Thursday, 23 February 2017

Colombia trip to origin

Road tripping in the coffee lands above Jardin

Standing in the middle of Plaza Botero, a plastic cup of fresh mango spiked with salt and lime in my hand, musica tropical blaring out from a passing taxi and Mercanta’s Juan Cano pointing out the city sights and I’m one very happy gringa. There can’t be many places in the world to better counteract the effects of a Scottish winter than Medellin. An explosion of colour and heat set against a dramatic backdrop of steep, forested hillsides, Colombia’s second largest city is a seriously fun place to kick off a trip to origin.

Once dubbed the most dangerous city on earth, Medellin now seems anything but. Forget Pablo Escobar and Narcos (and to be honest I think most paisas – as the citizens of Medellin and its province of Antioquia are known - are fairly tired of the association) this is a city on the up. The economy is booming and the once dangerous, isolated neighbourhoods that sprawl up the hillsides are now integrated by an amazing system of metros and cable cars that can lift you from downtown to a hill top barrio in a matter of minutes.

Fellow coffee roasters and street art at Comuna 13, Medellin

At Comuna 13, once considered the city’s most dangerous neighbourhood we ride a system of escalators up the equivalent of 28 storeys and admire the street art and valley views. Back in the leafy neighbourhood of El Poblado we down pints of limonada de coco at bars that bring you three caipirinhas for the price of one at happy hour and hang out in the Zona Rosada with its speciality coffee shops and cool little rooftop restaurants.

Loving the traceability

Here at Glen Lyon we have a not so secret obsession with the fabulous Antioquian coffees that we source through our green importers Mercanta. With farm names that roll off the tongue like salsa melodies - La Falda, Joyeria, Mercedes, Camelia – these are coffees that we (and our customers) have fallen in love with over the years. So when Mercanta kindly invited me to visit Antioquia this January you can guess I didn’t have to think twice.

Travelling southwest out of Medellin down ruta 60 we pass the mighty peak of Cerro Bravo and cross the Rio Cauca before climbing once again into the heart of the coffee growing hills of this amazing province. Coffee grows everywhere usually on impossibly steep hillsides centred around farms – or fincas – themselves a pretty flash of colour with flower filled verandas, fruit trees and a friendly farm dog knocking about. Just give me a hammock and a good book and I’m moving in.

My kind of finca - the beautiful Santa Barbara

The Co-operativa de Caficultores de Andes (or Cooperandes) is based in the nearby town of Andes and works with about 3,500 coffee growers in the surrounding area. Most of these farms are not much more than one or two hectares in size and as well as coffee usually grow bananas and plantain (for shade as well as extra income) and often have a pig or two in the backyard. We were driven around the area by Cooperandes’ Juliana and Melissa – possibly the two coolest Colombian women I know – who took it in turns to fearlessly navigate the landcruiser along dirt tracks of hairpin bends and outrageous gradients while regaling us with stories of failed brakes and coffee adventures.

Melissa and Juliana’s intricate knowledge of the farms and the producers they work with is impressive as was the evident easy camaraderie they share with the farmers. At Finca El Clavel, Luis Giraldo told us how he composts his coffee pulp to use on his farm. Three generations of Luis' family have farmed coffee, bananas and avocado at this beautiful farm, centred round a delightful 100 year old farmhouse at almost 2000m above sea level. At Finca Heliconia, the lovely Alexander family invited us into their kitchen to show us how they can now roast their own coffee on a stove top pan after hulling the parchment inside an inner bicycle tube. Technology at its most simple but effective. (Note to self here. Those harmless looking little yellow flies that land on your bare arms – yes they do bite and yes you will still be itching from them six weeks later.)

Luis Giraldo at Finca El Clavel

Cooking patacones - twice fried green plantain - in the outdoor kitchen at Finca El Chocho

Most varietals grown at the farms were caturra and castillo and what the farmers refer to as “dos mil” – and which, back home, we call colombia. Leaf rust is of course a worry and you could see the very occasional tree affected by roya but probably the main concern for the farmers we meet is being able to find and afford pickers during the busy harvest. Sadly, as is the case in so much of rural South America, young people are increasingly leaving the countryside and heading for the cities.

