Why mist and mountains make great coffee

Journey high into the Andes to discover the secrets behind Nespresso’s Master Origin Colombia coffee.

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Clouds typically engulf Colombia’s mountainous Caldas province west of Bogotá. The resulting wet conditions and cold nights have proven the perfect recipe for producing Nespresso’s distinctive Master Origin Colombia washed Arabica coffee.

To trace the coffee to its source and learn how Nespresso is helping Caldas farmers build a sustainable, high-quality coffee culture, National Geographic sent award-winning photographer Rena Effendi to Aguadas, or “the land that gives water.” Located around 5,900 feet above sea level, the town is surrounded by the smallholder coffee farms where Master Origin Colombia coffee is born.

“On the drive to Aguadas, you feel like you are entering the clouds,” says Rena, who accompanied Nespresso agronomists on their regular rounds to remote, family-owned coffee farms. The agronomists, part of Nespresso’s AAA Sustainable Quality™ Program, launched in 2003, build long-term relationships with coffee growers to ensure a sustainable supply of high-quality coffee.

To consistently produce the Aguadas-sourced taste—a sweet and winey coffee with hints of candied apple and red berry notes—Nespresso’s AAA agronomists visited dozens of farms. After identifying those producing the preferred flavor, the agronomists dug deeper and found four common denominators among them:

1. High altitude locations (4,900 to 5,900 feet above sea level), which produce cold overnight temperatures

2. An extremely selective harvesting process in which ripe, red coffee cherries are picked

3. Dry fermenting the coffee for 21 hours compared to the regional standard of almost 16 to 18 hours

4. Exclusively drying the coffee in the sun

Using these four factors as the foundation, the agronomists created a standard protocol for Aguadas farmers to follow to produce coffee in the quantity that Nespresso requires.

“It's the lengthy fermentation that causes the peculiar, winey flavor that Nespresso really likes,” says coffee expert Shirin Moayyad. “The Arabica coffee cherries are picked when they are ripe, are pulped to remove the cherry skin, and then are fermented to loosen the flesh. It’s because of the microclimate there that the fermentation takes longer.”

Coffee Craftsmanship: Processing Coffee farmers use a simple machine to pulp the coffee cherries before they land in a fermentation tank. They will remain in the tank overnight for about 15 hours, enough time for the yeast bacteria to eat away the remaining mucilage. Once the cherries are fermented, they will be taken out to dry.

On her treks to the family farms, National Geographic photographer Rena got a first-hand look at the Aguadas process—a painstaking, artisanal method rooted in family tradition and a regional passion for coffee. As Rena discovered, harvesting red cherries here is an artful balancing act. Farm workers carry plastic buckets strapped to their waists with leather belts, and deftly pick cherries from trees growing on steep and often muddy slopes.

Once the buckets are filled, the cherries are poured into sacks and carried back up the hill to be de-pulped. They are tossed into rudimentary, metal machines to remove the skins. Then, the wet, mucilaginous parchment is fermented, which loosens the flesh, or mucilage, making it easier to wash off.

Coffee Craftsmanship: Drying the Beans Coffee farmers spread the fermented beans onto a flat bed to dry. The beans have been fermenting for 15 hours and the yeast bacteria ate away the pulp, preparing them for the next stage of the coffee making process.

Before the Nespresso AAA protocol was put in place, the mucilage was discharged into local rivers. Now, working with Nespresso agronomists, Aguadas farmers are composting the fruit waste, which helps protect water quality, reduces the need for additional fertilizer and enriches the soil.

The final step in the process is a communal celebration of Aguadas’ distinctive coffee culture. The burlap sacks of beans are loaded onto colorful chiva (goat) buses that rumble into town to the cooperative where coffee is graded, sorted, sold, and, sometimes, roasted. For Rena, witnessing the arrival of the chivas—brightly painted old buses retrofitted with ladders to reach the rooftop cargo—reinforced the artisanal and thoroughly original aspect of Aguadas-sourced coffee.

“The chivas are so beautiful,” she says. “The women, children, uncles, and aunts pack into the bottom; on top there are these men with the bags of coffee. On Saturdays, in particular, the whole town wakes up when the chivas descend. It’s a big party. The chivas are a cultural symbol of the place. The farmers could use trucks to carry their coffee, but they choose to continue the tradition. It just adds another layer of wonderfulness of the Aguadas coffee experience.”

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