Sweet Maria's Home Coffee Roasting

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(You deserve some pictures. Too much text.)

Manizales, 100,000, coffee town, part of the M-A-M triangle (Medellin-Armenia-Manizales). It is built on a ridge, running like a crooked finger with valleys on either side. It’s a crinkled landscape. Coffee was grown on the slopes and in neighboring valleys, so they had an amazing suspended freight system, like a gondola for cargo or a ski lift, stringing 100’ towers together to haul the coffee cherry up and down the steep slopes.

Old Manizales centers on a poured-concrete cathedral, started around 1900 and still yet to be finished. There is a beautiful vaulted graveyard, peaceful, and sadly cared for (a grave spilling over with flowers next to one caved-in and neglected. Manizales in cleaner than Bogota, and there aren’t many of the teenage-police-with-submachinegun types that liter every corner of the capital city. But this is a rural center, so it is expected. It also lacks Bogota’s advantages: I find the same grocery store chain here, Carulla, but they don’t have the 100% Colombian Santander Varietal Chocolate Bars, or the really nice beer (the only nice beer) called Ancla. Okay, Club Colombia is good too, but Poker really stinks. You can’t say that in Manizales, since Poker sponsors the local soccer team, Once Caldas, who just happens to be the champions of the South American Cup, Copa Libertadores 2004. And you don’t want to say anything bad about Once Caldas or you might not make it out of Manizales in one piece.

Steep streets, long stairs, barking poodles.

The old train depot, now a school.

I had read about the bamboo architecture in a book called Homework (by the author of the classic book Shelter) and Built By Hand, both about itinerant housing and house-building. Here it is, bamboo framing and bamboo lath. The plaster has fallen off here.

In Manizales, you need to visit the main graveyard. It is just 2 blocks off the main street near the old downtown, which in itself tells you something about how the dead are regarded in rural Colombia. Here is a stretch of flower stalls on the way to the graveyard. There are also many religious article shops/saneterias en route.

At the center of the cemetery is an amazing rotunda.

The graveyard is a mix of vaults and graves, and a mix of the well-cared for and the unloved. Maybe that is what makes it so drama tic...

In one area you have this austere grave marked off with huge chain link - even in death this guy needed to say "don't mess with me..."

...and then you have a humble grave that has fallen in as the casket collapsed . Some of these seemed to have the markers removed, making me wonder if the family was not able to make a payment (?)

In general, the vaults show a lot of care and attention.

You can't see it here, but a feature that stood out for me was that many of the vaults were signed. I mean, they weren't literally signed, but the elaborate signature of the deceased was etched into the marker. As a cultural practice, I found this interesting ... that people when preparing to die would make a signature for reproduction to , essentially, sign off and certify their own passing."Yep, I died, and I signed my grave to certify it."

Just out of town we came on this interesting wreck. Looks like somebody snapped an axle clean off! The truck was loaded with gravel and they were shoveling it by hand into another truck

Some other miscellaneous Manizales pictures. To the left is the Greca, used to make the local coffee called Tinto. It is very watery, and if you don't take it with sugar, you might corrode part of your palate. Seriously, it wasn't as bad as "local coffee" I have had in other origin countries. Above, the local graffiti. Some kids think punk deserves a star and others half-heartedly beg to differ.

The main cathedral in Manizales, turn-of-the-century poured concrete construction (!) and still not finished on the exterior. To the right, a statue of daedelus or something. All I know is that Colombia (Bogota in particular) is the home of many god-awful metal statues, which makes me only wish that the price of these metals would go up so scavengers would haul them off for melt-down. Seriously, this kind of art hurts us all...
Everything always works out. I won’t even bother with the details. Yes, I woke up, there was a ride, we went to the exporter, we cupped some very nice lots of coffee in their lab. I saw the Cupping Monkey diorama and wondered what mad genius could be behind this? The master of the lab is Hector, a slight man with a certain quiet intensity. But then again, he must like the cupping monkeys too, so he has a lighter side. We look over their new “mobile cupping kit” featuring an electric roaster and all the tools for “catacion” in a hard-case suitcase. And they have some very nice coffees on the table for us … not phony-baloney “type samples,” (which is not really an existing lot of coffee, but a possibly existing lot … i.e. it means nothing). No, these are real lots that are in parchment at the warehouse, ready to mill and ship. It’s impressive. They are a very straightforward bunch. They have been doing this since before I was born. The only barb is their warehouse; it’s nice, but it is set up for very large lots, for bulk coffee. This is the typical Colombia problem at this point … they sold pooled coffee that was screened by bean size to Supremo and Excelso grades. What does bean size have to do with cup quality? Not a whole lot, brother. It’s a system that made no sense for the way specialty coffee has evolved, and Colombia is changing the way they do things too, identifying microregional coffees and offering small lots. But you can’t mill a small 10 bag lot on giant equipment like this; it’s like brewing a single cup of coffee in a 6 gallon urn. So they need to re-tool with the new downsized equipment available from Pinhalense and others, equipment that can run micro-lots all day long and keep every tiny grain separate.

