It was a 3 hour drive from the airport. In the backseat of a Jeep Cherokee on a bumpy dirt road, we wound up the mountain path toward the cities of Toledo and Labateca. Two towns separated by a large river. As the sun set and the mountainous landscape disappeared into the night, I had no idea what to expect. This was my first trip to origin, let alone to Colombia. What I would find would be two amazing communities and a passion for maintaining a tradition of producing high-quality Colombian coffee.
Community Coffee Company’s partnership with the towns of Toledo and Labateca started long before I joined the company. Their regional coffee was first featured at a special exhibit at the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s annual conference. This coffee profile was bright and rich and stood out from among many regional Colombian coffees. It would be the building block that established a long-term relationship between Community Coffee and Toledo-Labateca.
As the SUV slowed, we arrived at a small restaurant in Labateca and were warmly greeted by teachers, students and city officials. Over a delicious meal featuring local fare, they shared stories about their coffee education program and the impact we’ve had on their communities. Going on its 13th year, Community Coffee has an agreement with the communities of Toledo and Labateca that includes exclusive ownership to distribute their coffee within the United States. We also provide annual monetary support that funds programs that are needed within their local communities, such as renovation of schools and farming equipment.
Over the past two years, Community Coffee’s contributions funded the “Sowers of Future Young Coffee Growers” program, which provides 100 students with coffee seedlings and teaches them how to care for and harvest the coffee beans. During my visit, these students and their teachers would be our tour guides, demonstrating what they’ve learned and the progress of their trees. It was incredible to see their level of expertise and passion for coffee. For many, these coffee plots were the start of their career. For others, the profits gained from these plots would fund future endeavors— a college education in the nearby town of Calcutta or nursing school – that may not have been possible before the program. It was some of these stories that truly showed the long-term impact of what we were doing and how such a small contribution could impact so many lives.
The next day, we got up early and traveled to the education center in Labateca. I was surprised to see our logo proudly displayed on the walls of the school and the uniforms of the students. Overlooking rows of seedlings, we’re given instruction on how the plants are cared for to ensure they are at their peak to be transferred to the farms. I continue to be amazed by the level of depth and passion for quality demonstrated by the students. From there, we travel on a bumpy road to the Labateca farm. After a short hike through the coffee fields, we arrive at the main house. The students explain the various stages of growth and fermentation and demonstrate their pulping machine. We are treated to a traditional Colombian lunch- seared beef, guacamole salsa, potato and plantain.
The next day we visit the students’ farm in Toledo. After reviewing the coffee fields, we’re given a lesson on drying and sorting the beans based on quality. The intricacy of the sorting process is astonishing. A chip in the bean or small black speck can move a bean from specialty-grade to being discarded. The importance of the growing process and detail required to preserve the quality of the bean is apparent throughout our trip. Coffee is their passion and soon-to-be livelihood.
The last day was by far my favorite. After a quick breakfast, we head to the school at Toledo. This building was originally an old monastery complete with dormitories. Using funds from the program, the staff renovated it to be their new school, which now houses students during the school week whose homes are too far to travel daily. Located in a valley surrounded by beautiful mountains, it’s a picturesque setting for any type of education.
After a tour of the school, including the computer lab we helped them purchase several years ago, we are ushered into the main hall for the presentations and awards. We watch a short video of the results of the past years’ work including commentary from the farmers and students. Then, to our surprise, their resident priest presents a very special honor- a change in the name of the school building. The Toledo school is officially renamed in honor of Norman Saurage III, who helped establish this successful partnership. After more speeches from local officials and dancing and skits from the students, we enjoy another traditional Colombian lunch that the students helped prepare – chicken soup, yuca, chicken, potato, tomato and onion.
As I sat on the plane heading back to the U.S, I reflected on everything we saw in Colombia and the contributions made over the past 13 years. The amount of work and attention to detail required of coffee farming is immense. I was extremely proud of the students and their passion for learning the industry. It was obviously a labor of love. But I was also honored to be a part of Community Coffee and proud of those in the organization that had the foresight to establish this program. Not only are we supporting and enriching the futures of the children in Toledo and Labateca, but we’re able to bring back a fantastic exclusive coffee for our customers. While this was my first trip to origin, I’m hopeful it won’t be my last.