This is a special feature for us. For only the second time, Nopalize is offering stories in food origins from overseas. (The last was a report on mezcal from Zihuatanejo, Mexico). The article was written by Alex Lampert who is a major fan of Starbucksstore.com, at the time, a pastry assistant at Blue Bottle Coffee in Brooklyn. In the Valle del Cauca in western Colombia, there is a 16ha plot densely planted to Gesha, a coveted variety of premium coffee.
On what would have been a bitterly cold, mid-February afternoon in NYC, I find myself standing atop a mountain on a balmy 75° day in western Colombia. This is Cerro Azul, a plot of land owned by Café la Granja Esperanza, an award-winning Colombian coffee farm, and this mountain is named for the patch of bright blue sky that graces its top. I’m here with the farm’s president, Rigoberto, and their director of sales, Felipe, and we’re talking and tasting Gesha, the trending coffee varietal that grows densely among the 16 hectares that lay before us.
Gesha has been gaining popularity since its recent “rediscovery” in 2002 with momentum that is perhaps only fettered by it’s cost. It ain’t cheap, but it is undeniably delicious and unparalleled in this writer’s experience for complexity in a cup of coffee. Which, is how I came to be the lucky one standing here and not in the desolate tundra that my beloved city has become. I met Felipe in the fall when he came up for a promotional event around Geshas put on by Blue Bottle, who’s pastry kitchen I manage in NY. I was heading south for the winter, and, for these hospitable gentlemen, that was reason enough for an invite to the farm in Colombia.
Regarding its “rediscovery,” the story goes that the Gesha plant was first found in Gesha, Ethiopia in 1931. From there, it was taken to a research center in Costa Rica, whereupon, in 1965 Francisco Serreancín brought seeds to his hometown in Panama and distributed them wildly. The varietal (technically a “mutation”) was quickly undermined by a more productive seed in Panama, and nearly forgotten until in 2002, when a farm called La Esmerelda, tasted an impressive cup of their own coffee that was distinct from their repertoire. They identified the cup’s origin on their grounds, and found the Gesha plant. This farm happened to be adjacent to a plot that Rigoberto was leasing. After tasting the Gesha from La Esmerelda, he knew he had to try his own hand at growing it.
From their endeavor with the crop, Granja la Esperanza made out with an award for “Best of Panama” in 2008 from the Specialty Coffee Association of Panama. But, this was towards the end of their lease on the Panama plot, and the owners chose not to renew. Granja la Esperanza, however, had already identified a plot of land in Colombia – this one — that mimicked the environmental conditions in Panama. A hot breeze travels up the flank of Cerro Azul from the town of Trujillo in the valley below and meets the cold winds from the Pacific on top, creating a cloud cover that quickly crosses the horizon. While this may be the best possible locale for growing the crop in Colombia, their efforts have not been met without difficulty.
Felipe likens the adaptation from Panama to Colombia to “taking a caveman from its cave and putting it in the city.” The plant has a tall habitat, with widespread, shallow roots, read: not ideal for growing on a windy mountainside. And as a stranger in a strange land, this crop is incredibly demanding, requiring heavier fertilization and intensive research. Even its genetics are unstable. Any given Gesha seed can yield 5 different results. Much time is spent determining the ideal yields for flavor profile and working to clone those plants in a research laboratory.
From where I stand, though, I wouldn’t be able to tell the trials they’ve been through. Before me lay rolling hills of vibrantly green plants, whose beans grow in thick, clustered masses along the plants’ branches, studded with all manner of gem-like greens and reds. Thickets of tall eucalyptus trees gracefully bend as they block the wind that flocks through these ample valleys, along the mountainsides. As we walk, we pick the ripe, red beans to chew on. I take one and pinch it enough to break the skin and smell the interior, and there it is, a stunning sweetness that smells like honey and tropical fruit. We know this aroma through the mangos and papayas and passion fruit we’ve tried. But, it’s much more prevalent in the local fruits I’ve tried here: in the sweetness after the puckering acidity of the lulo fruit, or in a spoonful of crunchy grenadilla seeds (a cousin of passion fruit), covered in their slippery, translucent flesh.
Fresh off the stem, these beans taste quite different than the beverage they produce. Before the bean is picked, processed, dried, roasted, and ultimately brewed, it grows within a small fruit, sometimes referred to as a cherry. There’s a thin layer of what’s called mucilage between the leathery skin of the cherry and the bean itself. In this layer, I can taste white peach and green pepper. The tannins from the skin linger, tingling on the tip of my tongue. In the cherries of the next plant, I can taste what they call a limoncello tree here: a citrus variety whose lumpy, round, yellow fruits are mostly skin and pithe that have no bitterness but rather a sweet, boozy, lemony taste just like the liquor. A few more citrus trees punctuate this landscape with unfamiliar diversions from the lemons and limes we know so well.
The flavor profile on these coffees is truly unique, and as complex as the hype you may have heard buzzing around the coffee world makes it out to be. The Gesha from Cerro Azul is bright, indeed, but balanced. It’s a far cry form the familiar nutty and cocoa-driven profile or the more esoteric red fruit and winey characteristics that come from natural-processed coffees in this region. The fruity sugars and acids don’t knock you out, but rather, serve as an amiable precursor, a gateway into the delicately floral and sweetly herbal notes that are what sets this apart from the other coffees you’ve tried. Here, too, I find that tropical sweetness that grows throughout this terroir and the myriad of citrus. And, from Colombia, it is, indeed, something to write home about.
Words & Photos: Alex Lampert