So I came to Colombia to go to Bucaramanga in the northeast, more specifically to visit Mesa de los Santos. The weather was not agreeable. It was thundering all day, but when we arrived at the Punto Aereo airport in Bogota to head north, things looked okay. The delay was half an hour, then another half, then another hour, then it’s getting dark. The rains are worse in the north. They say there is flooding. Finally we get the go ahead to board and depart 3 hours late. The ride is bumpy as we pass through whited-out blots of storm clouds, ready to swallow up and erase us puny humans at any moment. The short 1 hour flight takes forever, I think we are just circling, then we decend. It was to be our first pass at the airport, but just as we near the ground it’s white-out again and the pilot jerks up the nose. Then co-pilot announces we have 20 minutes of gas left to try again, or we need to head back to Bogota. And that’s what happens. We check back into the Hotel Rosales in Bogota. The next day we head to the airport early to try to get on the already full flight of frustrated Bucaramangans, but this time we don’t even make it to the gate. Nobody is manning the control tower in Bucaramanga. They can’t even get to the airport. A mudslide has taken out the road. There is widespread flooding, 3,000 homes lost, 17 dead! So getting to the farm is small potatoes in the larger scheme of things.

Lucky for me, I have friends in Bogota. This never happens, I never know anyone outside of the coffee world on these trips. But I know Maria Margarita from graduate school in Chicago; to keep from being confused she was often known as “the other Maria.” Not a great nickname, especially in a supposedly creative mileau. So basically I get to spend the next 2 days with Maria and her husband Roberto, shopping for vinyl records at flea markets (literally mercado de las pulgas), eating falafel and French and Chinese food a la Bogota, and of course, looking for bottle caps. Maria and Roberto are also anti-bullfighting activists. They are against the cruelty, believing this should be relegated to the past much as fox hunting has been in Britain. So they spend some of the late night putting up their posters “Servicia” (extreme cruelty) and “Complicidad” (complicity) around the city. I stay in bed and go to sleep, in the belief that being a political activist in another person’s country has the taint of bad faith, and is a bit unwise in case you get caught! I don’t want to call Maria, my Maria that is, from a Colombian jail. She would have a seizure.

Violence in Colombia? Paramilitaries vs. Leftists vs. the Government? It all seems remote from Bogota, and maybe that's why it has continued for so long. The only sign of it is the government hospital, with fresh arrivals weekly from the remote areas in the South East and North, and a very unusual little house that was by the Falafel Restaurant we ate at (where falafel is served in a flour tortilla). It looks like any other place, but for a small group of teens hanging outside, passing time. Maria told me it was habitation for paramilitary fighters who sought clemency under a new program. It was a bit eerie. Here were these innocuous kids, waiting to find work, a bit awkward, hanging out, hands stuffed in pant pockets, looking at girls, laughing, chatting. Were they talking about teenage things, or how to dismember a person with a machete, or both? I am just an out-of-towner and I really don't know...

Come Monday morning, the fun is over. It’s time to fly to Manizales and to the Cup of Excellence competition. Manzales is east, and was not too badly affected by the rains. (I read that across Venezuela there was a lot of damage, and the death toll is up to 45).

Early Rounds, Cup of Excellence, Outside Manizales.

Taste terms were discussed at the orientation ...

...which of course, I missed.

The cupping room was perfect - not too hot, not too much air movement (disturbs the aroma), no A/C.

The obligatory group photo of all the cuppers, plus a couple more folks. Susie Spinder, who administers and coordinates the Cup of Excellence in all countries (and does a fantastic job) is 3rd from the right, front row.

