Sweet Maria's Home Coffee Roasting

...and other things I learned in Colombia this year

Welcome my friend. Please come on in. Sit down. No! Not on the sofa! Over there... that's better

I see you too are looking for a rich, smooth cup of coffee. Perhaps you have heard of the loco vato Juan Valdez(TM), and his satisfying, mountain-grown coffee, the richest in the world. Grab life by the beans™, my friend, go grope some Colombian coffee!

Unfortunately I cannot offer you any at this time … but I can ramble on and on about my trip to Colombia in February 2005, to travel to the coffee region of Bucaramanga, and my unexpected viaje a Manizales for the Taza de Excelencia.

But a warning to you, my gringo compadre. Colombia is a dangerous place, brimming with kidnappers, thieves, drug lords, and Americans who prattle about nothing … nothing at all! Beware the Gringo Prattler! I am one of them, as you will see quite soon. The text below is my travelogue, more rambling than usual. Read it if you want, ignore it otherwise. You can also simply check out the pictures and captions. They don't correspond to the travelogue. It's up to you what you want to do ... but hark, I hear the wild chango calls, so let us depart now, on our adventure to enchanting, mystical Colombia!!!

OK, wait, back up a bit.

A trip to coffee lands starts four days before the plane departs the gate. It is preceded by tremors of fear, not about missing flights, stomach flu, language gaps, or pickpockets. No, it is a vague and general fear of being swept off my path, like a hamster running his little habit trail, by an avalanche of unfinished tasks that clutter the already-messy brain of the guy-who-went-to-art-school-but-ended-up-running-a-coffee-business. That’s me, Thompson Owen, coffee doofus of Sweet Maria’s. If you see an email from George, that’s me too, my alias that protects me like a cardboard box against that overwhelming avalanche. I am used to it, it has been avalanching for 5 years.

One response to these pangs of fear is to do as much work as possible in those 4 days, find a home for orphaned ideas, color in the sketches, turn note cards into essays. If I forget the thesis, it will return 6 months later, transformed, monstrous, having been ignored for so long. To-do lists are simply the surface of a deeply repressed undercurrent. It’s like mice: if you see one, it’s just the stand in for 10 hiding behind the wall. Yes, I am neurotic.

So I write a coffee review for that indescribable, soft Hawaiian offering, I upload those pictures I took of the Technivorm and flush out the generic corporate ones, I write the FAQ to fix the loose iRoast chaff collector lid and photoshop some arrows in the pictures to point out the offending clips. These are my little monsters, my mundane little monsters. I am sure you, dear reader, have yours too.

Each little task adds up, minutes into hours. Lists get re-made, I get testy from too much work, too many lists. While I knock things off the list, a forgotten task pops up from the repressed; remember all those readings I took of the moisture content of every coffee in the shop? Now I lost the paper, and it is out of date anyway. I start a new list.

After all this, there is the last list, the final one. It’s the list you make at 10 pm the night before the 6 am flight. It’s the list that really gnaws at your sensibility, the list of everything you are leaving undone, the list for when you return. I HATE that list.

Now it is time to clean up. I clean the cupping room, vacuum the chaff, organize the tested and untested samples, put the spoons away, pile the dirty cups for washing, and then empty the spittoon (ugh). I clean my desktop. I groom my pile of papers into a more stable, pyramidal form so there is less risk of them falling over on Maria when she uses my computer while I am gone. Finally, I clean myself. Yes, I admit it; since working for myself, my appearance has really tanked due to neglect. I am a bit of a scumbag, not morally but literally. And I’m not dirty, just not well groomed. This is what happens when you live in a warehouse, have no heat, and don’t bother to put a mirror in the bathroom. You’re almost 40, you have a lot fewer “good looks” to be proud of, your wife loves you no matter what, so what’s the point of shaving every morning? And my hair feels the same combed or uncombed … it’s clean after all.

Well, all this changes when I go out there into the vast expanse. Out there, people don’t “get” the amusement and irony of thrift store t-shirts, and ratty Dickies. You just look dumpy, unsuccessful, and half-assed. Well, I meet them half way. I won’t give up the t-shirts and Dickies, but I will attempt to select ones without tears or stains. (For the most part, these are the result of our weekend work on our new building in West Oakland, which has made our wardrobe, Maria and I both, below thrift store spec.) Anyway, I keep a couple Old Navy sweaters on a dusty shelf for such occasions, because you can cover the most thread-bare t-shirt with a v-neck and actually look respectable. I also try to get all the Teflon out of my fingernails from the gas plumbing I was doing the night before, and my Adidas sambas will have to do. I have my limits; I refuse to pack more than 1 pair of shoes. Do you know how many green coffee samples and Latin American knic-knacs you can fit in the space of 1 pair of shoes?

Bogota, Cupping at the Exporter's Office, Visit to a Big ol' Mill

Juan Manuel knows, Colombia is somewhere nearby. Every other male in Colombia is named Juan Carlos. Juan Manual is a rebel.

