Located west of Bogotá, you will find the great mountains of Colombia’s Caldas province. Usually covered in a sea of clouds, the damp, and cool weather are the secret ingredients to making Nespresso’s famous and unique drink: the Master Origin Colombia washed Arabica coffee. National Geographic asked award-winning photographer Rena Effendi to take a trip to Aguadas and understand the curious phenomenon behind the Nespresso magic and how it is continuously providing a sustainable living for Caldas farmers.
Known as “the land that gives water”, Aguadas is a town that is packed with smallholder coffee farms where the high-quality coffee culture began. The place is situated 5,900 feet above sea level, which is why driving into town, you might, according to Rena, feel like you’re “entering the clouds.” Nespresso agronomists accompanied Rena on her journey into the coffee haven. Together they made their rounds to the family-owned farms. They do so to maintain great working relationships with these farmers for continuous supply of this great-tasting coffee, as indicated in the Nespresso’s AAA Sustainable Quality™ Program which was launched in 2003. The famous Nespresso coffee tastes sweet and winey, with subtle notes of red berry and candied apples. To ensure that this distinct taste is consistently maintained, the agronomists visited the local farms and picked those who were able to produce the delicious flavor, and researched further on their farming methods. They found that four common factors and practices among these methods: The higher the altitude, the better. Farms located between 4,900 to 5,900 feet above sea level had colder temperatures compared to the lower situated farms.
They produced the distinct flavors of the Nespresso coffee. The farmers practiced a strict screening and selection process in picking only the reddest, ripest coffee cherries. The farmers took longer hours in dry fermenting the coffee. They did so for 21 hours, 3-5 hours more than the typical 16-18 hours.
When drying the coffee beans, they only used the warmth of the sun and nothing but with these identified components, the AAA agronomists were able to come up with a standard procedure on how to create the perfect Nespresso recipe. All Aguadas farmers are required to abide by these protocols to ensure quality production.
Coffee expert Shirin Moayyad shares her thoughts on the process, saying, “It’s the lengthy fermentation that causes the peculiar, winey flavor that Nespresso really likes. The Arabica coffee cherries are picked when they are ripe, are pulped to remove the cherry skin, and are then fermented to loosen the flesh.
It’s because of the microclimate there that the fermentation takes longer.” Rena saw for herself the painstaking process of coffee-making the Aguadas way in one of her visits to the local farms. Apparently, picking red cherries is an art. Farmers would strap to their bodies to plastic pails where they would put the hand-picked cherries.
It could be quite risky, because these trees are usually located on steep and muddy slopes. It really goes to show that this artisanal process of making coffee is not just rooted in family tradition, but in genuine passion for good coffee as well. When the cherry pails are full, they are transferred into sacks and are carefully brought up back to the hill.
The cherries will be de-pulped and are thrown into metal-based machines that remove the skins. Wet, gelatinous parchment is then fermented, helping to loosen up the cherries’ flesh, or mucilage, thereby making it easier to peel off. In earlier practices, the mucilage was merely disposed off by throwing them into rivers. However, since the AAA protocol was implemented, Aguadas farmers have learned to use the waste as compost instead. It helps fertilize the soil and protects the rivers — a win-win for both the farmers and the environment.
Finally, once the coffee beans are ready, the locals band together in a celebration of their unique coffee culture. Vibrant and colorful chiva (goat buses) are loaded with sacks of coffee beans and are driven down into the cooperative, where coffee is then sorted, graded, sold, and roasted. Seeing the brightly colored buses complete with ladders (which were affixed in order to reach the cargo rooftop) truly made Rena feel that the Aguadas do have an artisanal method that is unique to their community.
She recalled how beautiful the chivas were and how the families all get together to pack these bags of coffee. On Saturdays the entire town wakes up to find the chivas descend. “It’s a party” says Rena. The chivas are symbolic of the place. In fact, farmers could use trucks to transport the coffee but they prefer to continue with the tradition. According to Rena, ”it just adds another layer of wonderfulness to f the Aguadas coffee experience.”