Inzá is a small town deep in the Central Cordillera mountain range of Southern Colombia. While it’s technically located in the department of Cauca, Inzá sits on the eastern side of the mountain slopes, so its harvest behaves more like neighboring Huila: The main harvest starts in November, and the fly crop or mitaca is in May. It’s a three-hour drive east from Popayán and a four-hour drive west from Pitalito, Huila—way out there in the middle of the hills.
This area is called Tierradentro, or “land within,” and it’s a territory rich with indigenous people and culture, pre-Colombian history and artifacts, and, perhaps most famously, the land of Juan Tama and the Nasa people. Juan Tama de la Estrella is a hero in this area: He was a leader of the Nasa people as they combatted the invading Spanish Conquistadors, and also, by the year 1635, managed to force the Spanish crown to legally recognize the indigenous territories, creating the five Nasa peoples who are still living and speaking the Nasa language in this region today, where many also grow coffee in communion with the land and nature, focusing on organic practices.
For five years, starting in 2010, we worked with the Nasa coffee producers to source containers of organic-certified coffee, which they gave the name “Juan Tama” in honor of their legendary leader. We were anxious to develop a long and sustaining relationship with the growers, cupping with them and trying to promote their territory as terroir distinct from Cauca or Huila. We even sought microlots among the smallholder in the tiny villages and pueblos. “They were some of our first microlots,” says Café Imports’ primary green-buyer for Colombia, Andrew Miller. “I remember them being 86 points of rich, juicy, brightly acidic and full-bodied coffees.”
Andrew also has less-fond memories, unfortunately. He recalls, “The project eventually fell apart because of the increased violence in the area between the FARC [The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] and the Colombian government. Today there’s still a military installation across the park from the Juan Tama receiving point and warehouse, but the military building is new because in 2014 a major bomb explosion took out the old military complex and some other buildings in the area—including our coffee, and a sample roaster we had donated to the group.”
We watched anxiously as the political situation changed and developed over time, and it was with great excitement that this past fall we received an invitation from the mayor of Inzá, through our export partners and friends at Banexport, to be a part of an agricultural fair and coffee festival to be held in the town’s central square over three days in December. With new Colombian peace discussions in place and the territory seeming safe to visit again, the mayor was interested in creating a new wave of coffee business to support the many growers in the area. As we remembered those top-quality cups and are very much still interested in sourcing from the producers there, we packed our spoons and boots and headed out to Inzá.
The event was three days jam-packed with music, advertisements, pop-up food stands, a parade with floats made on old Jeeps covered with coffee trees, depulping machines, papier-mâché burros, kids dressed in coffee-bag clothing—and six big gringos from Café Imports?? riding the floats like princesses, waving to the crowd.
Saturdays in Inzá’s central square are market days, and farmers come into town to sell their coffee, often on the street with intermediaries who might buy it in parchment and bulk it together to drive to a bigger town and sell to a mill. Banexport had recently opened a receiving station nearby, where they accept samples, cup and grade the coffee, and pay producers a rate based on quality instead of quantity. While this is the same process they use to suss out specialty coffee in other regions, it is a new way of doing business for the producers in Inzá, who are used to receiving the daily national market price. We believe that Banexport’s model will encourage better quality by rewarding it with better prices.
In order to attract the attention of producers in the area to this new concept, a cupping competition was arranged, to show them how price was equated with quality. “We set up a cupping area where producers could come see what we were doing,” Andrew says. “We set up a pour-over bar on the stage, an espresso machine, and even imported a fancy barista from Bogotá to make drinks for the people in attendance. I think it’s safe to say most producers in Inzá had never seen drinks like this—or an espresso machine, or 10 gringos in a room slurping coffee making strange sounds at high decibels.”
After two days of cupping, we selected the top 10 microlots, and identified other strong contenders that we could blend into Regional Selects to show off the regional profile—a new offering for us and a celebration of coffees from the microregion. Andrew says, “A great example of the coffee from this territory is in the notes I gave one of the 88-point microlots: ‘Rich chocolate, burnt sugar, sweet and tangy, juicy, cherry, strong acidity, sugary mouthfeel.’”
The last day, the 10 winners were invited onstage, told their cup scores and the descriptors we had assigned their coffees, and informed of the price they would receive for their lot—prices ranging from $3–$7 per pound. The crowd cheered, the mayor made a speech (as mayors will often do), and everyone danced.
“The beauty of an event like this is the simplicity, where we are looking for top-cupping coffees and the uniqueness of terroir, and producers are looking for a better price for the hard work they do,” Andrew says. In other words, it’s a win-win in Inzá.
Coffees from the first Inzá Cup competition are available in limited quantities now, and Regional Selects are coming soon. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information, or browse our offerings from Colombia at cafeimports.com/offerings.php.