The View from the cupping lab at Espinosa, the exporter. They have a good reputation and are making an effort to shift to micro-regional coffees and smaller lots. They need build a mill to handle this...

Alejandro (right) with Hector, the head cupper for Espinosa. Alejandro sources small lots of Colombian coffee from very specific areas and brokers them in the US and internationally.

Hector, at work. We cupped about 20 lots there, and there were some very nice samples. It's hard to trust your senses though, when you are traveling. You need to take samples back and verify the results in your "home lab."
A highlight for me was the diorama of the cupping monkeys. What words can I right to express 1. my delight at seeing this and thinking of someone making it and 2. my intense desire to take this home with me. Alas, there can only be one Cupping Monkey Diorama in the world, and it is in Bogota Colombia.

This device blends green coffee samples uniformly.
The Espinosa mobile cupping lab - everything you need in a single suitcase. That is a Quantik one barrel electric sample roaster.

They use a 2 pot Probat sample roaster, electric (which limits capacity to 120 grams or less, whereas gas can usually do 300 grams). A nice machine, and a mere $9000 from Probat!
This is a lab sized electric coffee dehuller, to remove the green coffee from the parchment (pergamino) samples.

A color analyzer and infra-red thermometer.

An old, tiny coffee depulper ...

I was surprised by the name on this very old espresso cup - it seems frapuccino is a name with some history behind it, but I would like to research this more. This demitasse cup is easily 50 years old.
Now we went over to the Espinosa dry mill in Bogota, which is 1 of 5 that they have around the country. It is more of a bulk coffee mill than a specialty mill, and they know it. I just liked this picture of parchment.
Bob Fulmer of Royal Coffee creating unique spatial geometry where ever he goes. I can't tell who the guy on the left is.

They let this nut loose in the warehouse with a very sharp trier for pulling coffee samples from the bags. What were they thinking? This is all dry parchment coffee, waiting to be hulled, screened, cleaned, density separated, optically scanned for color, etc. In Colombia, each farmer does the wet milling and patio-drying him/herself, then sells the coffee to the exporter as dry parchment (pergamino, oro) coffee.

Unfilled bags, filled bags, a very long and dangerous sample trier, probably for bulk parchment sampling. These resemble the old grain probes used for corn, etc (you can still get them from Seedburo).
A highlight of the trip for me, in addition to the Cupping Monkeys. Not only is it ironic to have a "NO RAT" stencil on your wall (letting all visitors know you have rats? and informing employees of a company anti-rat policy, duh?) but this 6 inch graphic was a few inches off the floor... AT RAT EYE-LEVEL! Now that's targeting your audience!
The power grid at the mill. It was massive. In the foreground are density separators, called Oliver Tables after the company that invented them. There was like 20 at the mill - a VERY big, volume-oriented dry mill, as I said.

Now you can imagine why settling down in the seat of a plane is a relief. And this is not the Mt. Everest of coffee trips. In fact, it is to be the shortest one I have ever taken. Plus, I am going with people of the lowest key; down-dressing, humble, suit-free. I am but a flea on the hairy body of the coffee world and my travel companions are at least ticks, if not leeches (um, maybe this is not the best analogy). It will be myself, Bob Fulmer from Royal, Richard from Royal NY to do cupping in Bogota, then Geoff from Intelligentsia will join us to head off to Bucaramanga in the North of Colombia, a visit to Mesa de Los Santos estate with the owner, Osvaldo Acevedo. It seems so inverted that these unassuming gringos buy more coffee than an unsuspecting, primly dressed Latin businessman would ever suspect. Me, I look my part, like a teenager with more wrinkles, a middle-aged-mod. But when you buy thousands of bags as Bob and Richard do, don’t you have to wear a tie, or a bow tie, or a bolo tie … something around the neck, anything? Alas, we are the later day Californios for whom inversion and paradox is par; the land where peace-luvin’ Volvo drivers do 85 on the Bay Bridge, where agro-hippies will knock you over to get to the organic peaches at the Berkeley Bowl, then ask you about the Hemp Festival in the checkout line. Yes, we are clichés, some are just a bit more stale than others.

Where am I? Oh, on the plane to Bogota. Should I be scared? No, my daily work/life is much more frightening. Teenager police with semi-automatics on every corner, that’s nothing. In fact, the poor people of Bogota and Bucaramanga should be shaking in their shoes! They are the ones who live in the crossfire of the leftists, the paramilitary right, the drug lords and the anti-drug lords. They are the ones run off their own lands to live on the fringes of Bogota; I am just a visitor. And if in a moment of greed and desperation one of them should get the better of me, the outsider, and they steal my fancy oversized 8 megapixel camera, it is they who will have to figure out the maddeningly unintuitive interface, the endless combination of control functions, the senseless scrolling menus, just to make the simplest adjustment. So curses to you, street thug, you deserve to suffer like I have! Know the pain of the Olympus curse, then come, cup 30 Kenyas until the acidity starts to chrome the roof of your mouth, sucking the silver off your ancient fillings. Then try to right-click the combined macro-timer toggle, holding the zoom toward telephoto and press the OK button to reset the ASA back to 200 on this, your freshly stolen Olympus 8080, you dirtball! Feel my pain!

