A Simple Introduction to a Unique Coffee Story – PERGAMINO Cafe

A Simple Introduction to a Unique Coffee Story

Welcome to our blog and to pergamino.co. I would like to warn you that we have NO experience writing blogs and we are just launching our website, so please bare with us and let us know if we are sucking at either. For starters we will just give you a peek into where we come from and how we ended up doing just about everything from planting coffee seeds to shipping bags of freshly roasted coffee through FedEx all the way to the US, or doing pour overs at our shop in Medellin. Hopefully, at the end, you won´t feel this was just another “about us”  story.

Our brand is Pergamino, but our company's name is actually Café de Santa Bárbara, in honor to the name of the town in Colombia were our farms are located. The company was started by my father almost 40 years ago. We could say here that coffee has been in our blood for generations, which actually is the case, but the important truth is that my father is a serial entrepreneur with an obsession for juggling a hundred things at the same time, and that's the reason why it all started. When he was 32 years old, he sold a small house he had inherited from a grumpy aunt that only liked him (we believe that my father was after the house the whole time), and bought a small piece of land in what was at the time basically the middle of nowhere.

When he bought the farm, my father was in the midst of building his first successful business after a couple of semi-failures (or as he calls them, semi-successes). He was working from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. getting a colorant distribution company off the ground and the future was starting to look rosy, so he thought that just maybe he could afford a small house in the country where he could spend his weekends. He soon realized that the only house he could afford was some old horse stable that he eventually managed to remodel into a place where we could spend the night. However, he also soon discovered some old and abandoned coffee trees under the forest. We eventually found out that the farm that my father had purchased was originally a very small part of a great estate called Hacienda Jonás. This was an almost mythical farm, owned by a very rich and powerful 19th century family named Ospina. This estate was said to be one of the largest in the country and probably also one of the main producers of coffee and sugarcane. At one point it had its own currency and a train line built by the government to connect it to the city of Medellín. Obviously it helped that the Ospina's had two presidents, dozens of senators and other political big wigs in their family lineage. Anyhow, back to us, my father decided to start taking care of the coffee, rising early before work a couple of times a week and driving all the way to the farm and back before his first meetings of the day. Soon enough he had replanted most of the farm in coffee, built a beneficio (where the initial processing of coffee takes place) and told all his friends and family that his shrink was his farm. There was something about growing coffee that balanced his stressful day-to-day job, but he did not really know what he was getting himself into.

What started out as a hobby to clear his head and a minor project, evolved through the years to become a reasonable sized operation, although a large coffee farm has the equivalent revenue of a small business in the US. In 2010 our farms covered 400 hectares and produced around 10,000 bags of coffee, or the equivalent of coffee needed to feed 150 average sized Starbucks stores. At that point we sold our coffee like 99% of Colombian growers do, to private exporters that worried only about volume, so they blended it and sold it as “Colombia Excelso UGQ” (Usual Good Quality). We will get into these technicalities in another blog, but this basically means that our coffee was sold as generic Colombian coffee, and it got, even with all the buzz about Juan Valdez and the whole best-coffee-in-the-world advertisement, small premiums over the commodity price. This price has huge swings, ups and downs that have basically nothing to do with the price of production in Colombia but with financial factors beyond our control. There were some good years, but these were becoming farther and farther apart from each other.

Against this backdrop, and in the context of a very energetic father that was starting to pass the business along to his also very energetic children, our family decided to do something very uncommon in the Colombian coffee industry: export green coffee (not roasted) directly to importers and roasters across the world. Yes, we know that this does not sound as revolutionary as a Silicon Valley startup, but at the time it was pretty rare. Looking back, the first cold calls were hilarious, although at the time they were terrifying. I remember one to an old woman in Wisconsin, who did not even buy green coffee but purchased what little she used for her small shop in the local Cosco, and it was probably some terrible dark roast from Vietnam or something. Eventually we got the hang of it and started building lasting relationships with some amazing companies, who are now our main customers. If you are a little confused by now let me clarify: yes, this website is for ROASTED COFFEE, but our original business, and still the bulk of what we do, is exporting GREEN COFFEE that ends up being distributed by importers to specialty roasters across the world. We will get to why we are selling roasted online in a second.