The hospitality that we encountered in each of these farms was second to none. We were welcomed with pitchers of freshly squeezed orange juice, platefuls of ripe mango and endless cups of coffee before being walked through every aspect of the production process - picking the cherries, seeing the parchment drying on the roof tops and witnessing the de-pulper in action. I was struck by just how integrated the whole coffee process is to the producers’ homes. Coffee trees are planted right up to the house and the depulpers, fermentation tanks and drying beds more often than not form a composite part of the farmhouses themselves.

Doña Isabel of Finca La Chila

One of my most memorable moments was at the delightful Finca La Chila, where the owner Doña Isabel, is almost 90 years old. This wonderful lady is an absolute inspiration. After nimbly showing us round her beautifully maintained farm she disappeared into her kitchen and came out 15 minutes later with stacks of sweet arepas de chocolo and slabs of salty fresh cheese, a combination so damn perfect that I'm still dreaming about it a month later back home in Scotland.

We spent the night in the pretty town of Jardin, the most perfect of Latin American pueblos that could have come straight out of the pages of a Garcia Marquez novel – all plazas and pavement bars, colourful tuk tuks and moustachioed coffee farmers strolling into town at dusk. After an eventful and, for some of us, a sleepless night thanks to, and in no particular order: allergic reaction (me), burst pipe (Juan), relentless ringing of church bells (Stephen and Alda), mild carbon monoxide poisoning (Grant) we sleepily emerged into the dawn to gather ourselves at a hole in the wall café serving warm empanadas and cups of tinto (Colombian style coffee).

Two days later and back in Medellin it was an absolute pleasure to meet up once again with the wonderful Pedro Echavarria of Pergamino Café as we set off in convoy to his family’s beautiful Santa Barbara Estate a couple of hours’ drive out of Medellin.

Fiona at the Pergamino dry mill in Medellin

We've been roasting Santa Barbara coffees for a few years now and they are always some of
our favourite Colombians to come into the roastery. It was fantastic to be able to see the wet mill at La Joyeria and see pickers bringing in the last of the season’s crop – often the only clue to their camouflaged presence among the coffee trees would be a beaten up motorbike and sacks of coffee cherry by the roadside. 

At lunchtime we stopped at Finca Camelia, one of the Santa Barbara estate farms and a Glen Lyon favourite. It didn’t take long to realise why everyone is so excited about visiting this place – it turns out that the farm manager’s wife is the most fantastic cook. Here we were treated to platefuls of beans, rice, patacones – twice fried green plantain - heaped with hogao and the best chicharron (crispy pork belly) this side of the Atlantic.

Later on we watched the sun set whilst standing among the caturra trees high up on a steep hillside at Finca Veracruz before stopping off for steak and cerveza at a roadside shack on the way back to Medellin. For a coffee roaster obsessed with South America you can guess that this is pretty much as good as life gets.

Finca Veracruz at sunset

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Rwandan Natural Has Landed!

Sam at Nyarusiza
We have such amazing memories of our origin trip to Rwanda last year and one of the highlights was hanging out with the awesome Sam Muhirwa of Buf cafe. When we visited his washing station at Nyarusiza we were super excited to see that he was starting to experiment with natural processing. 
Rwanda is not well known for its natural processed coffees. After the horrors of 1994 genocide, aid programmes invested heavily in the region with the establishment of washing stations and a focus on the production of fully washed coffee. As a result there was a shift in the country to quality rather than quantity and now nearly half of Rwanda's coffee production can be classified as speciality. 
We love the fact that Buf are now starting to produce high quality natural processed coffee and the result is testament to the great care and diligence they take in their work.
Our first bag of Rwandan Buf naturals has now landed and we can't get enough of the boozy, fruity notes we get in the cup. Needless to say it makes an amazing espresso and we have just sent a box down to the good people at Urban Angel on Edinburgh's Hanover Street. 

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Rannoch to Corrour Winter Adventure

We had an epic mini adventure last week when a few of us walked from Rannoch Station out to Corrour and back with an overnight at the fantastic Loch Ossian Youth Hostel. The weather on the second day was spectacular with Scotland at its awesome best. It was the first snow-bow experience for all of us - or is it a snow halo? Very cool.... We made lots of coffee using our snow peak dripper - sweet Colombian La Esperanza kept us warm in the freeze. Big thanks to Tim Willis for these amazing pictures.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Ethiopian Guji Gigesa - Our Solstice Special

With midsummer upon us there must be few places in the world as lovely as the Scottish Highlands right now. We are very excited to bring you the perfect coffee for this wonderful time of year - the bright and floral beauty that is Ethiopia Guji Gigesa.

