This is a relatively unusual occurrence, as most coffee farmers sell their coffees while the seeds are still in cherry. Leonid’s facilities are largely funded by roasting partners in Australia and New Zealand that have a partnership with Cofinet and Leonid that provides Leonid a profit sharing model based on each pound sold by these roasters. With that extra income, Leonid was able to construct a parabolic drying facility, fermentation tanks, and processing equipment in order to have full creative control over his coffees.

As we were finishing our tour, Leonid had one more surprise to show us. He brought us upstairs into what we might call an attic, where he had built another drying facility covered by roofing and retractable tarps. We brought us to the exterior facing wall and said “watch this!” He rolled up the tarp and unveiled what might be the most magical view in all of Quindio. From the ledge of his attic drying room, you could see the entire panoramic landscape of the mountains his farm is situated amidst. As we sat there, perched on a mountainside 6500 feet above sea level, I think I understood what Leonid meant. Why trade any of this?

Leonid values the slow, the intentional, and the meaningful things in life. He spends his days caring for his coffees and his family while being reminded of the pure privilege and beauty of his position every single time he lifts his eyes up from his work. Specialty coffee is special to Leonid and he goes to great lengths to make sure that feeling is captured in the work he does and the fruit that he produces.

The steep incline of La Divisia

Reflections -

Our trip to Quindio is one we’ll be processing and thinking deeply about for years to come, but experiencing specialty coffee from an entirely different point of view was both inspiring and thought-provoking. Frankly, the average age of coffee farmers in Colombia is 57 years old and the influx of new, younger farmers is at an all-time low. Additionally, every interaction we had with producers was consistently wrapped up in themes quite contrary to the current pace and expansion of coffee in the States. It made us ask ourselves the question, “Maybe specialty coffee isn’t built for scale?”

After all, we call it specialty coffee for a very particular reason - it is a luxury and a privilege. However, specialty coffee is becoming ubiquitous in our context. These days, you’d be hard pressed to go to a city where there isn’t at least one specialty cafe or roaster sourcing, roasting, and serving high-end coffees really well. On one hand, this is an amazing thing. Producers from all over the world are accessing markets never before possible and selling coffees to excited consumers all over the world. Yet on the other hand, how sustainable is the rampant growth and demand for coffees that boast ever-increasing quality standards? What was once lauded as special and singular is now demanded as commodity and convenience. Is it possible to hold both luxury and convenience in a balance that equitably represents and provides for coffee producers while meeting increasing volume and quality demands? Truthfully, we don’t know, but perhaps these are questions we should be asking more often.

One thing is certain though, at the very least we should take cues from our producing partners across the globe and think critically about how and why we source these special coffees. Are we setting ourselves up to make decisions that facilitate deep and slow growth? Are we making investments in our processes and our people that will matter ten or twenty years down the road? Are we making quantity demands that outshoot the boundaries of careful and meticulous coffee production? My fear is that in our well-intentioned endeavors to grow specialty coffee and share it with the masses that we will lose the very thing that makes it special in the first place, real human beings infusing their hearts and souls into their coffees and communities.

Truthfully, specialty coffee’s production and consumption must grow together and at the pace set for us by the people whose life's work is to cultivate these crops for our enjoyment.

Photography by Emily Lyons-Wood

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