When we started building relationships a whole new world opened up. We were initially after the exporter's margin, and with the hope that being able to tell our story, we could add value to the coffee we were trying to sell and finally acquire a price for our coffee that made our business sustainable in the long term. However, we discovered the amazing world of specialty, where coffees were valued primarily for their cup quality, measured in an objective manner, paid justly, and then having their story showcased to the world by great roasters and baristas. If you are not entirely versed in specialty coffee, and still think that Starbucks is the best thing out there, don’t worry, we will explain the difference in detail in another blog, but just know this: specialty is about craftsmanship, about attention to detail at every step of the production chain, about freshness, about traceability, and about delivering a final experience to the coffee drinker that is so absolutely different and amazing, that no explicit differentiation has to be explained.

After a couple of years of finding a home for our farms' production in different countries around the world, we realized that we could use these commercial channels to help other growers do what nobody had helped us do when we started. That’s why we developed our allied producer program. Its very simple really, we find great growers across the country, set up programs with sustainable prices (forget about all that fair trade nonsense, we pay premiums 40-150% over the market, while fair trade are usually pennies on the dollar, but more on this later), and connect artisan roasters around the world with these great coffees. Obviously what’s simple is the idea, the execution is incredibly complex. We now work with more than 300 growers in 6 different regions of Colombia, we cup through around 600 samples of coffees every week and select only what scores above 84 (specialty starts at 80, and its scoring is similar to wine). Logistics for bringing these lots from all over the place and setting up the paying structures is not easy, but the up side is that it gives us access to the best coffees our country produces in the fastest way possible, guaranteeing us coffees that are freshly harvested and have not been stored somewhere for a long time.

After doing all this, and against every advice from every business professor in the world—they all say “focus, focus, focus”—we decided to venture into roasting and having our own shop. We had no experience doing either, but had the advantage of working with great roasters across the world and learning the ropes with them. We also have a great team in our company, as hyperactive as our family and willing to learn the ropes of everything and anything. We didn’t really start with the idea of making it an important part of our operation, we just wanted to give the people in our community, whose history and culture is so tied to coffee, the chance to enjoy coffee as it is enjoyed in other parts of the world. Our local market is mostly—99%—terrible, terrible coffee. All the beans that are not exported due to quality issues are then used by the local roasters. Every defect possible in coffee is found in the blends used by these guys, and then they roast it to hell in order to placate the terrible flavors and aromas. We don’t want to say that we were the only ones, but we were part of the very first group of pioneers that brought specialty Colombian coffees to Colombians. In our flagship store in Medellin you can choose from 3-5 different origins, choose the way you want that coffee to be prepared and be taken care of by professional baristas that are passionate and knowledgeable about what they do. They also pull magnificent espresso shots and make amazing flat whites.

At this point a lot of people started to not only drink coffee at our shop but also take it by the bag and prepare it at home. Other than the care we took with selecting the green, and the traceability we delivered in every bag, people started to understand how special freshly roasted and freshly grinded coffee really is. There is just nothing like fresh coffee, and although its getting more and more recognition as of late, coffee across time has not been seen as a product that you have to drink fast after it is roasted. Just think about the cans in our family’s shelves, or the supermarkets packed with bags that probably have been roasted and even grinded for weeks or months. Fresh coffee is something powerful, something that really changes our experience, and most importantly, if you are taking the pains to buy great coffee, if its not fresh, you are just wasting your money.

Having this in mind, we knew that if we wanted to reach more people it couldn’t be through supermarkets, we had to deliver fresh, with at most just a couple of days after roasting. That’s why we started selling online, and delivering it to homes and offices through a great alliance we forged with Fedex. At the beginning we were just delivering to main cities in Colombia, but now we are delivering straight to almost every zip code in the US. Yes, it sounds crazy, but we are shipping directly from Colombia, freshly harvested, freshly roasted, directly to your doorstep in the US. And no, its not terribly expensive, you´ll see the price per bag of our coffee is extremely competitive with many roasters of similar or inferior quality.

Just think how far away is your average grower from your average coffee consumer, how many intermediaries, how many steps, how long it takes. We are shortening that chain, we are connecting our farms and our allied growers directly with our customers, being in the US, or at our shop here in Medellin. The result is an amazing cup of coffee, as fresh as humanly possible. Welcome to pergamino.co and please enjoy our coffee!

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