In our last blog post I wrote briefly on Semilla Coffee and the Monkaaba Project that’s taking place around the town of San Agustin in the Huila department of Colombia. Just to cover some basics before moving forward:
Semilla Coffee is a coffee importing and trading company that’s really redefining what this role looks like in the supply chain. Instead of being driven by profits, they’re driven by advocacy and mutual support. Instead of just buying and trading coffee, they’re building trust and friendships that enable meaningful change to occur for coffee farmers.
The Monkaaba Project was started by Esnaider Ortega-Gomez, a successful coffee producer who lives near San Agustin. Instead of leveraging his success to gain tons of wealth for himself, Esnaider has dedicated himself to finding pathways for other coffee farmers around San Agustin to enter the specialty coffee market and obtain greater autonomy over the prices they receive for their coffee. Esnaider works largely with two groups of producers, those well versed in coffee production who’re seeking stable buyer relationships internationally, and those who’re on the periphery of the specialty market and need a bit of help to get the quality of their coffee to specialty levels. This year Utopian was connected with Semilla and purchased the entire winter harvest from Yominson Trujillo, a producer who’s pushing the boundaries of how coffee can taste.
It’s Not That Simple
Colombia continues to be a major player in the coffee industry. Just from 2019-2020 Colombia exported around 14 million bags of coffee (at 150#’s each) and more than 2 million people rely on coffee-production as a major source of income. Colombia has a television state dedicated to the “best coffee growing practices” as well as a system set up for farmers to receive a “consistent price” for their coffees. Despite this, most coffee farmers in Colombia are still subject to poverty in many forms. The systems in place have failed to give most coffee farmers the tools needed to really succeed. In theory, the specialty coffee industry is founded on the principles of paying farmers more for better quality coffee, which is a fine idea in theory, though far too often we reduce extremely complex social and cultural conditions down to “transactions” with the idea that money alone will solve all the problems coffee farmers face.
The truth is it’s more difficult than that, and Yominson Trujillo is a very good representation of the hardships coffee farmers face. What we all need to realize is that many of the systems that are in place in coffee-producing countries do not benefit the average coffee farmer, and may actually harm them in the long run. The “guaranteed price” set by the Colombian government is more harmful than good for many farmers. Issues such as lack of access to transportation and general remoteness are huge issues that cannot be solved overnight. See the photo below and imagine living on the side of a mountaintop and having to walk an entire day to deliver coffee samples to potentially be told the coffee isn’t good enough.
This being said, the key is finding and helping create supply chains that equally distribute both value and risk to all actors. That means roasters, exporters, importers, and farmers all have “skin in the game” and benefit from mutual cooperation and transparency instead of transaction alone. We’re learning how to do this better all the time, and one way we were able to accomplish this was by supporting Yominson and the Monkaaba Project who we were introduce to through Semilla Coffee Advocacy and Imports. All this being said, I’d like to introduce you to Yominson, whose coffee I am so excited to share with you.
Yominson has worked with coffee since he was 8 years old alongside his mother. While many children in rural Colombia grow up helping their parents on their farm, Yominson began managing his own plot of trees from this early age. He decided to continue working in coffee out of respect for culture and his tradition, and by the age of 17 Yominson had purchased his own plot of land on the neighboring mountain face. The lot we at Utopian purchased from Yominson comes from his farm, Villa Milet, which he inherited from his mother, Nora Milet. It is here that Yominson picked his first coffee cherries, and he decided to name the farm in honor of his mother.
You can find Villa Milet about 2 hours outside of the village of Tarqui in an area referred to by locals as La Profunda (the depths). Not long ago coffee production in this area was nearly impossible. According to Yominson, the extreme weather conditions harmed coffee trees, leading to consistently low yields each year. If this wasn’t enough, parasites carried by migratory birds would fall onto coffee trees during migration and harm the trees, sometimes killing them. At several points Yominson considered giving up and leaving coffee producing behind. Sadly, this story is not unfamilar to us. Many coffee farmers have considered, or are actively giving up on coffee because it is so difficult to produce.
Though times were difficult, Yominson persisted and continued cultivating coffee. What’s truly interesting is that now, decades after Yominson first began farming, climate has significantly shifted in Colombia, and the result has been a shift in the viability of coffee growing areas. His farm is now more productive than ever, which is a major blessing considering the existential threat climate change poses for many coffee farmers. At 1900 meteres above sea level, which is quite high compared to many farmers, the dreaded roya or coffee leaf rust disease which kills entire harvests of coffee is virtually a non issue at Villa Milet. So only in a matter of decades this area went from barely cultivatable to extremely fertile. With all the right conditions, Yominson has managed to produce coffees of outstanding quality, and has become recognized as one of the leaders of coffee production in his area.
Because of this, Yominson has managed to sell his coffee into the international specialty coffee market twice, once to a buyer in the US and once to Australia. As mentioned previously, there are countless hurdles for coffee farmers to overcome in order to enter the international market. Though things are not easy even if they do manage to sell their coffee. Because of the remoteness of coffee farms and the lack of infrastructure, many farmers rely on neighbors or seemingly odd connections to move their coffees or to connect them to international buyers. These connections can be unstable at best, and nefarious at worst. Yominson recognized the instability and sought to find a way to sell his coffee. Luckily, Yominson now works with the Monkaaba Project which not only helps him sell his coffee but also helps him gain insight into how his coffee tastes and how he can produce the best tasting coffees consistently from year to year.
If there is anything I can tell you about the experience of drinking Yominson’s coffee it is that you can truly taste his passion and his craft. The land he works is the same land he grew up on, picking his first coffee cherries and honing his craft. In those days he picked coffee alongside his mother and siblings, and the land was difficult and didn’t bare much fruit. Today this land and these coffee trees are more productive than ever and support his own family. The farm this coffee comes from, Villa Milet, is named after his mother, and harkens back to the traditions of Yominson’s upbringing which he still honors to this day. If this doesn’t convince you of how truly special this coffee is then I’m unsure what will.
We feel very lucky to feature Yominson’s coffee this year. The beauty of his coffee is truly found in the flavors of each cup. Colombian coffees, even of lower quality, are typically very rich and sugary with a large textured mouthfeel. I believe Yominson’s coffee displays these characteristics and more. Yominson ferments his coffee using a mixture of anaerobic and aerobic methods which result in what I would consider a one-of-a-kind flavor experience.
In the cup, expect direct and structured flavors of stone fruits and melon. Alongside of this you will also find tones of sweet caramel, crisp sencha, and red berries.