Inside the Colombian Coffee Plantation That's Run Entirely on Water
La Victoria was founded in 1892 and still uses water to power a Rube Goldberg-like collection of pipes to bring coffee berries in from the fields, sort them, and move them between the different stages of production.
Coffee beans at various stages of the production process, from raw to roasted. Photos by Ada Kulesza.
Hidden in the hills above the Caribbean coast of Colombia lies a pocket of coffee plantations, tucked into the dry tropical forests that blanket the region. One of the farms, La Victoria Coffee Company, takes advantage of the streams that flow generously down the mountain slopes and uses the water to run nearly its entire production process. The plantation still uses most of the same methods and equipment that it has since it was founded in the late 1800s, but the coffee it produces today could end up in your decidedly 21st-century Nespresso machine.
La Victoria is about a two-hour walk or a 20-minute motorcycle ride up a winding dirt road from Minca, a small mountain village overrun by tourists who flock to the town to hike, go birdwatching, and visit the plantations. While the bulk of Colombian coffee is cultivated further inland in the hills around Medellín, a significant crop does come from the Sierra Nevada mountains near the sea. These beans, which endure drier weather and higher temperatures than the coffee in the rest of the country, are known for creating a full-bodied drink with lower acidity levels.
The oldest of the plantations in the Caribbean region, La Victoria was founded in 1892 by a multinational group of families, but the bulk of the investment came from a British couple, explaining the queenly appellation. The farm uses water to power a Rube Goldberg-like collection of pipes to bring the coffee berries in from the fields, sort them, and move them between the different stages of production. The business even generates its own electricity using a miniature water wheel.
Above the processing center, the hillsides are thickly covered in coffee plants, some of the green leaves bearing light spots as the result of a fungus attack. Lorenzo, one of the farm's employees, stands among the bushes, picking off a few ripe red berries. "It's like a mountain cranberry," he says.
The plants can take as many as five years to start producing berries that are usable for coffee beans, but then remain viable for decades. Since the bushes grow well in shade, they are often partnered with fruit trees like banana, avocado and mango, whose produce is not necessarily destined for human consumption but rather as a buffer to protect the more lucrative crop. "We try to make it friendly for the birds and the mammals," Lorenzo says. "The mammals aren't going for the coffee beans. They're going for the sweet banana."
After the plants flower, coffee berries take about eight months to ripen on the bush. The main crop is harvested between November and February, with a secondary harvest from February to March. Workers pick the berries by hand and load them into the water pipes, which carry them from the hills down to the processing center. In total, there are 23 kilometers of pipes on the property that can move as much as 10 kilograms of coffee berries in an hour and a half, some from as far away as five kilometers.
When the berries arrive at the processing building, they are first soaked in a tank, where unsuitable fruits float to the top and are removed and discarded. Next, the remaining berries go through a cylindrical pulping machine to take the skin away and leave the bean behind.
At this point, the beans are still slippery to the touch, due to remnants of pulp still attached. To remove it, water pipes carry the beans over to the fermentation tanks, where they sit for up to two days to dissolve the remaining sugars from their surface. "Now their smell is completely neutral," Lorenzo says, cracking open a white bean to demonstrate. In contrast, opening a roasted bean releases a rich aroma.
The beans are then floated down a channel that separates them by weight, with heavier, more valuable ones sinking through a hole while the lighter beans continue down the pipe. "It's a very primitive system, but it saves a lot of money in electricity," the guide notes.
After the sorting process, workers spread the beans out on a concrete surface to dry in the sun. Finally, any remaining remnants of skin are removed, and the beans are sorted once again for quality. Most are ready for sale at this point, although La Victoria does roast some of its product on site. The roaster uses water pressure to turn the beans and keep them moving, and diesel to produce the actual heat—the only fossil fuel input in the entire production process, at least before the beans are carted away in gasoline-burning vehicles.
The plantation sells a limited amount of its top product to shops and tourists in Minca, but the majority of the best beans are exported to Nespresso. "The beans for the international market need to have good smell, good flavor, good color, good size," Lorenzo says. "You destroy one factor and you can't sell it."
Colombians drink a lot of coffee themselves, but the product that remains in country, regrettably, tends to be of a lower grade. "The bad beans, we remove and use them to make coffee for the Colombian people," Lorenzo says, laughing. "The coffee you get in the streets is not very excellent."
In contrast, exported Colombian beans have earned a reputation for quality. The fresh cup that La Victoria serves to guests drives home the point—rich, flavorful, perhaps roasted a touch too long.
At the end of a long day showing people around the plantation, Lorenzo stumbles over his English while making a point about the production process. "Hmm," he mutters. "I need more coffee!"