Last month, Colombia’s national coffee growers federation (FNC) held an international live auction for the organization’s second ever National Quality Competition under the “Colombia, Land of Diversity” banner. The event was designed by the FNC to showcase coffee diversity from producers large and small from throughout the country, while facilitating access to high-end international markets to help improve farmer incomes.
It worked. Twenty seven of the top coffees identified in the competition were sold in individual lots — there were separate categories for small lots and large lots — with the lowest per pound price generated through the auction at $5. At the other end, a lot of late harvest washed caturra from Hacienda San Alberto, located in the municipality of Buenavista, in the department of Quindío, which went for $31 per pound.
The sale to a buyer from Shanghai was an unprecedented financial achievement for the farm’s owners. It also represents a culmination of efforts after multiple generations of family ownership of the farm that dates back to 1972, the most recent several years of which have focused heavily on quality building, vertical integration and marketing in the development of a premium, single-estate product.
Brothers Juan Pablo and Gustavo Villota have been working with their father, Eduardo Villota, who has worked the farm for decades as the second-generation owner. After growing up around the farm, the brothers received advanced education overseas, each developing an interest in the wine industry before eventually deciding to return home and apply some of their practical knowledge of the wine market to the family farm.
“San Alberto was always our family refuge, initially the playground to enjoy the company of the family and then the escape from the corporate life that we undertook,” Gustavo Villota recently told Daily Coffee News, adding that it was his father’s keen agronomy knowledge that provided the foundation for the farm’s most recent developments. “Always a source of inspiration, we saw it as a blessed soil that presented a very interesting world to us: nature and agriculture.”
In 2009, the family opened a coffee shop surrounded by coffee trees on the farm itself. That was followed by the opening of a second shop at the Museo del Oro in Bogotá and a third in old town Cartagena. All three locations have helped spread the San Alberto brand domestically, while generating interest in coffees from the modestly sized 15-hectare farm, which also includes a wet mill, a roastery and a quality lab.
On the farm itself, 25 percent of the planted area is set aside for nurseries, renovation and experimentation, while the remainder of the farm is planted with either caturra or Castillo Paraguaycito. Yet another 5 percent of the farm is dedicated to testing other varieties.
Once coffees are harvested, they go through Hacienda San Alberto’s trademarked “Five Step Selection” quality control process, which includes (but is not limited to) harvest selection, density sorting through flotation, hand sorting of the cherries and the wet parchment, sorting according to bean size, and cupping protocols.
“We have a very strict traceability,” Villota said. “We know exactly the origin and processing particularities for every batch processed in the farm. This is very important when matched with the cupping.”
Interestingly, the company has had very little interaction with buyers in the United States over the past 10 years, and thus far its primary markets for export have been Korea, Russia, Belgium, Denmark, The Netherlands and Canada.
Yet for Villota, the competition and auction successes on national and international levels, respectively, represent validation of the work being done at the farm, while helping to also build the company’s already strong domestic roasting brand.
“Having won as the most exotic coffee of Colombia, perhaps the attribute most looked after by buyers, and then receiving the highest bid for the auction is unbelievable,” Villota said. “We are sure next harvest we will not have enough coffee to fulfill the demand. These are very exciting times for us.”