The City Paper: A taste of luxury harvested at the heart of Quindío
t’s not every day that you come across a Colombian coffee farmer who speaks fluent English, earned an international business degree from the Rotman School of Management (University of Toronto), and worked in marketing. But then again, it’s not every day you are served Café San Alberto.
Perched on a steep ravine of the Central Cordillera and blessed with stunning views of Colombia’s smallest department Quindío, the Hacienda San Alberto can trace its lineage back three generations to when Gustavo Villota’s grandfather Gustavo Leyva decided on planting coffee at 1,500 meters above sea level, and against the recommendation of locals.
As the Quindío valley developed its coffee heartland given its ideal climate for growing Arabica, and the only bean allowed to be harvested in the country by order of the National Coffee Growers Federation, by the 1970s this region was a dominant player in supplying the world’s insatiable demand for a smooth cup. Even though the slopes of the department’s smallest municipality – Buenavista – proved the naysayers wrong once the coffee harvest rolled in, in 1972, the Leyva’s renamed their hacienda in honor of Alberto Leyva (Gustavo’s brother), a victim of a commercial airline crash, the year before in Armenia.
After working the hacienda as a second-generation owner Eduardo Villota let his sons Gustavo and Juan Pablo take over the farm and apply their corporate know-how with premium global brands in developing a sustainable business on the original 15 hectares of land. Today the farm includes an impeccable modern facility that controls every step of a production process that begins with individually selected and handpicked cherries to washing, depulping and roasting. This macro business vision is matched by the estate’s soaring panoramic views from a sun-washed terrace where guests are invited to taste their Caturra and Castillo Paraguaycito varieties. “Caturra is the heart of San Alberto with 75%, and Castillo with 25% adds the notes,” states Gustavo.
With every bean passing through a “Quíntuple Seleccion” process that consists of standardizing in five steps the quality controls (from the size of cherries in flotation tanks to temperature-controlled drying), for Gustavo all of the secrets behind San Alberto’s award-winning coffee is in the details, such as the rows of flowering hibiscus that keep insects away from the plantation. “The flavor of San Alberto depends largely on the agriculturalist and the rigorous decisions that have to be taken regarding soil,” he believes.
Given its coveted location in the UNESCO listed Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia, known for its colorful architecture, towering bamboo groves and iconic workhorses of the agricultural sector, the Willys Jeep, the Hacienda San Alberto opened its doors to visitors a decade ago to showcase their coffee in a pristine setting. The company then opened three shops in the country: one in the Old City of Cartagena, and two in Bogotá: Museo del Oro and Usaquén.
Among the many awards Hacienda San Alberto has won from the International Taste and Quality Institute in Brussels are Three Gold Stars in 2012, as well as six consecutive Gold Awards from the Monde Selection (2104-2019), and the National Federation of Coffee Growers “Colombia, Land of Diversity” prize, given to the farm in 2017 for excellence in quality and social entrepreneurship. Chosen from 27 competitors of the top coffees of Colombia category, the award also recognized the farm’s commitment to sound environmental practices. “Our vision is to become a reference around the world for coffee, not because of quantity, but for all the value-added that goes into the process. Everything that requires extra effort is revealed in the taste of San Alberto,” said Gustavo.
For Juan Pablo and Gustavo running the farm that produces Colombia’s most awarded coffee is akin to operating a winery, in so much that winemakers balance change with time-tested traditions, as well as cater to aficionados and connoisseurs in search of tastings.
Café San Alberto has earned its place in the luxury category for its silky smooth texture and aroma that is as endearing as the mountains from where the bean originates. With different brewing methods available to consumers on the terrace – Moka, Chemex and Pour-over to name a few – a trip to this hacienda offers guests an immersive experience, and one as Gustavo states, “embodies the generosity of Colombia’s coffee growers.”
Original publication on The City Paper