Cofinet: the coffee hunters

Carlos Arcila is a farmer first and a businessman second. As a child, he recalls riding horses with his grandfather through the fields of coffee trees in Armenia, Colombia and stopping to taste the different cherries on the farm.

“From a young age I learnt how to distinguish different types of coffee varietals based on their leaf size and shapes. We’d pick a ripe cherry off the tree, pop it into our mouths, and spit out the seed,” Carlos says. 

“I learnt to understand its flavour then move to the next varietal and do the same thing. It was like going to a candy shop and trying all the different flavours and comparing them. It was an amazing way to understand the complexity of coffee.”

Carlos was given the tools to embrace a future in coffee production from early on, but he was driven to pursue a business career elsewhere.

A civil engineer by trade, Carlos applied to study a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, but with such a long selection progress he decided not to wait.

When playing golf with a mate, Carlos asked his friend about his recent trip to Australia and his reply was encouraging: “Great place, best weather, hot chicks, friendly people, and awesome surf.” That was enough to convince Carlos. Two weeks later at age 25 in 2009 he landed in Australia and has been here ever since.

Carlos completed his MBA at Macquarie University in Sydney followed by a Diploma in Management. Education was important to Carlos, but his friends didn’t understand his persistence when he could quite easily make a living back home at the family farm, La Pradera.

“My friends would say to me: ‘Why do all that study when you’ll end up working with your dad anyway?’ I would say, ‘no. I’ll have my own engineering company. I will be independent’.”

Carlos proved them wrong – for a little while at least. He went to work in the mining section for Rio Tinto and Downer EDI, but the more he worked, the more he wanted to be working on the family farm.

“I knew I had to go back to my roots somehow,” he says. “I knew my family’s farming background – 80 years of coffee production – but I also knew absolutely nothing about Australia’s coffee culture. When I arrived here I would visit cafés for fun, trying different coffees and attended cuppings at Reuben Hills (in Sydney). It was there that I started making connections and realised there was a great opportunity to bring amazing Colombian coffees into Australia.”

The solution was Cofinet, a coffee importing business that Carlos says offers far more than just trading services, but a connection to Colombia and symbiotic relationships with its producers.

“People always ask me how we are different to brokers, and it’s because we’re farmers first and importers second. We understand the needs of producers better than anyone else because we have the same needs,” Carlos says. “We’re involved every step of the way because we want to control everything from the farm to the coffees’ arrival on Australian soil.”

Carlos is the link between roasters and producers. He’s on the road or in the air every second week visiting existing and prospective clients all over Australia.

“If I can get people to meet with me and get them to the table to cup our coffee, my job is done. The coffees don’t need any convincing. Once people try our selection, they surrender,” Carlos says. “We realise we’re the underdogs, but we want to be people’s first option, and I’m driven by that challenge.”

Cofinet already has a healthy number of roaster connections in Australia, and is looking to double its clientele in 2018, as well as expand its services to New Zealand.

While Carlos is the Australian connection to Cofinet, his brother Felipe is the backbone to the business. He works on the ground in Colombia and has built relationships with hundreds of producers, from large-scale cooperatives to small producers located five hours’ drive into the middle of the lush countryside.

Cofinet also produces its own coffee from La Pradera, owned and operated by Carlos and Felipe’s father Jairo Arcila, who also works for a large Colombian exporter selling “super low-grade coffee” to Colombia and Ecuador.

After coffee is picked, it is sent to La Pradera’s new processing centre where it can be first fermented in pulp (via anaerobic fermentation), and then processed using alternative methods such as natural or black/red honey process.

Felipe heads up this new initiative that enables neighbouring farms to use Cofinet’s processing facilities under their guidance and strict guidelines for quality rather than sending it elsewhere or doing it themselves.

“Typically, when you sell coffee in Colombia, producers sign a piece of paper and hand over the coffee. That’s it. This way, we add value to their business,” Carlos says. “We sit down with the producers and teach them about the processing methods we use and how we can help them. Everything is transparent. We share everything we know. We don’t hold back. What’s the point? If we’re going to grow Colombia’s specialty coffee production, we need to do it together.”

Carlos says La Pradera is the first facility of its kind in Colombia to “lead the way” in terms of varietal and hybrid experimental processing, and is achieving profiles not yet seen before from Colombian coffees. La Pradera includes a nursery and specialises in natural fermentation with aerobic and anaerobic conditions. It grows and processes exotic varietals including Red and Pink Bourbon, Yellow Gesha, Java, Catimor, Sudan Rume, Bourbon Tekisic, Mokka, Papayo, Gesha Peaberry, Laurinha and Bourbon Pointu, just to name a few.

“Ninety-nine per cent of Colombian coffee is washed coffee. We want to be different,” Carlos says. “La Pradera is a place of research and development. We opened a year and a half ago and we’re only processing 90+ coffees.”

Carlo says Colombia wasn’t always this experimental. Up until 2016, the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation had banned the export of anything other than “washed coffees”, wanting only to harvest “clean, balanced, and large-volume coffees”.

“Focus on volume and what we can sell the most of – that was the guideline. Quality came third,” Carlos says. “Ninety-five per cent of Colombian producers shared this mentality of volume over quality, including my father. He would always ask: ‘What can we plant that’s got the biggest yield?’”

However, with the commodity price of coffee so unpredictable, Carlos’ dad Jairo chopped down a lot of the family farm’s coffee trees and planted avocados, oranges, and bananas.

“Nothing was controllable. There were good years and terrible years. No matter how hard you worked, low commodity prices would mean you got next to nothing for your efforts,” Carlos says.

Gradually, as farmers started to produce better quality coffee, Carlos says the Federation “backed off” its strict guidelines and has allowed producers to start doing more experimental work. He says the decision has opened the playing field and “changed the game” for Colombian farmers in regions that weren’t primed to produce specialty.

“Colombia now has the biggest range of varietals in the world. The land and environment for production in Colombia is perfect, and for this reason I believe we’re ahead of other producing countries. In two years’ time, Colombia will be the new Panama.”

This article features in the February 2018 edition of BeanScene Magazine. Subscribe here today to see the FULL copy:

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