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Forest Coffee - Think Outside the Triangle

Posted by on in The Cali Region and the Valle del Cauca

I know people that cannot function without their morning black brew of coffee. Alas, I am one of those early morning foggy headed souls that bump into furniture on my way to the kitchen to grind my beans and heat up my little Italian coffee pot. I spend a small fortune on organic beans from foreign lands that I cannot spell and sometimes not sure which continent they dwell. For some of us, buying, preparing and drinking coffee is a religious ritual.  Two years ago, I decided to visit Colombia. So, of course, drinking a boat load of coffee was on the priority list. And touring the famous Coffee Triangle area. And visiting a coffee farm. And taking a really large suitcase half full so I could fill it up with coffee on my way home. 

My driver chauffeured me through the picturesque Andes spotted with coffee bushes reaching from the valley floor to the mountain top manicured in perfect rows resembling a Victorian garden. During my second trip to Colombia, I visited a coffee farm touted in many brochures. A young college student dressed in historically correct coffee culture clothes took me on a journey through rows and rows of perfectly shaped coffee plants. I picked a few beans, watched him make coffee, drank bitter coffee loaded with sugar and added over 200 pictures to my memory card. Yet, I felt something had gone astray between the coffee plants and the cluttered gift store.

The upscale supermercado near my hotel offered a variety of coffee products with handsome men smiling brightly on the package. I filled my suitcase. However, when back in Texas, the suitcase coffee was not nearly as good as a cup I enjoyed in a small coffee shop nestled in the mountains next to a nature reserve. I followed the college student’s instructions perfectly. So what was wrong? My third trip to Colombia took me deeper into the Andes off the well-traveled coffee triangle track. I found myself back in the coffee shop from the previous trip. It is in this place I found the mystical coffee with rich smooth flavor I remembered, and where I learned the secret to why this coffee is so divine. Today, I live in this coffee heaven.   

Flowers at the Finca

Serraniagua Coffee Shop

A colorful colonial town of almost 10,000 located in the Valle de Cauca Department, El Cairo is surrounded by coffee and sugar cane farms. Set high in the Serrania de Paraguas mountains, the town has been designated a UNESCO historic site. The clean and well-cared for town teems with activity from sunrise till past midnight, portraying the vitality and success of this place. 

On the town square is the Serraniagua Coffee Shop offering freshly roasted coffee that is so good customers pay almost twice the regular price for a cup. Why is the coffee in this small community so awesome? 

It all starts with the farmer. Their method of cultivating coffee plants varies from the typical coffee farm. Their secret is based on conservation methods, community involvement, cultural traditions and a love for their country.  It is Forest Coffee.

Second, the little coffee shop only offers the highest quality coffee beans that are hand-picked.  Sadly, Colombia exports their best coffee. The beans that don’t make the “export quality” stamp are ground, boiled with lots of sugared water and served at most restaurants or roadside vendors across the country as “tinto”. Tinto literally translates to “ink”. Most Colombians have never tasted a good cup of Colombian coffee, and it is hard to find.

Third, the beans are roasted locally, sometimes on the farm site. Just like fruits and vegetables, the fresher the better.

Serraniagua Foundation

Twenty years ago Cesar Antonio Franco Laverde had a vision.  hroughout his lifetime, he watched his beloved forest slowly disappear and coffee farmers struggled with severe climate fluctuations resulting in the whole community suffering. Long before the coffee industry boom, local farmers cultivated coffee plants together with sugar cane, vegetable gardens and fruit trees within the forest. But now, many farms were sole coffee or sugar cane farms. The tradition of growing and harvesting coffee side-by-side in harmony with other plants had been lost, along with the beauty and biodiversity of his homeland.b2ap3_thumbnail_organic-coffee-here.jpg

He bravely quit his teaching job and joined a dedicated group of coffee farmers and city leaders to create the Serraniagua Foundation. Their mission is to provide education concerning traditional farming culture, form partnerships with coffee farmers that support forest conservation methods and build a network of businesses that will purchase their high quality coffee.   As the Director, he has taken Serraniagua to become a world recognized conservation organization.

Forest coffee farming is basically tending coffee plants within the forest. The term shadow coffee has been around for many years, but most coffee farms use plantain plants. A native forest contains not only plantains, but also tropical fruit trees, flowers and bamboo. Some of the brush and small trees are removed and additional fruit trees may be planted, but the native forest is left standing to shade the coffee allowing the right amount of sunshine necessary for healthy coffee plants. A forest coffee farmer manages the forest and the coffee plants perfectly.

Throughout the years, one by one the El Cairo coffee farmers tested their belief in Serraniagua’s vision and willingly changed their coffee farms to follow the conservation inclined forest coffee method. The benefits have surpassed all expectations. The farms are highly efficient and produce a coffee with a special flavor.

The El Porvenir Farm, recently approved by the Rainforest Alliance, has ten varieties of native fruit trees strategically scattered throughout the farm, providing a supply of healthy food year round. The leaves that fall to the ground provide a natural mulch averting unwanted seedlings eliminating the need for chemicals. The natural mulch also prevents erosion from almost daily rains.  Many naysayers claim the tree roots rob the coffee plants from moisture, but in reality the mulch acts as a sponge and keeps the ground moist. This natural compost is perfect for vegetables. I found tomatoes, pumpkins, and pineapples planted in sunny spots between trees and coffee plants. These vegetables in turn act as a natural fertilizer to the coffee plants by emitting nutrients such as nitrogen back into the soil, and provide another source of healthy food for the family or the farmer’s market.

The coffee flavor is improved because the shade protects the beans from sunburn or drying. The moisture retained results in a better tasting coffee bean giving it a “special” feature. In April, the shade also diverted economic disaster for forest coffee farmers during a long hot dry spell. The Mi Cafetal Farm is next to a coffee farm that does not keep the forest intact. The neighbor’s coffee beans literally burned to a crisp on the bush. The Mi Cafetal Farm lost a few trees, but most of the coffee beans were saved.

Forest coffee farms are an important factor in preserving important biodiversity in the region. The trees within the coffee farms create a corridor of forests between two protected reserves near El Cairo, the Cerro el Ingles and Galapagos. The term bird-friendly coffee has often been used by promoters, but in reality, many animals benefit from these non-interrupted corridors. The Cerro el Ingles reserve has recorded several endemic amphibians plus eight endemic birds. My favorite feature is their aesthetic beauty. From the road, the farm is hidden under trees providing a beautiful view of what the Andes should look like. I am reminded of the Garden of Eden as I walk in the cool shade between a variety of healthy plants placed haphazardly in the dark nutritious soil, watch bees and butterflies flutter between colorful flowers, catch sun rays spilling through the trees and munch on just-picked fruit while listening to a bird song symphony above my head. < The forest coffee farms are thriving with amazing success. The farmers undoubtedly provide for their families, proudly produce a high quality product, and at the same time support the biodiversity of the area without damaging their beloved land.  A sign at the El Porvenir Farm says it all - “The biodiversity and the care of the environment are our greatest pride”.  Today, the farmers, El Cairo community, Colombia and coffee lovers are all blessed by their extraordinary leap of faith.

For more information about visiting one of these farms, contact the Serraniagua Organization at www.serraniagua.org. Don’t forget to take an extra suitcase. 

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