Interview with Liliana recorded on the farm by Elena Lokteva, Colombia Green Buyer for Ally Coffee.
Liliana Caballero is the owner of Hacienda Casablanca in Vereda Vericute, Municipio Floridablanco, Santander, Colombia. She tells the story of how she came to fulfill her dream of owning and operating a coffee farm, of building it into a beautiful property where both workers and guests feel at home.
“I always wanted to visit Casablanca, so we set up a date and I came! It was in pretty bad shape…the pond was like a mosquito magnet. But I was thinking, “How cool!” I didn’t have the resources to buy it, but I told my father how interested I was, how I thought I could make it into something. He suggested that I make an offer. He suggested that I make an offer because I had some money from finishing a big job at the construction company I also own and run.
I offered the owner fifty percent of what he was asking, but I didn’t even have that fifty percent! I maybe had twenty percent of that fifty percent. And he said, “Sure!” And I was like, “Ok, now what do I do?!” I asked him, “Well, could I keep this year’s harvest?” And he told me, “Sure, the foreman’s there on the farm, go ahead.
That year, it rained coffee! And with the harvest plus the money I had, we were able to buy Casablanca. That was the first year of our Casablanca. There was already coffee planted, some Tabi, but unfortunately they told me that Tabi wasn’t good, so I got rid of it.”
Tabi is a coffee variety developed by Cenicafe, the science and research arm of the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation. It is a tall, leafy rust-resistant cross between Typica, Bourbon, and the Timor Hybrid. It was promoted by the Federation for a time but replaced with Castillo and Variedad Colombia, which are crosses that include Caturra and are therefore smaller trees that can be planted at higher densities, whereas Tabi needs more space.
The coffee on Hacienda Casablanca today is Castillo, Colombia, Bourbon, and Gesha. The farm, with its thriving 10-year-old trees, procedures for quality control, and processing facilities is a realization of Liliana’s dream to produce coffee.
“I used to think, if I ever have a farm, I always wanted it to be a coffee farm. I always worked with my father on his vegetable farms. Sometimes, he would come home with his trucks full because there was no one to buy the vegetables. I told him he would do well growing coffee, because coffee always has a buyer, even for the lower quality. Why don’t you plant coffee if you know there will always be a buyer for it? With vegetables, sometimes there isn’t a buyer and then the produce spoils without being able to sell it.
But, coffee requires more labor and more investment. We’ve had up to 35 people during harvest, including those harvesting, drying coffee on the patio, and working in the mill. At the beginning of the harvest, we train pickers for manual selection by roasting and serving them coffee that was picked while green, when it’s under-ripe, so they can see what that tastes like and why they shouldn’t pick it.
2015 was first Geisha harvest. We mark the lots to see which trees were planted each year. We make a plan each year for how much to fertilize each lot based on when it was planted.”
Liliana has maps of the property that record when each lot was planted and with which variety. A large portion of Hacienda Casablanca’s property is forest in order to protect the freshwater that flows from the mountains.
“The stream on the farm starts in the Cerro de la Judía mountains. This range has lots of freshwater sources and supplies most of Bucaramanga. From the Quebrada Santa Barbara, we have some springs that are the main water sources for the farm. There’s a large part of Casablanca that we don’t cultivate because it’s the source of the stream, which we protect by planting bamboo and other trees. We see animals like wolves up there.”
The farm includes streams and a waterfall and is a stunning example of Colombia’s impressive natural beauty. The freshwater from the streams is used to process the coffee harvested on Casablanca, most of which is depulped, fermented, and fully washed in the clean, tile channels of the wet mill. While most farms in Colombia have both a main harvest peak and a smaller fly crop, Casablanca enjoys a more consolidated harvest period.
“The harvest periods are fairly concentrated. We don’t really have a fly crop. We have the main harvest from September to December, or October to January like we had this year. It depends on when the flowering is. We measure the Brix of each variety each harvest to keep a record of tree health and yield.
We don’t work too much with Natural processed coffees because of the risk of overfermentation. We’ve been working with Honeys to be ready to accept order from clients, for example if they request a certain volume of a particular variety processed a specific way.”
Liliana’s success with Honey processing includes Gesha lots, which cupped with a unique profile that showcases both the terroir of Santander and the Gesha variety. Like many specialty coffee producers, she is keen to develop relationships with roasters, to better learn what they look for so she can adjust her processes in the mill to deliver.
Casablanca has been evolving in the more than ten years since Liliana purchased the farm and began directing its operations. She pays equal attention to the management of the fields and of the farm’s infrastructure. The house for employees is well-maintained with bunk rooms and full bathrooms. To renovated the main house, Liliana hired an architect to draw up plans beforehand to ensure that the stability of the structure as well as the design were preserved.
When it came time to bring the plans to life, she knew who she wanted to hire. “I looked for the abuelitos, older men who do everything by hand, who know how to work carefully.” Liliana is not in a rush, and her patience is evident in the slow progress of the farm from a forgotten estate to a thriving coffee farm, filled with happy plants and happy people.
In Liliana’s construction business, she knows the risks of an industry where one can gain millions in a minute but also sometimes lose double. Elena, Ally’s buyer for Colombia who has worked with Casablanca to select lots, noted that, “Lilliana is keen on quitting that position and making the dream of her coffee farm come true for her family and people who can value the endeavor and passion she stands for to bring up Santander’s origin as a unique place for specialty coffee.”