Our relationship with Juan Saldarriaga goes back to London Coffee Festival 2018, when we launched a project called Artist Series.
We were looking for a fresh coffee to showcase for our first ever stand at the festival. We wanted to find a coffee that was extremely fresh and in season, two qualities that are very much at the heart of our approach to coffee. LCF is (usually) in April, which is a challenging time of year to find fresh in season coffees, so Colombian coffee was an obvious choice for us. On top of that we wanted something that was wildly different, something that really jumped out. That was when we heard about Juan Saldariagga and the interesting ways he was producing natural process coffees. Instead of using raised beds he was using a cold drier, the same machines typically used to dry fruit; raisins, apricots or prunes. Juan’s cold dried natural was very elegant and clean and we were instantly impressed, we knew we’d found a fantastic coffee. So we purchased the coffee, launched it at LCF and it was a huge success for us.
A week later I went to do a cupping in Oslo hosted by Nordic Approach, and Juan happened to be there, so we ended up having this really charmed meeting where we discovered a producer and within two weeks had met them. We got to know him and found out more about him and his farms and soon realised he would be an ideal person to work with going forward. We were trying to build a more traceable house espresso program and Juan was a good fit for several reasons, firstly the coffee we’d tried so far was excellent but also the farms he owns are big enough to buy quite large lots of coffee, so as our relationship and our wholesale business grew we could keep using the same supplier and wouldn’t have to keep chopping and changing. For us an important goal is always try and grow with the producer.
So in November of that year we travelled to Medellin the Capital of Antioquia and took a drive south to Bolivar where his office and farms are.
Bolivar is a very old colonial town, the square is taken over every weekend by drinking Aquadiente (Colombian fire water) and riding trocha horses and showing off their trocha gait. It’s hard to sleep as the music and rapid clopping of hooves goes late into the night. Bolivar is a lively town, the whole town is built around a big square, the hotel is on the square, and it’s right by the church, and then Juan’s lab and office is also right by the church.
We spent two days cupping and two days on his farms learning about his processes and how he operates. Cupping with Juan on that square is a pretty unique experience, your busy cupping and then someone pops in and suddenly you’re eating the best mango you’ve ever had and then another guy comes in and they’re selling amazing cake and then a chicken person comes in to sell you some chicken and you very much feel that you’re in the epicentre of this little town. I think that’s what’s special about being there with Juan in Bolivar, you feel very much at the centre of this vibrant alive place.
Juan owns two farms, La Claudina and El Encanto where his father who he inherited the business from still lives. We discovered that of the two farms we particularly loved La Claudina and we’ll probably always buy from there for our house espresso. Saying that we’ve had some really excellent coffees from both farms and will continue to buy smaller lots from both. The two farms are situated in the same area, but they’re a forty minute drive from each other and that forty minutes does create a remarkably different flavour profile.
A big part of what we learnt about Juan this year is how he’s expanding his operations.
He’s still very hands on with his farms, living nearby and overseeing everything that goes on but he has hired managers to take care of much of the day to day running of them. He’s working with a lot of local smaller producers, trying to help them transition from commercial / commodity to specialty, and helping new farmers establish wholly new coffee farms.
He’s working with between 20 and 30 producers in Antioquia. He supports them by providing use of his lab and by cupping their coffees, Juan himself is a cupper and is able to cup and give feedback on coffees. This cupping and feeding back is something Juan is always enthusiastic to involve us in when we visit. It is a useful facility for farmers as it gives them some guidance in where they might be going wrong, and where improvements can be made. He also supports these other farms by exporting their coffees. His export company Tierra De Café, focuses exclusively on coffee from Antioquia, which utilizes his in depth understanding of what works in terms of growing and processing coffee in that region. Antioquia has a dramatically different climate even to regions like Huila which are only a couple of hundred kilometres away, so certain processing methods might work well in one but not the other, the difference is drastic enough that it certain varietals of coffee might grow well in one but not the other. He also recently bought his own mill so he can now start milling coffee and getting it ready for export. This is another major way he can offer help to the farmers he works with. This year incidentally, is the first that the coffee we have from him is grown, milled and exported by him.
