Small Producers of China Alta

  • Country
    Colombia
  • State
    Tolima
  • Municipality
    China Alta
  • Altitude
    1,800-2,000m above sea level
  • Variety
    Caturra, Colombia, Castillo
  • Processing
    Washed
  • Average Farm Size
    3 hectares

Soft mandarin and stone fruit acidity, with hazelnut, honey, dark chocolate and an intensely sweet, balanced finish.

This coffee was grown and processed by smallholder producers that are situated around the village of China Alta, a small community located in the municipality of Ibagué, in the state of Tolima, Colombia.

The farms that contributed to this lot are very small – on average just 3 hectares in size – and are located between 1800-2000m above sea level, in the steep, rugged hills that surround Tolima’s capital city, Ibagué. The region of China Alta is named for the Rio La China, a small and beautiful river that swerves through the mountains and eventually feeds into Rio Magdelena, Colombia’s principal river. The farms sit alongside Rio La China, and the water is used to irrigate and process the coffee. Alta refers to the higher elevation areas of this area, where the sweetest and most refined coffees are grown and harvested.

Historically the area of China Alta has been known for cattle, sugarcane and trout, which are farmed in pools along the river. Coffee is a relatively new crop for the region, having only been planted in the last 30-40 years. Most coffee farmers purchased land in the area because it was more affordable than traditional coffee farming areas like Planadas and Chaparral, in Tolima’s south. Higher elevation areas were considered less prosperous than lower areas because they typically achieve lower yields. However, this region has since gained acclaim for the high cup quality, sweetness and complexity of the coffees produced here.

 

Most farms in the region are planted with the Caturra variety, which was the most popular variety during the 1970s and 1980s when the farms were established. Coffee in China Alta is farmed with traditional techniques. Fertilisation occurs around three times a year, usually after manual weeding, and pesticides are rarely used. The coffee is selectively hand-harvested, with most labour being provided by the farmers and their families.

ABOUT TOLIMA

Coffee from Tolima has historically been very difficult to access due to the region’s isolation and instability. For many years this part of Colombia was under the control of Colombia’s notorious rebel group, the FARC, and as a result, it was unsafe and violent. Since 2012, safe access to this region has been possible as a result of peace talks between the Colombian government and the rebels. Since this time some stunning coffees from small producers have become accessible to the international market.

The word ‘Tolima’ comes from the local indigenous language and means a “river of snow or cloud”. The region sits on the Cordillera Central, in the middle of the three mountain ranges that provide a range of microclimates well-suited to high-quality coffee production. Coffee is the leading agricultural activity in the region, followed by beans and cattle.

 

The most well-known regions in Tolima for specialty coffee are Planadas and Chaparral in the south. This coffee comes from the areas surrounding Ibagué, which is further north in the state. The city is also known as the “Ciudad del Abanico” or the “city of the folding fan” because when you look at it from the sky the rivers running from the mountains split up the crops of rice and cotton, and it looks like a beautiful handmade folding fan.

The coffee is sourced by our export partners, Pergamino, who work with small producers who have farms near the villages of China Alta and San Juan de la China. These villages are located on steep mountains to the north-east of Ibagué, which creep up fast, going from 1,300 meters above sea level to 2,000 meters in a matter of 30 or 40 km. Due to the steep terrain and bumpy back road that is required to get there, they take around 3 hours to access via car. Pergamino has done a lot to help promote commercialisation of specialty coffee throughout Tolima and have actively been working to source and support coffee producers in regions where there is a high potential for quality, but historically have not had access to specialty buyers.

Pergamino purchases coffee from around 40 independent coffee growers in the Ibagué area, including the farmers whose coffees were blended to create this lot. During harvest, the farmers deliver small lots (around 100-150kg) of dried parchment to Pergamino’s Ibagué warehouse every 2-3 weeks. The warehouse in Ibagué is operated and overseen by manager Gonzales, who has a long history of working with Pergamino’s Director of Coffee, Léonardo Henao (he was Léo’s first boss in coffee!). Upon delivery, a sample of the dried parchment is milled and assessed for physical attributes, including uniformity of size, presence of defects, moisture content and seed to hull ratio. If the coffee passes the physical assessment it is accepted and the farmer receives their first payment for the coffee, calculated by the weight delivered and a base rate related to the physical quality of the parchment.

The coffee is then cupped and assessed for sensory attributes. After being accepted by the team in Ibagué the coffees are transported to Pergamino’s QC lab in Medellin, Antioquia, where they are further assessed by an expert team of cuppers. Each lot is carefully evaluated and, based on the cup score and profile, the coffee is sorted into different grades of quality and combined into exportable sized lots. Feedback on each lot is relayed back to the producer and after it has sold a second payment is made to the producer according to premium the coffee attracted.

The team at Pergamino cups through hundreds of small lots, at both the QC labs in Ibagué and in Medellin, to select the coffees that are blended together into this special regional lot. The coffees included were chosen for their outstanding cup profile and distinct regional characteristics.

HOW THIS COFFEE WAS PROCESSED

The coffees in this lot were selectively hand-harvested, with most labour being provided by the farmers and their families. They were processed using the washed method at each farm’s ‘micro-beneficio’ (mill).

 

It was then carefully dried (over 10–18 days) on parabolic beds, which are constructed a bit like a ‘hoop house’ greenhouse, and act to protect the coffee from the rain and prevent condensation dripping back onto the drying beans. The greenhouse is constructed out of plastic sheets and have adjustable walls to help with airflow, and temperature control to ensure the coffee can dry slowly and evenly.

Once dry, the coffee was delivered to Pergamino’s warehouse, where it was cupped and graded, and then rested in parchment until it was ready for export.

Read more about our Colombian export partner, Pergamino, here.