Colombia El Obraje Geisha Special Selection
- November 2019
- Written by : Geoff Watts
Vice President of Coffee / Coffee Buyer
Hacienda El Obraje is a postcard-ready coffee farm located near the small town of Tangua, Nariño that is an outlier by most measures and an answer to the burning question “what do wheat, apples and coffee have in common?” It is also the source of one of the most exciting Gesha coffees we’ve tasted this season, a convincing demonstration of how extreme quality can be produced deliberately as the result of both next-level attention to detail and a studious approach to learning through trial and error.
El Obraje has been in the Guerrero family for over 80 years, but until recently had nothing to do with coffee. The zone where it is located has traditionally been considered too high in altitude and too cold to cultivate coffee successfully. Most of the surrounding farmland in the area has long been utilized for growing cereals and legumes. When the availability of cheaper foreign wheat undermined local production the family turned to apples as a replacement crop, but soon learned that running an apple orchard there was not sustainable. In 1999 the apples were quickly phased out to make room for coffee and a long, slow climb to profitability began anew.
The first stage of Pablo Andres’ journey in coffee farming was somewhat ordinary. He produced coffee in bulk, following the instructions of local agronomists and orienting the farm’s operations towards efficiency to minimize cost. Frustrated with the results and motivated to do something more meaningful with the farm he decided to place a bet on quality and began redesigning the farm operations with a different perspective and a new set of goals. Each year he tried something new, slowly experimenting with different types of shade trees, fermentation controls and approaches to drying coffees. He expanded the cultivation area and introduced new varieties to diversify his output. Little by little the entire farm was transformed into what it is today: a picture-perfect, finely tuned boutique coffee operation that is cranking out exquisite coffees and providing a template for what sustainable large-scale coffee growing can look like in this part of the world.
His training as an architect served him well in his endeavor to build a better farm. El Obraje is as organized and well-proportioned as any I’ve seen in Colombia. There is a sense of order to the place, and evidence of design everywhere you look. I first met Pablo in 2010 and in the short space between then and now the place has become unrecognizable. On my first visit, it looked like most other Colombian farms, set within a larger mold: minimal shade, decent but unremarkable infrastructure, great views. The coffee itself, though obviously well cared for, left only a moderate impression in the cup. When I visited several years later it had evolved dramatically, its new sense purpose visible in the way it was being managed. Every plot is distinct, with purposely distributed shade and a scattering of fruit trees that remain as a reminder of the farm’s legacy. Pablo is building in stages, each new phase of expansion leveraging the knowledge gained through direct experience and observation. The post-harvest quality control infrastructure has gotten much better and—unsurprisingly—the coffees themselves were far more exciting than I remembered.
When we did the pilot of our Extraordinary Coffee Workshop spinoff—a localized and highly focused version called ECWx, aimed at providing insight into the mechanisms of quality production for smallholder farmers throughout the country—Pablo graciously opened his doors to us and we showed up at El Obraje with a group of 30 farmers from all parts of Colombia. It was a revelation—The coffee trees are thriving in their reinvigorated habitat and seem to be loving their improved husbandry program. The post-harvest processing is high touch and executed with extreme care, engineered to coax coffees towards their highest potential. Many of the lots spend over a month on the drying beds, allowing them the time the need to shed moisture gently and uniformly while preserving their inner vitality. Everyone was impressed --under Pablo’s patient guidance El Obraje has transformed from a somewhat ordinary farm to one that can serve as an ambassador for the region by producing world-class coffees and showcasing Tangua’s unrecognized potential. This is an important and undervalued role of farms like this one; their hard-won success creates visibility in the marketplace and creates opportunity for others in the area who want to transition to coffee as a means of increasing income.
We hope you enjoy this introduction to El Obraje as much as we do. As with most of the naturals that earn their way onto our menu it is effusively aromatic, bursting with fruit notes and decidedly clean.