La Esperanza

  • Country
    Colombia
  • State
    Tolima
  • Municipality
    Ibagué
  • Sub Municipality
    China Alta
  • Altitude
    1,960m above sea level
  • Variety
    Caturra, Castillo
  • Processing
    Extended Fermentation
  • Owner
    William Buitrago
  • Farm Size
    11 hectares

Bright and complex, with peach, green apple and apricot. White blossom fragrance with a juicy body and lingering finish.

This micro-lot was produced by William Buitrago and Aminta Mahocha Franco on their 11-hectare farm, La Esperanza (meaning “the hope” in Spanish), located near the small community of China Alta, in the municipality of Ibagué, in Colombia’s Tolima state.

Finca La Esperanza sits at a staggering height of 1,960 meters 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. Alta refers to the higher elevations of the area, where the sweetest and most refined coffees are grown and harvested. The farm sits on the steep valley walls of Rio La China, which is used as a water source to irrigate and process the coffee.

William’s family moved to China Alta in the 1970s to farm cattle and William was born and raised nearby. He and Aminta established La Esperanza in 1994, across the valley from his parent’s home. Initially, the couple farmed cattle, but in recent years have shifted to focusing on specialty coffee production as it has become a more viable and profitable option. The farm is eleven hectares large, with five hectares planted with Caturra and Castillo trees. The trees are planted further apart than usual (just 4000-5000 per hectare, instead of the usual 6000), which allows adequate sunshine to reach them despite the cooler temperatures of China Alta. Although this affects his overall yield, William’s commitment to high-quality production has driven this decision. When praised on his coffee’s excellent cup quality, William shares; “This is a great motivation. It’s one thing to get premiums, but another to get recognition from a part of the world so far away”.

William and Aminta have gifted each of their children, Mauricio and Geraldina, a plot of land on the family farm to manage and profit from, to encourage them to understand the economics of farming coffee and potentially see a future in it. William identifies labour as a challenge in this region, as many of the younger generations are moving to the city and abandoning coffee production. He hopes that specialty programs will develop and grow, as higher premiums are a more attractive incentive for young people to stay in China Alta and continue producing coffee.

Outside of coffee, William is an avid apiarist and keeps over 30 beehives on the farm, producing around a tonne of honey annually, which he sells into the local market. During a farm visit, we were proudly shown a small colony of tiny, native Meliponini bees that he has harvested from the coffee plants and relocated to the outer wall of the farmhouse. These tiny bees produce very little honey but are kept by the family as a hobby. According to William, the bees and the coffee are very connected, with the bees pollinating the coffee trees and the coffee blossoms contributing to the clear and sweet quality of the honey.

 

ABOUT CHINA ALTA

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.

HOW THIS COFFEE WAS SOURCED

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 by 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 William and Aminta. 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.

Each season the team at Pergamino cups through hundreds of small lots from independent farmers, looking for coffees that exhibit excellent cup characteristics and showcase the region where they were produced. William and Aminta’s coffee was selected to be processed separately as a micro-lot for its distinct character and high cup quality.

HOW THIS COFFEE WAS PROCESSED

This lot was selectively hand-harvested, with most labour being provided by William and his family. During peak harvest, the family hires local labourers to help harvest the coffee cherry, who are paid per kilogram or on a daily rate when there isn’t much coffee to harvest. William prefers to work with the same pickers every year as he has taught them how to select only the ripest cherry for processing. To ensure pickers come and work for him he pays a 10%-15% premium on the local daily rate and provides workers with three meals a day.

The cherry was then processed using the washed method at La Esperanza’s ‘micro-benficio’ (wet mill). The coffee was pulped using a small electric pulper and then placed into a fermentation tank. Because of the cooler climate in China Alta, producers like William tend to ferment the coffees for longer than usual and will often blend several days’ worth of pickings over a 2-3 day period. Everyday freshly picked cherry is pulped and added to the mix, which lowers the pH level and – along with the cooler temperatures – allows for an extended fermentation process. This fermentation process contributes to a vibrant, winey acidity in the coffee’s cup profile.

 

Following fermentation, the coffee was washed using clean water from the Rio La China and then carefully sun-dried over 10–18 days. William uses the “Casa Elba” system for drying, where parchment is laid out to dry on rooftop patios (usually on top of the farmhouse). A retractable roof on a pulley system can be pulled over the coffee to protect it during rainy weather or to slow down the drying process when it is very hot and sunny. Rakes are used to turn the coffee regularly during the drying stage, to ensure even drying.

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.