On a muggy February morning in 2017, Hannah Mercer dipped her toes in the chilly Atlantic waters near Miami Beach and wondered what the next few hours would bring. She was headed to Colombia- a land of myth and mystery for the coffee professional and a destination she’d seen in pictures for years.
With equal parts excitement and anxiety, she imagined getting off the plane in Cali, driving to remote villages in the country’s coffee lands, and finally meeting the faces from the photos. She had an idea of what was to come but not a full picture.
“Internally, I was freaking out a little bit,” she said. “I’m the type of person who draws comfort from knowing what to expect.”
What she didn’t know was that in seven days she’d return with a much a deeper understanding of coffee farming and a greater sense of urgency to “honor the farmers and make good coffee.”
Hannah was traveling with six-person delegation -half of whom were coffee industry professionals from Café Campesino and Sweewater Organic Coffees. Her own experiences hiking up mountains, walking through remote jungles, observing for the first time an active military presence in a major city, battling altitude sickness, and tasting microlots of coffee all grown within a few miles of where she was cupping – would shift her perspective on what it means to work in coffee, as well as live in the United States.
“I thought I worked hard. Then I went to Colombia, and I realized everything I do is easy.”
A regular destination in our coffee travels, Colombia is home to a long-standing producer partner, Fondo Paez. Founded in 1992 by the Nasa people of the Cauca region, Fondo Paez (or Asociación Kwe’sx Uma Kiwe Peykajn Mjinxisa) works to provide a stable income for small-scale farmers while also preserving indigenous culture and farming practices.
Through a cooperative of community-based coffee farmer associations, Fondo’s some 525 members are committed to working together to produce exceptional coffee. (We find it balanced, bright, and consistently delicious.)
Under deep verdant canopies on steep mountainsides, individual farmers work their own lands, taking care of the soil and coffee trees and harvesting ripe, red cherries. Cooperative “technicos,” or “technical trainers,” provide guidance on picking and processing the coffees for optimum quality.
Fondo’s members have final decision-making powers through their votes at general assemblies, but individuals also help manage by serving on the cooperative’s board of directors or on committees that run the group’s production, organization, internal credit, and external marketing functions.
Fondo Paez’s board of directors is currently managed by Yuri Pilliume, a 5-foot, 34-year-old single mom. She is the daughter of one of Fondo’s first board members, and the first female legal representative of the co-op. She met Hannah and her fellow travelers at the Cali airport when they arrived.
A preeminent hostess, Yuri would accompany the group – her guests- for their entire six-day trip through Colombia, at one point even having them stay in her own home. Their journey together started with a two-hour early evening drive past sugar cane fields south of Cali toward Santander de Quilichao. There, the group transitioned from two cars to one extended cab truck, traveling two hours more up mountainous roads, finally arriving in the community of La Placa around 11:30 p.m.
“I’m actually kind of glad the first time I went up Colombia’s mountains was in the dark,” Hannah said, jokingly reminiscing about how beautiful, but steep Colombia’s mountains are.
Once they arrived in La Placa, Hannah got her first taste of Fondo’s hospitality. “We were greeted by food and coffee. I don’t generally drink coffee that late at night, but I wasn’t going to refuse it,” she said. “It was one of the best cups of coffee I’ve ever had, and it was brewed in a sock. Maybe it was the altitude, or the sleep deprivation, but it was such a good cup of coffee.”
Fondo’s story, combined with Colombia’s own myth of breathtaking beauty and coffee bounty, which encompasses everything from the 1950’s fictional Juan Valdez coffee farmer to modern-day cups of excellence, were in the back of Hannah’s mind when she enjoyed her second cup of coffee the next morning, overlooking a huge green valley that was framed by cloud-cover and dotted with small houses and little, moving cows. It was her first glimpse of Colombia in the daylight. “I felt like I was in a movie,” she said.
Later that day the visiting group offered Fondo Paez’s cupping team a Le Nez du Café aroma set. A set of concentrated essential oils that have aromas often found in coffee, the Le Nez set helps coffee professionals calibrate with one another and look for specific scents in their own coffees. With such a tool, producers can better understand what cuppers mean when they say they smell notes of “vanilla” or “maple syrup,” in a coffee, for example.
Identifying the preferred flavor profile of American coffee buyers was a key point of interest for Fondo’s cuppers. “We got a lot of questions about what American buyers were looking for in their coffees,” Hannah said. “It was really neat to be able to give them a tool that would help them understand that.
The group then cupped six coffees from nearby communities. Hannah noticed the differences in the coffees and noted how geographically close together the farms were but how different the coffee flavors were- a concept that she knew was possible but had never really experienced first-hand.
“A recurring theme for me on this trip was ‘you think you know [coffee], but you really have no idea.’”
By the time Hannah was cupping with Fondo Paez, she already knew a lot about coffee. She had worked with Café Campesino for more than two years. She had already received her Barista Level 1 and 2 certifications and was just a class away from becoming an Authorized Specialty Coffee Association Trainer, an elite training distinction that allows its license-holders to train coffee professionals according to the Specialty Coffee Association’s globally recognized standards.
But there was more to learn. Hiking up hills in a Colombian jungle gave her a first-hand look at the logistical hurdles farmers face. “Travel time is really an issue for farmers that isn’t an issue for us. It doesn’t take us two hours to go five miles,” she acknowledged. “You really have to be intentional about travel there,” she said, noting that motorbikes and walking were the primary forms of transport on the mountains, and motorbikes might not even be an option if heavy rains washed out local roads. “I can’t remember the last time weather kept me from working.”
The predominance of community support and collaboration among co-op members was another theme from the trip. The concept was best illustrated when the group had hiked for two hours through the mountains of Jambaló to reach La Colonia Nueva community. In the community, there was an educational farming plot that was used to train co-op members on tree pruning, fertilizer application and pest control. The plot was used for demonstrations and was not owned by any one individual, but it was clearly being maintained by the group.
“No one really lived there, but people kind of pulled together to make things happen,” she said of the site. “There was always a sense of community in everything they did. They understood ‘we’ve got to have more than ourselves to get things done.’”
Coffee consumers can be a part of the community, too. When Hannah and the group met coffee farmers in the La Cima community who had never met their customers before, the moment was especially poignant.
“Coffee is a faceless thing for consumers, but we don’t think about the fact that for farmers, it’s also a faceless thing for them, too. They are so far removed from someone drinking coffee in a coffee house in Georgia. To be able to close that gap for them was really rewarding. And to be able to thank them for their work was really rewarding.”
When the trip was finally over and Hannah had returned to the U.S.- the land of high-thread-count sheets, hot running water and easy logistics- she was filled with a deep sense of gratitude.
“It was all very humbling. It gave me a new sense of drive and purpose for my work, because if I’m not doing my job right, I’m not representing them well.”
Hannah is currently offering coffee classes for professionals and beginners. She remains in regular contact with Fondo’s cupping team and Yuri. Sign-up for one of her classes, or ask her about her Colombia trip: firstname.lastname@example.org
Purchase Fondo Paez’s coffee in our online store.