This past August when I was in France, I met a Colombian coffee roaster named Carlos who took time out of his day to show me around his roastery and talk all things coffee. He told me about an amazing collective of specialty coffee farmers called La Real Expedición Botánica (LaREB), led by a man named Herbert Peñaloza. I made it my mission to meet these people during my time in Colombia; however, their online presence was super limited. I sent a bunch of messages to anyone I could find on Instagram or Facebook connected to the organization, and – to my surprise – received a response from Herbert himself!
When I arrived in Bogotá, we made plans to meet at his warehouse. I had no concrete objectives for the meeting… I simply wanted to meet him and learn about LaREB, how it works, about Colombian coffee in general, how it’s different than Brazil… just pick his brain for a bit!
What was supposed to be a 45-minute meetup turned into a week of roasting and cupping together at his warehouse. Herbert is an extremely nice and social guy, and we clicked pretty well. I learned a lot about the Colombian market and his work exporting coffee. We ended up roasting many batches of coffee from different farmers in the collective.
Generally speaking, Colombian coffee and Brazilian coffee have some major differences. Most coffee in Brazil is processed as a natural (cherry left on the seed while it dries), while most coffee in Colombia is washed (the cherry is removed and the seeds are washed with water before drying). This is one of the factors that leads to Colombian coffee being more acidic in taste, while Brazilian coffee tends to be sweeter.
Of course, there are many other factors like altitude, varieties, and climate that contribute to the final differences in taste. It took a few weeks for me to get adjusted to this general profile of Colombian coffee, but now I am really digging it. That being said, I still love the extra-fermented naturals that give off a super sweet and fruity taste. I still found a couple in some samples of LaREB coffee beans. ?
After spending a week together, Herbert kindly invited me to spend Christmas at one of his farms in Palocabildo, which is a town located in the Eje Cafetero, a geological region in central Colombian famous for its high-quality coffees.
Getting to Palocabildo from Medellin (where I was before Christmas) was quite the journey itself. I ended up taking a taxi, two vans, one bus, and a motorcycle to arrive at the finca (what farms are called in Spanish). Passing over 2000 meters in altitude at several points, the drive was beautiful. I arrived at the finca tired and ready to sleep.
Over the next week, we did a lot of things together at the finca, involving both coffee work and other things. Herbert, Ana (another coffee farmer in the collective that also works on administrative and financial dealings with LaREB ), “Tomato”, and I spent Christmas and the following days together. We spent time raking coffee beans to dry them, sample roasting, cupping and scoring samples, and packaging bags with 40 kg of coffee each to be sent to the mill and then exported out of Colombia. Herbert brought an Ikawa, so I got to play around with that and roast many batches of samples from various farmers in the collective.
When we weren’t doing something with coffee, we spent a lot of time in the kitchen cooking. Herbert is a major proponent of transformation. His ideas for his two farms go further than just coffee. He also grows a lot of corn, in addition to many other plants. We performed many experiments with corn over these days and made different loaves of bread from it, combining it with a sourdough starter, a banana cake, and other foods. At one point, we even used ashes from a fire to mix with the corn and boiling water to remove the skin of the kernels.
We used ingredients fresh from the farm to make Mexican/Colombian fusion style tamales, spicy Colombian “mole”, thyme pesto, and pasta from scratch. In addition to this, Herbert brought a kombucha-like drink to split into three glasses to experiment with different flavor profiles.
Something I really admire about Herbert is his desire to always try and experiment with things. He doesn’t simply take someone’s word for how something is supposed to be done… he tries it himself and a million other ways to make sure he is producing the best quality.
Just how he transformed corn from his farm into cornflour, he also has the same desire to transform coffee beyond solely exporting green coffee beans. Herbert firmly believes that there is more value in transforming the coffee at origin and providing greater value that way, whether that be shipping roasted coffee worldwide or making coffee soaps and other products.
At the time of this article, he is offering a special holiday edition of three specialty coffees from farmers in LaREB, roasted fresh and shipped out. You can check that out here if there are any left!
Herbert and Ana hosted me for a whole week, showing me around the two fincas, sharing their home and food, their stories, and their time. They introduced me to farmers in the area and I got to practice a bit of Spanish.
I also flew my drone to take some aerial shots of the farms to help plan where they would plant coffee for the future.
If you ever find yourself in Colombia, make sure to try some of LaREB’s coffees!
Thanks Herbert and Ana for the friendship and hospitality… I hope to host you soon in Brazil!
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