Huila, Colombia. El Mirador farm visit

El Mirador
The day after visiting Los Lagos we headed to El Mirador, which is managed by Elkin Guzman who is a schooled agronomist: Elkin is strongly affiliated with Banexport as one of its agricultural engineers. And as the owner of El Mirador he is also most present at a special part of this farm called: ‘Finca Experimental Banexport S.A. – El Mirador’. A place where Banexport as a whole conducts its agricultural research under the leadership of commercial manager Jairo Ruiz.

The farm is central to Banexport in their efforts to improve the quality of the coffee that they work with. For about a decade now, they have collaborated with over 600 coffee producing families with quality as the main goal. It is projects like the ones on El Mirador that have helped these farmers in improving their high standard of quality. This approach has resulted in an overall development of the coffee industry in the country and consequently the improvement of the livelihoods of farmers. A big team of experts lies behind the ideas and experiments that are being conducted at El Mirador and they were very proud to share the knowledge with us. I couldn’t wait!

A humming bird with the bus in the background
A humming bird with the bus in the background.
Coffee shrubs!
Coffee shrubs!

You reach El Mirador after a treacherous bus ride via some very narrow roads, although the driver is incredibly skilled, you can’t help feeling a little worried when the distance between you and the side of a mountain is about a foot and you don’t have a seatbelt. There aren’t even any doors! When the bus drives over its final hill and the farm comes into view, it is truly amazing. There are water reserves all around making it look like a little oasis island on top of a mountain.

Finca El Mirador
Finca El Mirador.

We were welcomed by Elkin, his whole family, and a few of his employees, it is unimaginable how welcoming these people are!

After our meal Elkin took us to the top of a little building next to the house where all the picked coffee is sent. The cherries are dumped into a water basin and sorted. Any floaters are taken out and all the ripe (and semi-ripe, though there shouldn’t be that many) sink straight down into the tank.

We were all seated and fed before Elkin started his tour.
We were all seated and fed before Elkin started his tour.

Elkin also explained to us how Brix meters work and how they have been able to apply them in the field of coffee. He was one of the first farmers in the area who started using them regularly and when his neighbours noticed the advantage, he started sharing his knowledge. This little device is a great example of an innovative way to improve the amount of ripe cherries picked on farms. And whilst it is still relatively expensive, Banexport is trying to show the added value to its farmers successfully.

After the desired cherries sink to the bottom, they flow straight into the building through a pipe ending up in a de-pulper. This strips the seed from the fruit, leaving only the mucilage around the beans and are then ready for the next step of processing.

Elkin Guzman
Elkin Guzman.

There are two incredibly clean basins in the building, both lined with white tiles, opposite them a little table with a computer sitting on top of it. Interestingly, Elkin has developed a system alongside a company called JPT that measures all kinds of variables of the coffee whilst it goes through its process. The system is able to measure temperature, PH level, methane level and alcohol level, they can even use it to decide what the optimal time and temperature might be for a certain coffee.

After this, we proceeded to the drying beds at the entrance of the farm, an impressive wooden construction with multiple levels and a lot of space. Elkin was keen to show us their latest experiment. Natural processed coffee. Now, for a lot of people this is nothing special, for Colombians however, this is very unique. The Colombian culture of processing has always involved wet processing and what Elkin doing is remarkably new. We later got to taste some of this naturally processed coffee at one of the cuppings and it tastes great!

Elkin
Elkin.

The arguments against naturally processed coffee is that the cup profile is very different than that of a wet process. This can be a problem because most people buy a Colombian coffee for its distinct character. Even at the farm, there were a few visitors who strongly disapproved of this new development stating that they would look for a different origin if they wanted to buy a natural process coffee. Not entirely fair of course, but understandable. The coffee tasted great and unlike anything I had ever tasted before, the majority of our group seemed to agree with me on this. The other argument is that naturally processed coffee takes much longer to develop (due to its longer fermentation time). This is a bigger problem for farmers who would be willing to try this themselves. Time is money, especially when you’re trying something new.

Naturally processed coffee at Mirador
Naturally processed coffee at Mirador.

Next to the drying beds stand another experiment Elkin and the team are working on. They built 7 small drying beds, each with a different colour tarpaulin. The idea behind the experiment is that different colours reflect light in different ways and the way we observe colour is of course through how much light the colour absorbs and thereby reflects whatever is left. This means that a lighter colour absorbs less light and reflects more and vice versa all the way through to black which should absorb almost all light that it’s exposed to. Since light is an energy that creates heat, using different colours could affect the temperature of a drying bed environment, so they’re now looking at how much difference there is between different colours of tarpaulin. From the first tests he has already noticed that a black colour retains much more heat than a white tarpaulin and colours between that spectrum are also reflecting what he thought; red retains more heat than yellow for example. This is useful, because with enough information it is possible to increase or decrease the drying time of coffee by using different colours.

Jairo and Elkin
Jairo and Elkin.

These are but a few things that we were shown and taught, there simply wasn’t enough time to ask all the questions we had, when we left the farm, we had more questions than answers!

All in all, it was a great trip and I can’t wait to go again (to ask even more questions!). My job is teaching me something new every day, but the educational value of this trip was incomparable to anything else I have ever done. Not only the visits, but also the people I met have been inspiring to say the least.

The entire group, without me, because I was somewhere else taking pictures.
The entire group, without me, because I was somewhere else taking pictures.

Photos by Samuel Miller

Thijs Van Meurs

Thijs Van Meurs

Thijs van Meurs was part of the roasting team at Square Mile Coffee Roasters between July 2014 and November 2016. He was born and raised in Amsterdam and moved to London in 2011 to pursue a career in coffee.

Thijs Van Meurs

Thijs Van Meurs

Thijs van Meurs was part of the roasting team at Square Mile Coffee Roasters between July 2014 and November 2016. He was born and raised in Amsterdam and moved to London in 2011 to pursue a career in coffee.