The story behind Colombia’s most expensive Coffee

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Coffee-grower Domingo Torres. Photo: María Claudia Peña.

Have you ever wondered what the best and most expensive Colombian coffee tastes like? Going for US$41 per 113 grams, the cup of Arabica brewed with Geisha beans is fruity and citric and has hints of vanilla and jasmine.

Cultivated on the farm El Roble (The Oak), in the department of Norte de Santander, on the Eastern plains of the country, this coffee won first place in four out of five categories of the Seventh open call National Quality: Colombia Land of Diversity, (Concurso Nacional de Calidad: Colombia Tierra de Diversidad). El Roble’s recognition included the categories Exotic, Balance, Acidity and Body. In the other ranking, Smoothness, it came in second, becoming the first single farm to win the most prizes.

The contest is organized by the Colombian Federation of Coffee Growers (FNC), as part of its mission to advance and protect the country’s coffee sector, and promote specialty coffees among small farmers. The coffee industry is made-up almost in its entirety of farms ranging between two and five hectares, such as this year’s winner El Roble, home to the most expensive coffee in the history of the country.

The price of this specialty coffee is no whim, nor the result of a marketing stunt, but rather the outcome of an organized and highly competitive international bid of specialty coffees that takes place alongside the contest, during the Second International Coffee, Chocolate and Agrotourism Fair, known as FICCA (for its abbreviation in Spanish), in Neiva, Huila.

This year’s bid was fierce. With auctioneers from all over the world, including China, Japan, Indonesia, and U.S., El Roble’s awards made it an instant favorite, the crown jewel. And, why not?

Serving the best coffee to Colombians

Praised by a jury of expert tasters, the winning cup embodies flowers, lime, chamomile, rose tea, residual peach, bergamot, plum, lemongrass, black currant, honey and ginger, and it gives the sensation of silkiness and softness to its complexity. In a few words, it’s a “super expressive” cup of coffee, perhaps by super-expressive, the experts meant it tells the story of Colombia if Colombia had a flavor.

The aroma and smoothness of El Roble coffee, also tell the story of two men, worlds apart, who tempted fate, and, perhaps, are key to the future trend of the country’s most emblematic commodity.

On one hand, Luis Guillermo Vélez, founder of the Amor Perfecto Café brand, has been a firm believer in the importance of promoting specialty, premium, and single-origin coffee locally and internationally for over a quarter of a century.

His motto of delivering the best to all stems from the irony that Colombians, in general, consume second-grade beans, remnants of the exports that supply the world with Colombian Supreme, which, in turn, make up the base for many coffee brands.

It is also a well-known secret that Colombians, unknowingly, consume imported beans from Ecuador, as the result of the ambiguity in packaging laws that do not require brands to disclose and guarantee the origin of the coffee beans on the label. These loopholes make it easy for companies to sell foreign beans as Colombian in the local market, believes Vélez.

The dirty word

The coffee retailer’s counterpart in this Colombian Coffee story is farmer Domingo Torres. In his secluded land located in the municipality of Ragonvalia, he decided to change ranching and reintroduce coffee to the region in 2012. He did so against popular belief and local idiosyncrasy. With no previous training nor experience in farming, the only credentials he had to show for himself were his will and determination to succeed.

Four years later, in 2016, building upon his previous success, Torres took yet another bold decision. He opted to change the Castilla bean for the Geisha from Panama. His move, once again, was frowned upon by his neighbors. Word got to the mayor of Ragovalia and even to the FNC that pleaded with Torres to desist in his pretense, and with good reason.

Unlike Castilla and other varieties engineered scientifically in Colombian labs for the last 50 years to resist Coffee Rust Disease, prominent at lower altitudes – below 1,800 meters a.s.l – or 6,000 feet – the Geisha variety is vulnerable to the fungus.

The disease causes premature shedding of the leaves and diminishes photosynthesis, thus debilitating and killing the coffee shrubs. And, in Colombia, this could have grave consequences for one of the biggest industries in the country, which exports 93% of its production and represents 3.5% of its GDP.

Coffee Rust Disease was identified in the country in 1983, but by then, the FNC had set in place a series of policies to counterattack the plague, which ended up leveling to the minimum the catastrophic forecasts. However, it is still considered a serious threat among coffee growers. A dirty word, to say the least.

The secret to success

“Everybody was against it, but in the end, I told them that my property was my own,” explained Torres, who said he holds no grudges and is proud to witness how his determination gave way to his success. He also explains that Geisha could be vulnerable to Coffee Rust Disease at lower altitudes, and not at the altitude his farm rests -1,920 meters a.s.l – posing no threat to Colombia’s most iconic export.

A survivor, in every sense of the word, Torres made it alive to the shores of his native Guapi, a township in the Pacific coastal department of Cauca, after a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit some 70 miles away, in neighboring Tumaco, and caused a Tsunami that took him and his partner by surprise while fishing in the late hours of the night, on December 12, 1979. “We were left butt naked on the beach,” he remembers.

Coffee farmer Domingo Torres and his wife Saray on their plantation El Roble in Norte de Santander.
Coffee farmer Domingo Torres and his wife Saray on their plantation El Roble in Norte de Santander. Photo: Personal Archive.

In search of a better life, he worked odd jobs in neighboring Venezuela, and later in Cúcuta, the capital of Norte de Santander, back in Colombia. His last occupation before proving his luck as a coffee grower was mining, a job that allowed him to save enough money to buy a plot of land, and start his life as a coffee grower, along with his wife and daughter, both named Saray.

What is the secret to such unique coffee? He recounts his reasons for success, and they are many: hard work, perseverance, faith in life, God and his gifted land. “As soon as the sun rises, it hits the crops on the farm, and we also have bees that help a lot in good pollination. There are many birds and other fauna, such as limpets and cachicamos”, he says.

Domingo Torres competed against 699 lots of coffee from 14 departments, each presenting their harvest from the first semester of 2022, of which, 213 passed to the second round. Only 41 lots made it to the final stage.

The final bid

“I was a host of the auction, and I encouraged bidders,” said Torres with a smile. Among the buyers was Vélez, who bid fearlessly on one of two lots up for sale against a Chinese buyer, which brought the price up to US$78 per pound.

“Once I tried the coffee, I just couldn’t let it go. I couldn’t leave Colombians without the possibility of enjoying this coffee,” said Vélez, living up to his motto of serving the best, and promoting coffee culture among Colombians.

“The Chinese bought the other lot, but I made sure Colombia had its own”. Vélez bought seven sacks, each of 35 kilos, of El Roble coffee, which he sells at Amor Perfecto stores and online. Customers can also enjoy a cup of Domingo’s coffee by the jug, going for COP$29,000 – about three times more than a normal cup in a fancy city café.

The lucky ones that can try the coffee planted and harvested by Domingo Torres and sold with integrity by Luis Fernando Vélez, can partake in fair trade practices that are greatly needed in the world today, and, by doing so, contribute to forging better opportunities for farmers like Torres, who leave a part of their soul in every bean they hand-pick, as much as Vélez has done, by challenging every day, for the last 25 years, an industry set in its ways.

Luis Guillermo Vélez of Amor Perfecto (right) with Domingo Torres. Photo: Amor Perfecto.

“With the pride of a Colombian coffee farmer, I can say that I have fulfilled my purpose, my dream plan. Now, on my El Roble farm, in the village in Ragonvalia, Norte de Santander, I, Domingo Torres Angulo, cultivate for the honor of this land, the best coffee in Colombia!,” he says excited, proud, and believing the future can only hold better days ahead.

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