In reality most coffee producers who host traveling gringos do way too much to buffer and protect us from their own people. I will be picked up at the airport by Osvaldo’s right hand man and shuttled to a hotel. Maybe that’s okay. There’s rumors that some taxis take their friends from the North to kidnapping depots where in an interesting post-Colonial scene, you get distributed to the highest bidder. You or a loved one visit the ATM, and you are conveniently dropped off a few blocks from a landmark, or from your hotel. You could also get re-kidnapped though, so Osvaldo’s ride sounds good. We also won’t be staying in a pensione or hostel … nope, it’s gotta be an expensive hotel. Why complain about that? They all look the same. You could be in Boston, or Bogota, or Baltimore.

Our Colombians, Roberto and Maria Margarita. That is Juan on the end. Granted, it's not fair to take pictures of people just after they wake up, then put them on your web site, but ... we met Maria and Juan in Chicago a long while back, and Roberto is Maria's husband.

...and this is what they do (apart from teaching and editing video). They make posters. They are "animalistas" and put these signs up around Bogota to protest the bullfights. Servicia means "extreme cruelty." I asked them if the macho Colombians who are bullfight aficionados would still come if the picadors and the bullfighter used velcro weaponry (the bull has a vest that the velcro sticks to)! Don't laugh, they do it here in California.

Here's something else they do - help their friend make a Smiths karaoke video. Actually, I saw this card at the local falafel shop (the falafel is served in a flour tortilla like a burrito). Maria said they knew the person, and made the titles for the video. I really liked the text.

Tire/planters - Michica the cat.

The first night of a coffee trip … it’s a total write off. Forget about it. The first night is offered up to the time zone shift, to the too-soft mattress, to the sound of air conditioning in the middle of winter, to the unidentifiable foodstuffs served on the plane. And there’s that compulsion to go once around the TV channels, then once again.

Worry is pre-ordained; you must worry. Will you wake up on time, will you get a ride, will you need a cab, do you have the address, will there be breakfast? Bogota looks unremarkable from the vantage point of a downtown hotel. I have a beer with Richard and Bob, we talk coffee but all I am thinking about are the … the bottle caps. Yes, bottle caps. I collect them (again), don’t laugh. We were the only people at the hotel bar and the inattentive barkeep had put the recent beer caps on the counter so tantalizingly close. Should I just reach over and take them? I really wanted all the day's bottle caps but could I get them? How would I ask? Are they called crowns or tops or caps?. Tapas de botellas … that should work. Capas, or tapas? Capas de metal? De la botella de cerveza? I can always lie, although I don’t want to… but I could say they are for my nephew, my nino, my imaginary hijo, a son of convenience. Is this why people invented the “inner child,” to make convenient lies? What the hell, my inner child wants the damn caps for his collection. Oh crap, he dumped them all in the trash, he’s walking off with the trash can,I can hear the bottle caps jingling in there, falling down to the very bottom. Crap, now he dumped that into a big trash can. Now it’s worse … can I go over and put my arm in up to the pit to get those caps out (of course, I would if nobody was around but …) . No, I can’t. I am a wuss.

So I give up. On the way to the elevators I confess my bottle cap addiction to the others, and how getting Colombian caps will be a huge deal to me. I explain how I just missed out on a day’s worth of caps, as the elevator door closes. Bob reaches his hand out to block the doors from shutting, “I’ll get them all for you right now,” he says … like it’s so simple, like it’s nothing at all. “I can get you every bottle cap right now.” That just blows my mind.

Now, I am not saying everything is so impossibly unattainable for me. I am, after all Mr. Sweet Maria’s, and I can manage to get a few things done. And I know full well that confessing the bottle cap thing to them was just an introduction, so next time when I muster the courage to get them, they won’t laugh too much at me. I was just setting the stage. I am not stupid though; I am not going to tell them that a week ago I did some dumpster diving in Emeryville and pulled caps out that were mixed with mussel shells and cream sauce. That is totally disgusting, and even I know it.

My first night resolution; I am going to act casual, as we said in the ‘70s “be cazsh”, listen, relax, be quiet, observe, and have the courage to collect bottle caps.

Another thing; not 5 minutes after walking into the hotel in Bogota I received a call at the front desk from Susie who runs the Cup of Excellence program. It turns out that George Howell, who basically helped start the CoE program, could not make the event (hope all is well, George) and they needed one more judge. This was the one and only CoE I wanted to attend this year but since it is the first Colombia competition, everyone wanted to go. I was slotted to do the August event. And I packed for a quick 5 day trip, and we’re in the middle of working on the new building, and … well, I need to talk to Maria. There will be no roasting on Monday (maybe I can get someone to step in for me, Scott perhaps?), and what about the flights, and .., be casual, be casual … get some help, borrow an international cell phone, be casual.

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