Of long roads and steep slopes

von Stefanie Schöler
8. September 2020

A journey to the Colombian roots of Trier's city coffee.

Guest article by Stefanie Schöler. It's a hot Sunday, but we haven't noticed much of the heat on the winding roads in our small, air-conditioned rental car. The 104 kilometre stretch from Medellín (pronounced Medejin), the provincial capital of Antioquia (one of the largest coffee regions in Colombia) to Ciudad Bolivar took over two hours. Again and again the road was blocked by small landslides, clean-up work, construction sites or slow-moving trucks. The winding road does not stop the bus drivers, who steer their colourful buses through the landscape, from overtaking us at a risky pace over and over again. Yes, that's Colombia.

Today we are researching the roots of Trier's city coffee and want to find out where it is grown and which people produce it. We have an appointment with Juan, the manager of the two haciendas "El Encanto" and "La Claudina", on which the "black gold" is cultivated. Arrived in Ciudad Bolivar, we are positively surprised. It's a lively little town, whose access road is lined with hotels and haciendas - but it doesn't look touristic to us at all.

The central square of the city, pleasantly shaded by beautiful large trees, is full of people sitting in the numerous cafés or on stairs or simply standing around in small groups. Life in Colombia takes place outside because it's warm and you might miss something if you‘d stay at home. The people here are sociable and open.

Juan picks us up and we go out for something to eat. It is a typical Colombian lunch menu, consisting of a tasty fish soup, followed by delicious breaded fish, nice coconut rice, some fried banana and an arepa (a kind of small flat bread made of corn). We talk about coffee, fair trade, direct imports, Juan's study visit to Heidelberg and his work as a barista in Luxembourg. In the conversation we switch between German, English and Spanish, as each language has sometimes advantages and sometimes disadvantages for our communication.  Finally we have a small sweet dessert - something with cinnamon, like often here.

And then Juan asks us if we feel like a coffee. Yes, of course! So we go to the laboratory, where he and his colleagues make us try different types of coffee from different filter methods. The Chemex, the V70 - everything is there. Do they also know the typical German Melitta filter? I wonder. Of course, but for their coffee they prefer a different one in which the water stays on the powder a little longer before it drains into the pot. The filter paper is first carefully rinsed and the jug gently preheated at the same time. Only then does the roasted and ground coffee grown here enter the filter - it couldn't be fresher. We drink a different roast than the one we could buy in Trier, where the coffee is drunk a little weaker than in Germany. And it tastes a bit sour. Juan smiles, yes, this is the speciality in Colombian coffee, the fruity, slightly sour note. We admire the laboratory and marvel at the different packaging we see here, from Colombia to the whole world!

"About a third of our coffee goes to Trier, especially as Trier city coffee. That's good, because we get a fixed price there, the coffee is direct import for you. We would like to sell even more coffee this way, the demand should be even higher." But I don't see a fairtrade seal on any of the packages. I had already missed that at the Trier city coffee, so I ask. "Yes, we are not fairtrade certified, that's true. But I'll show you why it's better for both sides," says Juan, standing with a pencil against a glass panel on the wall. He paints me figures and graphics, years, production and purchase quantities.

In the end, I understand his attitude: fairtrade is basically a good thing, it focuses on the fact that in the industrialized countries we often pay far too little for coffee, fruit, flowers, spices and other products from the countries of the global South. Thus, the Fairtrade seal raises awareness of this abuse and, through the fairtrade premium, also directly increases the producer's profit. But there are also disadvantages: the exporter has to pay the costs for certification, which is an insurmountable hurdle for many producers, especially smaller ones. In addition, Fairtrade, UTZ or the Rainforest Alliance only pay a fairtrade premium of approx. 20 cents (Fairtrade)! The rest of the price of the coffee, for example, is still subject to the current prices on the world market.

"And you can certainly imagine that production is also subject to natural fluctuations. 2017 and 2018, for example, were catastrophically bad years for us. We were only able to harvest nearly 40% less coffee beans than usual. The market logic says that we should almost double the price. But it doesn't work that way, because we have competition around the world and not all countries had bad harvests. Fortunately, we at least have a contract with Alfons Schramer (Managing Director, Mondo del Caffè) , which guarantees us a certain basic income, since we have a fixed price which, depending on the quality of the coffee, is between five and seven euro eighty per kilo. The price is not based on the world market price and therefore does not fluctuate as much. But in the last two years we still basically lost money. All in all, the whole fairtrade system is very eurocentric and that is extremely unfavourable for us". "And" Juan adds, "we don't have the fairtrade certificate, but Alfons Schramer did visit us here together with Nikolaus Bieger (rural development manager) and they checked everything according to the standards of FLO". I remember seeing the test report online on homepage of the Trier City Coffee.