It has been an amazing year for Ethiopian coffee and this offering from the Guji region is particularly spectacular. Like Yirgacheffe, coffees from Guji were once categorised together with those from Sidamo. However Guji coffees are quite distinct from either Yirgacheffe or Sidamo.

Guji is one of the zones of the Oromia region of Ethiopia and is located in the southern part of Sidamo. The people of Guji, known as the Oromo, have a long tradition of coffee cultivation where the hills and landscape allow for particular cultivars to develop. 

If you'd like to try our Guji Gigesa (and trust us you won't regret it) please check the online shop or pick up a bag from our roastery. 

Thursday, 19 May 2016


Sipi Falls harvest (photo: Kawacom)
We are unbelievably excited about our new Ugandan coffee from the Sipi Falls Organic Coffee Project. The project, initiated in 1999 high on the slopes of Mount Elgon in Eastern Uganda, promotes the cultivation of arabica coffee, trains farmers in agricultural techniques and best practices and also builds top-notch washing stations. It hopes to put Uganda firmly on the map as a producer of speciality coffee and judging by just how good this tastes in the cup we'd say: mission accomplished. In 2002 the project received its first organic certification and today over 10,000 smallholder farmers are involved, many of whom not only receive higher prices for their coffee but also benefit from other social, environmental and micro-finance programmes.

This map shows the main growing regions of arabica in Uganda. Sipi Falls lies in the Bugisu (green circled) region on the Kenyan border.

The famous Sipi Falls 
The Sipi plateau

And then, because good things tend to come in twos and threes we are thrilled to welcome Dave as our new roaster here at Glen Lyon. In one of those lovely twists of fate, Dave has spent the last four years living in Uganda, at Sipi of all places. 

Dave with his dog Yoda photographed at Sipi, Uganda

Friday, 16 October 2015

Hiking Glen Lyon to Bridge of Orchy

Cracking walk earlier this week from Glenlyon through to Bridge of Orchy. We walked into Glen Cailliche and then took a longish diversion up onto the ridge of Beinn Achaladair where we were rewarded by the most amazing panoramic across Rannoch Moor. Spectacular autumn walking with mixed light and long shadow. We made it into Bridge of Orchy from Coire a Ghabhalach with the last of the light. Brewed up a lovely Kenyan coffee from the Ramukia co-op on the hill!

Wednesday, 2 September 2015


I’m not sure exactly when I became addicted to the thrill of taking motorbike taxis in Rwanda but somewhere in downtown Kigali- bombing downhill, scratched up visor blurring my vision, driver crazily dodging trucks, cars and people  - I realised that this was a seriously fun way to get around town.

I had come to Rwanda at the invitation of Mercanta, our speciality green coffee importers, to meet the producers behind the spectacular coffee that we source from this origin. At Glen Lyon we have been huge fans of Rwandan coffee from the outset and a bag of Rwanda Musasa was on the first pallet of greens we received.  It’s one of the origins I get most excited about with the amazing florals and orange notes that we find in the cup and I sometimes think that if I was forced to only drink the coffee from just one origin for the rest of my life then I would chose Rwanda.

Rwanda is an astonishing country. Less than half the size of Scotland but with twice the population it remains one of the poorest nations in the world, tiny and landlocked in a geopolitical region not best known for its stability. Yet Rwanda has the highest percentage of women in parliament in the world. It’s leading Africa’s digital revolution with an initiative creating free wifi on buses, in hospitals, commercial buildings and restaurants. I never saw any litter during my visit, literally, anywhere. This is largely due to the fact that in 2007, enlightened Rwanda became the first country in the world to legislate an outright ban on plastic bags.

But what amazed me most about this amazing nation is just how happy, welcoming and friendly the people are. The horrors of the Rwandan genocide happened little more 20 years ago leaving the country decimated with “a society whose soul had been shredded… where hardly a person could be found who was not related to someone who had either killed or been killed”* How a country can recover from such horrific events is beyond me. But Rwanda seems to be doing something right.

In the years that followed the genocide, International aid programmes invested heavily in the region. Among them were programmes investing in improving the quality of Rwandan coffee with the construction of the country’s first washing stations. The initiative was a huge success not least thanks to Rwanda's natural resources: Fantastic rainfall, fertile soil and plenty of altitude – it’s no coincidence the tourist board’s strapline boasts Rwanda “a land of a thousand hills”.

