Behind the Scenes at Finca Monteblanco

In May, Ally Coffee traveled to Finca Monteblanco in the municipality of San Adolfo de Acevedo outside of the city of Pitalito in Colombia’s Huila department with a group from Brazil as part of a producer to producer exchange trip prize for top finishers in a Minas Gerais cup quality competition.

Colombian hosts and Brazilian visitors.

Finca Monteblanco is well known both in the region of Pitalito and among coffee roasters around the world for the Pink Bourbon varietal, a truly unique coffee variety that is more pink than it is Bourbon, as producer Rodrigo Sanchez explains.

Pink at peak ripeness.

“The name “Pink Bourbon” was assigned for commercial reasons. From what I understand, it is more of a Geisha than a pink Bourbon.

We went to see the lots my grandfather planted and the same trees were there. When we cupped them, it was the same coffee. In 2012 I asked my grandfather because he was the one who planted them. In the 80’s he had gone to San Adolfo to buy nursery seedlings. We asked the neighbors what the coffee was, but they just called it “Naranjo;” no one knew the cup profile of this coffee. We were the first to try it.

We were able to trace the variety back to the 70’s and 80’s, but nobody knows where it came from. Around here they say that Cenicafe — the Federation — had a research farm with varietals from Ethiopia, Kenya. It could be that [the Pink Bourbon] is an escaped seed from one of those varietals.
It could be a mutation or a cross. It is very resistant to leaf rust. That’s one reason I think it’s not a Bourbon. Bourbon is very susceptible to leaf rust. And, in the cup, it is very similar to a Geisha. I actually like Pink Bourbon more than Geisha because the body is fuller and there is a more balanced acidity. It has flavors of tropical fruit, maracuya, lemon, tea, jasmine, red fruits, juicy, creamy.”

Rodrigo, his wife Claudia Samboni, and their team on the farm and in the Aromas del Sur quality control lab have been working for years to develop Finca Monteblanco as an experimental farm. In addition to cupping and evaluating each variety they find on the farm and then cultivating those with the most desirable taste profiles, Monteblanco experiments with new and different ways to process coffees.

Rodrigo explains that, “We are harvesting every two weeks. We have ten months of harvest, with two peaks June-July and October-November. Eight or nine years ago it started to be like this, because there aren’t defined rains. Tomorrow, for example, it rains. And so this results in spontaneous flowerings.”

Because the farm’s harvest volume is now distributed over ten months of the year, there is time and space to process coffees with extended fermentation times and as Natural or Honey processes, which require time and half to dry compared with washed coffees.

Natural coffee in the solar dryer.

Finca Monteblanco is also pioneering Cold Fermentation, a method of increasing the time the coffee seed spends in contact with the sugary mucilage, all in a controlled environment.

“When we have coffee with 27–31 degrees Brix we do cold fermentation. What we do in this process is give the mucilage more time in contact with the bean, which adds more sugars for final sweetness. That’s what we’re looking for in the cold fermentation. What we do in cold fermentation is extend the process so the mucilage has more contact with the bean.

In a GrainPro bag, we put the coffee in the refrigerator between 10–13 degrees Celsius for 70–76 hours (three days) in fridge. There’s a setting on the thermometer to keep the temperature between 10 and 13 degrees Celsius.
We depulp it, put it in the bag, and put it in the fridge. We’ve had scores up to 96 points. We wash it and then it goes straight to the [shaded] African beds to dry.”

The degrees Brix Rodrigo refers to is a method of measuring the amount of sugar in a solution, in this case the percentage of sugar in the slimy mucilage that covers the coffee bean inside of the ripe cherry. Rodrigo and his farm team use the degrees Brix as indications of when to harvest and how to process harvested cherries. Post-harvest processing begins with fermentation and washing, and ends with monitored drying.

Antonio Cezar Junior measures degrees Brix.

“Direct wash is 32–36 hour fermentation when we have a coffee between 22 and 26 degrees Brix. When we are going to process a Natural, we harvest between 20–22 degrees Brix, we sort out floaters, and it goes directly the drying beds — on a day with lots of sun. If it’s not a sunny day, we don’t process Naturals. Naturals go directly to the parabolic dryers, where the sun hits directly. It’s there for three or four days, until we squeeze the cherry and it doesn’t have water to avoid mold and phenolic defects. Then we bring it down to the shaded beds. The days the coffee is in the parabolic dryer we’re turning it every couple of hours.

We want to extend the drying process so that the humidity loss happens at a constant rate, which keeps the beans more stable for a longer period of time for the roaster and they won’t age poorly. [On the registration sheet] we record the varietal, start date and time, end date and time. And then we bring it to the warehouse in Pitalito for cupping.

The temperature here is stable, around 20 degrees Celsius. There is an air current. The coffees dry for 30–45 days. Thirty days for washed coffees; forty five days for Naturals. The beds are made with a plastic screen that won’t rust.”

Rodrigo Sanchez shows Edson Tamekuni the shaded African beds.

The floor of the solar dryer at Monteblanco is covered with a layer of rice husks under mesh to prevent the formation of moisture accumulation and mold on the drying beans and cherries.
Finca Monteblanco’s coffees achieve consistently high scores because the team adheres to the processing protocol they developed through close observation, is attentive in execution, and because the trees are properly cared for year-round to ensure a healthy harvest, even as it matures cherry by cherry rather than in a single spurt.

Rodrigo works with Yara fertilizers and takes advantage of the consulting services available along with their products. Rocio Garzon is the agronomist who works with Monteblanco. She explains that,

“Coffee plants need 16 nutrients. To achieve quality also demands certain nutrients. To apply only one product leaves the plant missing half its nutrients. Quality and quantity are not easy to find on one farm. Either I have quality or I have volume, but it’s difficult to have both. Rodrigo is a very dedicated producer. He fertilizes when it needs to be done, not when he has time or has money. He applies the plan.”

Finca Monteblanco is a very special place, and the coffees the team produces there truly capture all the hard work that goes into growing and processing them. One of the most exciting aspects of agriculture, and also the most terrifying for producers, is that the results change from season to season. This variable unpredictability is what delights and surprises us when it presents as complex flavors in the cup, and it is also what frustrates and disappoints us when it shows up as blighted beans or one-dimensional tasting notes. It is always possible to take the best care of the harvest, but each crop is different, meaning that agricultural is an exercise in patience and willingness to try and try again.

Young, healthy trees on Finca Monteblanco.

In the café, coffee is often associated with speedy service, but those of us in the middle parts of the industry behind the scenes must constantly adapt and troubleshoot, work with what the land and weather give each year, and accept the wonderful when it happens but know that nothing in nature is guaranteed twice. Passing along an acceptance of variability to final customers is a challenge when much of consuming culture is prepackaged and sold as repeatable, but Finca Monteblanco is a shining example of what happens when we harness the differences between varieties and processes and play with the variables to always create something unique.

Rodrigo Sanchez on Finca Monteblanco

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