Continuing Innovation in Coffee Processing at Finca Monteblanco

Rodrigo Sanchez has built a name as not only a producer delivering consistent quality, but as someone finding new approaches to Colombian coffee as a whole. While there’s a definite drive for creating something new from a familiar product, he sees that goal as something of a heritage. “We believe that the secret of coffee production is in its past, like the production that our grandparents did or the first productions in fermentation of the Colombian coffees, which was what achieved a plan of recognition and great processes,” he says. It’s clear in the coffees from Rodrigo’s farms that he has a knack for experimentation, and that the team at Aromas del Sur draws inspiration from the industrious spirit of their forerunners. Using developments from other food and beverage industries like cheese and wine as guideposts, Rodrigo and his team are always looking to explore the potential of Colombian coffee. He hopes to not only stay on top of trends in the market, but also to help develop demand for coffee that pushes consumer expectations in a satisfying way.

The history of our relationship with Rodrigo has been filled with interesting and novel coffees. Ally Coffee began working with Rodrigo in 2016, and since then we’ve gone on to buy coffee regularly from all three of his farms, Monteblanco, La Loma, and El Progreso. Notably, Finca Monteblanco has been a space that Rodrigo, his wife Claudia Samboni, and the team at Aromas del Sur have worked to use as an experimental farm. Part of their hope in farming is “to see and to analyze how we can exploit its maximum potential, helping by means of pruning and nutrition so that the tree expresses great productivity to us, to see that the tree improves and works of a more complete way,” says Rodrigo. Harvest at the farm stretches through nearly the entire year due to the shifting climate over the last decade, which means that there’s plenty of opportunity to take calculated risks in cultivation, harvest, and processing protocols.

Rodrigo Sanchez holding a Pink Bourbon coffee cherry at Finca MonteblancoRodrigo Sanchez admiring a Pink Bourbon cherry at Finca Monteblanco

The team’s forward-thinking mentality has led to a number of interesting developments on his farms over the years, including the discovery and cultivation of the Pink Bourbon variety, the pioneering of a Cold Fermentation Washed process, and the implementation of a methodical and scientific approach to each step of production and processing. Rodrigo explains the thinking behind the approach to processes, “What happens if we ferment them more or less, if it is a cold fermentation, hot fermentation, or a mixture of fermentations? All of this will allow us to have a more open mind and the capacity to exploit this marvelous product, to question ourselves, to know how the microorganisms work and that they do this amazing work for us.”

The latest innovation to come from Finca Monteblanco has been the introduction of additives to the fermentation culture used in special iterations of the Washed process for the Purple Caturra variety. Purple Caturra was chosen due to its versatility across many processing methods thanks to its high sugar content relative to some other varieties. Numerous fruits, herbs, and other botanicals—like pineapple, passion fruit, anise, mint, and more—are used across different lots, with the intention of ultimately contributing to the flavor of the final roasted product. In Rodrigo’s words, with this process he hopes “to see those great characteristics that coffee offers us, without forgetting that it conserves its essence in spite of the fact that it is fermented with fruits or with some other component, but that it maintains its characteristic notes of coffee.” The process though, despite the intention of imparting flavor to the coffee, never mixes green coffee directly with any unusual additive. Instead, the whole process is based around the work that happens beforehand with the microorganisms that will be used to ferment the pulped coffee seeds.

Purple Caturra cherries at Finca Monteblanco
Purple Caturra cherries at Finca Monteblanco

This special Washed process begins with the creation of the fermentation culture that will be used. First, a mother culture was created containing microorganisms like lactobacillus and saccharomyces cerevisiae. 80 liters of this mother culture is separated to be fed with the chosen additive (like pineapple or herbs) and an energizing base like panela or molasses. The additive contributes flavor to the culture, while the sugary base energizes the fermentation and brings the culture’s sugar content to a level that matches the degrees Brix (sugar content) of the coffee that will be processed. This initial fermentation of the culture and the additives takes 8 days in order to reach the appropriate degrees Brix and pH value for coffee processing.

Before being processed with the additive-fermented culture, Purple Caturra coffee cherries are measured for sugar content as soon as they reach the mill at Monteblanco. Cherries are then floated to remove impurities before being pulped. The pulped seeds are deposited into a 200 liter tank along with the 80 liter culture that was previously fermented with the chosen additive. The tank is sealed and the coffee is fermented for 150 hours. During this process, the team keeps measurements to ensure that the environment doesn’t fall below 6 degrees Brix, or below a pH of 4. Finally, the coffee is dried for 2–3 days in direct sunlight and then for 15–18 days under shaded canopies until it reaches 10–11% humidity.

Finca Monteblanco in Huila, Colombia

Finca Monteblanco in Huila, Colombia

The results are remarkable, pushing coffee in a direction that gives producers like Rodrigo even more input into what the final roasted product can taste like. Lots like these also ask questions about where processing is going in the coming years, and what that can mean for specialty coffee. While additive-based processing is unlikely to become the norm for the majority of specialty producers, or even for microlots and special separations, we’re certain to see that experimental processes like Rodrigo’s are destined to become more and more a part of the coffee conversation.

The goal for the team at Aromas del Sur isn’t to reinvent coffee, but rather to test the boundaries of processing and fermentation as it has long been understood. Even alongside all of the drive to move coffee forward and discover what it’s capable of, the focus on conserving the innate character of the coffee itself hearkens back to a core tenet that provides direction to what Rodrigo and his team do. “This is what we respect and believe as producers, and it has been one of the great ways that has led us to obtain a great success and to be able to represent Colombian Coffee before the world, to continue being a soft and delicate coffee that falls in love every day and makes consumers around the world more and more passionate, to see how to exploit to the maximum that nature has given us and to be able to take it through history.”

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