Some of the sample preparation. They actually measure out each cup whole bean, then grind it individually. This underscores possible defects due to a single bad bean - if they simply ground all the coffee in bulk then measured it out, it would "water down" the effect of such defects.

Samples waiting to be served up in the next flight. Each session is ground right before the coffee goes out to the tables.

The sample preparation room

Here are the samples from a flight of 10 coffees, under a daylight-corrected light. A part of the sample is reserved for this in each session so the judges can evaluate the degree of roast, looking for possible variations,
What does a coffee cupping room sound like? Well, I made a little stereo recording while walking around the room at the 2005 Colombia CoE. If your computer can play .MP3 files (most can), check it out... thecuppingroom-sweetmarias.MP3

Samples in bags. To the right is an interesting 1 kilo air roaster built by Quantik. Actually, it is more of a prototype since this is the only one in existence. They tell me it is unbelievably expensive too. This was not the roaster used for the samples ... all samples were roasted with a Probatino.

The Cuppers ... most of them, at least.

Silvio Leite, the head judge, who also is the head judge in Brazil.

Yoshi Kato from Japan (Bontain Coffee)

Robert Thoreson from Norway (Mocca Kaffebar & Brenner). Robert was the World Barista Champion a few years back.

Tom Owen from the USA (Sweet Maris's). This is the day after I got my "Manizales Haircut" for a whopping $2.70. I swore to Maria I would get my hair cut in Colombia, and I would order the "house special" giving no further instructions to the barber. This is what I got (although when I came from the shop, it was all slicked back and whatnot.

Kentaro Maruyama (Japan), cupper and comic from Maruyama Coffee. He does a very good "Samurai Cupper" routine (but your Zatoichi impersonation still needs work, Kentaro!)

Keizo Sato (Japan) Wataru & Co. Ltd

To the left is Geoff Watts from Intelligentsia, a regular Cup of Excellence fixture and good guy. To the left is Morten Wennersgaard from Norway (Solberg & Hansen), who used to buy many of the #1 lots at retardedly high prices until Kentaro and his buying group came along.

Becky Mc Kinnon from Timothy's World Coffee. Timothy's is a neat company ... big but still with an intense focus on quality and having real relationships with their coffee sources. However, I must say that thei coffee on Continental Airlines really blows.

AJ Kinnel from the UK (Monmouth Coffee)

Cristina, who was on the National Jury and owns some fantastic farms in the North. I tried to catch a photo of her spitting the coffee ... but you cannot get a bad photo of Cristina. It's just impossible!

Uh, me again.

Giles Hilton (UK) Whittard Coffee & Tea - he is the only real tea expert I have met (it is such a distinct field from coffee) and a experienced traveler. But I had to dock him a few points when he described a coffee as "a blonde in a mink." Giles, that's ridiculous!

Duane Sorenson of "The Stumptown", as he calls it.

Me again, with Erna Knutsen of Knutsen Coffee. Erna coined the term "Specialty Coffee" and was the first US broker with any clue about quality, about single origin coffee, about Estate coffee. We all owe her a royalty every time we hoist a cup of good coffee.

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International jury members for the
2005 Colombia Cup of Excellenc
South America
Silvio Leite Brazil AgriBahia
AJ Kinnel UK Monmouth Coffee
Flori Marin UK Mercanta Coffee Hunters
Dick de Kock Netherlands The Coffee Company
Morten Wennersgaard Norway Solberg & Hansen
Giles Hilton UK Whittard Coffee & Tea
Robert Thoreson Norway Mocca Kaffebar & Brenner
Kentaro Maruyama Japan Maruyama Coffee
Hidetaka Hayashi Japan Hayashi Coffee Institute
Yoshi Kato Japan Bontain Coffee
Keizo Sato Japan Wataru & Co. Ltd
Shinji Sekine Japan Caravan Coffee
Erna Knutsen USA Knutsen Coffees
Tom Owen USA Sweet Maris's
Ian Kluse USA Volcafe Specialty
Geoff Watts USA Intelligentsia
Becky Mc Kinnon USA Timothy's World Coffee
Danny O' Neill USA The Roasterie
Richard Borg USA Royal Coffee New York
Bob Fulmer USA Royal Coffee
Duane Sorenson USA Stumptown Coffee
Alejandro Renjifo Fairfield Trading