Medellín: Colombia’s new coffee culture

In a radical move to modernise his family’s coffee farm, Pedro Miguel Echavarria now grows, roasts and exports beans to a global network of distributors. And through the opening of his own cafe in Medellín, he’s also helped create a vibrant cafe culture in Colombia’s second city.

Coffee runs through Pedro Miguel Echavarria’s veins. His father, Pedro Senior, first started growing it more than 40 years ago, while his great-great-grandfather, Don Alejandro Angel, was once Colombia’s biggest coffee exporter.

‘Coffee has always been my father’s great passion,’ says 29-year-old Echavarria at the Pergamino cafe he launched in Medellín’s upmarket El Poblado district back in 2012. The coffee sold there is grown and roasted 30 miles south of the city at the Echavarria family’s Santa Bárbara Estate, set in the foothills of the Andean mountains. Covering 350 hectares, the farm now exports to speciality roasters across the US, Europe and Asia.

It hasn’t always been the case. For over three decades the coffee beans grown on the plantation had been sold on the open market by a third-party exporter to the likes of Nestlé and Starbucks. Things began to change in 2010 when Echavarria Junior entered the family trade after graduating from university in the US, with a different vision for the family firm.

He was convinced that the future of the farm lay in the artisan and independent coffee scene that he saw exploding across American and European cities. To reach these markets, he felt the family needed to export the farm’s coffee directly to distributors and improve the quality of the beans that they were growing.

Pedro Miguel Echavarria

Estate of mind

He had been making his case to his father and older brother Camilo for several years. ‘The more we discussed it, the more it started to make sense. We’d had good and bad years. I knew if we wanted to make the farm sustainable and grow, we had to push things further and put a new spin on tradition,’ he says.

Unifying the farm with the family’s identity and heritage played a part in his thinking, Echavarria says, rather than ‘starting something for the sake of it’. He admits that it was a risk that might not have worked out, but maintains that his father took little convincing. ‘He’s 72 years old but as hungry as ever to try new things,’ he says. ‘Sometimes we actually have to hold him back.’

The first problem was neither Echavarria Junior or Senior knew the first thing about exporting coffee. The estate had always handed the green beans directly to exporters.So they started cold-calling distributors in the US and pitching the farm to them, asking how the process worked along the way.

At the same time, the farm had to step up the quality of its produce in order to put together a convincing sell for distributors dealing with specialist roasters and coffee houses. Production had to be reduced to prioritise more sophisticated growing and cultivation methods.

Farm visits

The first container of beans was exported in October 2011 to the New York-based Royal Coffee. Trade has since grown to the extent that Santa Barbara Estate Coffee now exports 7,000kg of coffee per month to six distributors worldwide — each of which sells to as many as 60 small-batch roasters.

It’s pushed Echavarria deeper into the world of specialist coffee. Distributors have been making visits to the farm, getting a first-hand understanding of how the beans are farmed on the estate. Echavarria meanwhile has got to know his US clients at close quarters, witnessing the impact of quality coffee beans on roasting and retailing, which has triggered an interest in roasting himself. ‘If you only understand quality from a growing perspective, it’s possible that it isn’t going to be right from a roaster’s point of view,’ he says.

In 2012 Echavarria imported his own roasting machine — a forward-thinking move among Colombia’s coffee growers.

City limits?

Six months later Echavarria opened Pergamino, the company’s first cafe, extending the company along the supply chain. As with the roasting process, specialist coffee retail was a strangely radical idea in a country famous for its coffee production. ‘We had to open our own cafe as there wasn’t anywhere in Medellín that would have actually sold our coffee at the time,’ he says.

It’s been a runaway success, despite uncertainty about the city’s appetite for the concept prior to launching. The space Pergamino occupies has already expanded three times since launch. To keep up with demand, the estate now roasts 350kg per month for its outlets; not bad for a country that traditionally produced but never drank a lot of coffee.

Cafe sales comprise just a fraction of the vast export operation but Echavarria sees retail as crucial for the future of his business. ‘More and more people now have an interest in, and money to buy, speciality coffee,’ he says. ‘Retail is very capital intensive but it’s a way of boosting the sustainability of the business.’ A retail store has been opened at Medellín airport and there are plans for a third outlet.

Eventually, Echavarria hopes to open outside the city and perhaps even abroad; he certainly believes Pergamino can compete on the world stage.

Taking on the big boys

Supporting Echavarria’s belief in the country’s new taste for coffee are the expansion plans drawn up by Starbucks for Colombia. After opening its first outlet in the capital, Bogotá, in 2014, the corporate behemoth is to open 50 stores across the country over the next four years.

‘I’m sure they’ll get some strong early sales, people thinking, “Wow, civilisation has arrived in Colombia,” but their prices are actually stupidly high,’ says Echavarria. ‘We’re building a powerful brand that is creating a culture of coffee consumption in the city. We have no worries. They’re always going to have more money and leverage than us but we can beat them on quality.’

Echavarria’s plans to stretch his family farm along the supply chain has already inspired a new generation of coffee selling Colombians and has placed the family business on a strong footing as the country’s cafe culture continues to percolate.

The small growers
Colombia’s smaller coffee farmers are being encouraged by Echavarria to tap into the demand for high-quality coffee roasters around the world.
He’s already persuaded swathes of other family-run coffee producers that there is a lucrative industry outside of the big chains and conglomerates. He has signed up over 250 small-scale speciality producers to form a powerful wholesale operation, taking their beans into the artisanal coffee market.
According to Echavarria, the business’s transparent structure reveals who is earning what, with the bulk of the profits always going to the grower.

This story originally appeared in Courier Feb/Mar.