Thoughtfully we drink our meanwhile cooled coffee. Quite unfair, I think - I have never noticed that the price of coffee has suddenly doubled. Actually, it felt cheaper over the years. In the discount store I saw coffee with the fairtrade and the organic label for less then 10€ per kilo - how can something like that work? Probably not at all, at least not really fair for everyone along the production chain. We as consumers have so little ideale of the coffee farmers' production conditions and problems. We are still sitting on Boxhagener Platz in Berlin, Darmstädter Markplatz, Münchner Viktualienmarkt or Neustraße in Trier and drink our latte macchiato, espresso or filter coffee and the price doesn't change as drastically as it should have to due to the sometimes extreme crop failures.

But before we fall too far into thoughts about the injustice between producer and consumer countries, the dynamic Juan is already ready for the next program point. "Now it's time to visit the coffee plantation, before it gets dark" he shouts and we grab our stuff. "Unfortunately I can't show you directly the plantation where we grow the Trier city coffee, it's too late for that and we'd have to walk a long way. That's why we now drive with my car to a friend of mine, whose plantation is a bit closer and you can drive up to the top". I am a bit disappointed, because I was curious where exactly our coffee is grown. But when I have a look at my watch, I realize that we only have 2 hours of sunlight left, because it gets dark here shortly after 6 pm (all year round, because the equator cuts Colombia). So we get into the jeep and as we make our way up the steep and stony path I wonder what the coffee slopes of Juan's hacienda will look like if this plantation is easy to reach.

First we stop at the foot of the hill where the coffee plantations are located and are greeted by two dogs wagging their tails. We admire the garden in which there is also a mango tree, even the unripe green fruits smell delicious. Then we walk a bit further to the processing plant. It smells slightly alcoholic, and in one of the basins coffee beans swim in foamy water.

In these halls the coffee is washed, fermented, peeled and dried before it is packed in bags and ready for export. We look everywhere and take pictures while Juan explains the process and answers all our questions.

Finally the off-road vehicle takes us a little further up the hill, in some places a real challenge for both vehicle and driver, but after only five minutes we finally reach a point where we can't go any further by car. "And how do the pickers get here?" I ask myself and Juan. "Most of them have motorcycles that get them up here quite well. But then, of course, it's quite a hard job. In any weather, in the bright sun as well as in pouring rain the coffee is being picked here. Today is Sunday, there are no workers on the plantations and moreover it’s shoulder season, only about 30 to 40 kilos per day ripen. The main harvest seasons are June to July and October to December". "And how much does a picker earn? "The pickers here are mostly seasonal workers, many come from the region, even from the village, but some come here just for the harvest. And they are paid according to performance, Per kilo they get 500 to 600 Colombian pesos, which equals 15 to 18 euro cents. A picker can pick 150 to 250 kilograms of coffee cherries per day and therefore earn between 22.5 and 45 euros per day.
So the system is the same as for almost all harvesters, such as in Germany with asparagus, for example, I think. The legal minimum wage of 828,116 Colombian pesos (equivalent to about 235.7 €) would have been reached by the harvesters after 11 days of work at the latest.

At the moment it is idyllic, you can see the green slopes, no one is here and at the wonderful green coffee trees a few bright red fruits shine. "Try this one" says Juan and holds a ripe coffee cherry under my nose. With caution I nibble at it, actually quite delicious. On the outside somehow fruity, then sweet and the now still green coffee bean tastes only very midly like the stuff that once will be poured in my cup. "There's even tea from the coffee cherry now , but we don't produce it here."

The sun is slowly setting on the horizon, so it's time to take a jeep ride to the village, where we arrive in a sudden heavy rain. We say goodbye to each other over a last coffee, but we are determined to meet again next summer at the World Coffee Festival in Berlin. I'm curious to learn what Juan will have to say about the new harvest and the endless coffee hills. While we slowly make our way home along the winding roads to Medellín we agree: it was a great day and an exciting visit. Hopefully there will be even more German-Latin American direct contacts in the future that will offer people in Germany a good cup of coffee at a good price and give the people in Colombia an income from which they can make a living. Until then, I hope that even more people in Trier will recognize what kind of treasure this city coffee is. A product, grown only for them in Colombia at fair conditions, brought to Trier, carefully roasted, and all this by people who know each other and Trier personally - what more could you wish for?

Stefanie Schöler

Stefanie Schöler has a doctorate in psychology with a focus on occupational health and work safety and lives in Berlin. In her free time she is committed to fighting food waste and for fair trade. For her trilingual (German-English-Spanish) blog www.fairtradeajourney.org she visits people in the producer countries, interviews them and writes about their everyday life. Her Fairtrade journey began by chance in the Weltladen in Trier and led her to the roots of the Trierer Stadtkaffee in Colombia. She has been an avowed fan of Latin America ever since. The article published above can also be found here on her blog.

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