One story that highlights well how important people like Juan are In building up their local communities is William Laverde, he’s in his early 30s, born in the mountainous rural area surrounding Bolivar, he’s worked with Juan and his father for 10 years, starting as a picker he has worked and progressed to the point of managing one of the two farms Juan owns. Now he has bought his own farm and Juan has helped him and his family move into the farm and get it up and running. So hopefully in the near future, Juan will be buying and exporting coffee from a farm started by someone who started off picking cherries in his farm. This is a great success story and to me illustrates the benefit of supporting people like Juan who are building bigger and more supportive economic structures that provide growth and progress opportunities.
La Claudinota is a large lot, it’s a blend of two varietals Caturra and Castillo, picked across several days and then blended to balance flavour. I loved this lot and I was very glad that it was the right lot size 40 bags, because there are some lots that you taste and it’s wonderful but then it turns out it’s only say 3 bags. With this coffee we cupped, and it was one of the most popular coffees on the table, but because we’ve got a relationship it was earmarked for us, and that’s what it’s about, and that’s why I’m confident we can sustain that relationship going forward, because I can be in contact with Juan and also my importer can work to make sure we get the right lot for us. It works well for everyone, because Juan loves that he knows when I come to cup, he can sell a 50 bag lot to one person, rather than having to sell it to 3 different import companies. The nice thing with Juan is, if I was to text him today and say, I really like this coffee, I’d like 70 bags next year, he could start prepping today. That’s exactly what we are doing this year, we’re so pleased with La Claudinota as a Unit Fourteen coffee that we are happy to commit not only to getting it again next year but to getting a larger volume of it.
We’ve had several other coffees from Juan in the past, starting with that cold dried natural from La Claudina that we used at London Coffee Festival back in 2018, more recently a stunning Pink Bourbon washed coffee from El Encanto, and obviously now this La Claudinota as our Unit Fourteen. Since meeting Juan back in May 2018 we’ve visited his farms 3 times and seen amazing progress on each of trips. It is exactly the kind of strong relationship that we aim to grow our business around, and we’re excited to be sharing these coffees with you. We hope you like them as much as we do!
Since meeting Juan back in May 2018 we’ve visited his farms 3 times
Bolivar and the surrounding area is not known for exceptional coffee, it is known for having big farms generally associated with quantity rather than quality.
That is one of the reasons that Juan Saldariagga as someone who is cultivating better practices and encouraging a general shift towards specialty coffee is such an important figure. Antioquia, like many coffee producing regions has it’s own unique challenges when it comes to processing and he has found some interesting ways of dealing with them.
One of those is cold drying, the cold dryer sets the humidity and temperature, the initial stage of drying is done here before the coffee is moved to the raised beds, this is because the initial drying, when the moisture content in the cherry is the highest is a crucial time that affects the flavour profile the most. Drying on raised beds can work at higher altitudes but the beneficio at La Claudina is in a farmhouse in a valley 1400 meters above sea level which on some days has 100% humidity so raised beds is very difficult.
At the beneficio they have a parabolic dryer for honeys and a cold dryer, mainly used for the controlled drying of naturals and then a mechanical dryer which is extremely common for bigger volume farms in Colombia. Mechanical drying is useful, but not without compromise and purists are often quite against them. With mechanical drying you can dry a coffee in 1 to 3 days that could take 12 – 20 days to dry on raised beds. This more aggressive drying can create coffees that age quicker, which might lead to coffees that cup well at the farm but taste woody and faded a couple of months later at the roastery. However with the conditions at the farm raised beds aren’t very practical due not only to altitude and humidity but also space, due to the mountainous, undulated topography. If you’re dealing with a farm that’s 30 hectares, where the coffee cherries all need to be picked at once, you need loads of space for raised beds and in the kind of landscape you have in and around Bolivar there simply isn’t much flat space. Small farms in the region will dry on their rooves or on patios but large farms have to mechanically dry.
We buy microlots from Juan that are dried on raised beds, such as a pink bourbon from El Encanto and the natural we used as artist series was dried in the cold dryer, some of the other rare lots are dried on the parabolic dryer but it isn’t feasible to dry the larger lots without using mechanical dryers.