Coffee is now one of Rwanda’s top exports bringing in US$60 million to the country last year. Back in 2002 only about 1% of total coffee production could be classified as speciality and there were just two washing stations in the whole country. Today there are some 230 coffee washing stations with 45% of Rwanda’s coffee production now graded as speciality.

I had wanted to visit Rwanda for a long time so you can imagine my excitement to be heading north to the Musasa Co-operative in the excellent company of Mercanta’s Raphael Prime, Jon Cowell of Campbell & Syme Roasters, the lovely Angelique Karekezi of RWASHOSCCO (Mercanta’s export partners) and Roger Niyonshuti, a man simply bursting with life and laughter and generosity of spirit. Roger was just 9 years old when his parents were killed during the genocide. Orphaned and alone he had to fend for himself working his way through school first running a bicycle taxi to now owning his own Toyota Landcruiser driving various officials, NGOs and coffee people like ourselves around the country.  

As we headed north out of Kigali, the city gave way to a countryside of red earth, eucalyptus and banana groves. We drove past roadside restaurants serving up skewers of goat brochette and enormous baked potatoes, women carrying impossible looking loads on their heads, horned cattle and smiling children greeting us with cries of mzungu.  In populous Rwanda there are people everywhere and it often seems that every inch of the land is cultivated. As well as tea, coffee, and tropical fruit, we saw fields of cassava, sweet potato, sugar cane and sorghum.

As with all roads in Rwanda, the tarmac eventually runs out and we soon found ourselves bouncing along red earth tracks. On a hillside high above Musasa washing station we met Andrew Hakizimana, a 50 year old farmer and a founding member of the Musasa co-operative, nattily dressed in a pinstripe suit and wellington boots. As well as his 3,600 coffee trees Andrew also grows bananas, passion fruit, cassava, sweet potato, tomatoes and avocado. His pride and joy, however, is the cow he received as a gift from Musasa. He now sells the milk for extra income and uses the manure to help fertilize his coffee trees increasing production and quality.

Later in the week we headed south towards Butare joined by Sam Muhirwa of Buf Café. Sam’s a bit of a legend in the world of Rwandan speciality coffee and it’s not difficult to see why. Apart from being a genuinely lovely person he produces consistently amazing coffees from his washing stations at Nyarusiza and Remera. He’s not afraid to try out new techniques either and has begun experimenting with naturals and different drying techniques.  At Remera or “Lemela” as Sam often called it (Rwandans have a endearing trait of randomly interchanging their Rs and Ls)  the last of the harvest was still coming in and it was great to see the washing station in action. We have loved the lots that we have had from Buf Cafe in the past and this year’s crop look set to be an epic one. 

After days of full-on coffee immersion it was a little ironic to stay the night in the middle of a tea plantation at the divine Nyungwe Forest Lodge where we shared the dining room with none other than the President’s wife. The only thing that could have disturbed my sleep in Rwanda’s most comfortable bed was the 5.5 magnitude earthquake that shook the whole country awake at 3am.

Dragging ourselves from the luxury of Nyungwe we headed north and west to Lake Kivu where coffee plantations, such as Kamajumba, grow right down to the lake shore and could easily claim the title of having the most beautiful setting for a coffee farm... ever. Having cupped these Kivu Belt coffees earlier in the week at the RWASHOSCCO offices back in Kigali I can vouch for their deliciousness.

Despite producing arguably the world’s best coffee it seems a shame that Rwandans themselves drink so little of it. This could be about to change as a number of specialty coffee shops such as Neo and Bourbon are starting to establish themselves in Kigali where you can now order a V60 pourover alongside your beef samosa.  
For now though Rwandans still prefer to drink tea, beer and infinite varieties of Fanta. Oh and Waragi, of course. Aka “War Gin”, Waragi is a clear liquor, distilled in Uganda and guaranteed to get you very merry indeed. Just opening a bottle of this stuff and you know the night won’t end until you’re on the dancefloor at 4am in a joint called something like Rosty Plus before heading home on the back of a moto-taxi revving it up through Kigali as the sun comes up.  As I said, Rwandan motorbikes, just like the coffee, have become a bit of an obsession.

*From Philip Gourevitch’s compelling account of the Rwandan Genocide “We wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We will be Killed with our Families