An Exclusive Interview with the Man Behind Medellin’s Best Cafe and Coffee Scene

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To come to Medellin and miss Pergamino would be akin to visiting Colombia and skipping coffee. Pergamino is the essential cafe experience in Medellin. Not only will you drink the best craft coffee the Antioquian Andes has to offer, but you’ll sip in a style so comfortable you just might not leave!

Spacious and lively, the indoor-outdoor cafe is the coffee lover’s favorite in Provenza, the trendiest of locales in Poblado. Astir with expats as well as locals mixing business with pleasure, the terrace offers peace and fresh air beneath shady palms and acacias. The homey quiet of the wooden interiors are ideal for enjoying a cup of Chemex drip, a cappuccino or a decadent piece of house-made cake with a friend.

Each light roast, artesanal cup brims with bright tropical notes, a subtle and complex blend of flavors unique to the farm, the roast and the region of origin. Handpicked for exceptional drinkability, the varieties are direct from the farm and prepared with care by the baristas. Free trade and sustainability is a given; take a bag of your favorite home with you to enjoy later, too!

The magic beans arrive from the Santa Barbara Coffee Estate, a family-run collective spanning the decades and the Colombian hillsides. Today, we sit down to speak with Pedro Miguel Echavarria, son of the founder of the Santa Barbara Coffee Estate, and the leading man behind the craft coffee movement in Medellin.

Read on to learn the full story about the best beans in Medellin and Pedro’s own favorite places to visit around the City of Eternal Spring.

 

Can you start off by sharing the story of Pergamino?

Our story actually started about 40 years ago. My father started growing coffee on a farm about an hour and a half from Medellin. He started as more of a passion project more than anything else, something between his full time job. He had some money to spare and he found this little land in the middle of nowhere and he really fell in love with the product.

He called it his “shrink” because he had a very stressful full-time job, but spent most early mornings taking care of the farm. He was out there at 5 a.m., ensure everything was running smoothly. Eventually, he partnered with two of his best friends from school and they built what is now a relatively large-producing company.

Before we started with our project to export directly, to roast and to retail, we sold everything the farm produced to a private exporter or to the National Federation of Coffee Growers. This was exported as “Colombian coffee” and we only received the commodity price for coffee.

What you seen in the stock market trading as coffee, that is the price we earned, the base price; it moves up and down not based upon on our cost of production, but rather on the federal reserve either taking down their rate or whether there’s a financial crisis or there’s speculation that the price will increase for variable weather in Brazil.

However, never was it taking into account our cost of production; therefore, coffee is being sold right now at the price it was being sold in the 1980s – while our costs have risen considerably. The price of land, the price of labor, the cost of fertilization, the price of everything has increased.

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So, six years ago I returned from school, I was going to college in the U.S., and we started exploring the value of exporting directly to the U.S., and trying to add value to the coffee we were producing.

Because we were starting to hear about this craft coffee movement, we began to think about coffee in different ways, about how to tell the story behind coffee and the desire to look for exceptional coffees and how to best bring that final, exceptional experience to the customer.

We started to research the market and we started exporting coffee directly, improving quality and improving practices on the farms, creating relationships with importers and roasters around the world.

Some of those roasters are insignia craft coffee movement roasters like Stumptown, Blue Bottle, Toby’s New York–these are good quality. All of these outfits were becoming our export clients, but also teaching us about roasting, teaching us what they were doing in competitions with chains like Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Peet’s – which are obviously huge – but these guys were competing and successfully so.

After we looked at what they were doing and how they were different, we decided to test it here in Colombia. It’s a cliche, but it’s true: The fact is that we drink terrible coffee. Everything that’s relatively good, we export, and as a result, we end up drinking what’s non exportable: vinegars, broken beans and defect beans.

All that is being roasted to hell and we’re drinking it. So, the culture of coffee drinking here is relatively strong, as we drink plenty of coffee, but we drink terrible coffee.

We wanted to change that with Pergamino. We recognized our city has been changing over the last ten years. Now you can find great food, wine, craft beer, bars with an exceptional experience and we wanted to provide the same experience with coffee.

 

With that goal in mind, we started with a small shop, half of what we have now. We started very small, started roasting our own coffee and grew from there. We don’t want to be huge, we’re not opening stores left and right.

We have two stores now and we’re thinking about a third. We want to stabilize at four because we see that as the magic number for a level of quality and service. We don’t wish to grow just because we want to grow.

So far it’s been really nice, it’s been doing really well, and our airport shop (in the international wing) is doing very well. Most of our business is still exporting, we have an allied partner and we work with about 350 producers around Colombia.

We guarantee a sustainable price that is minimum 20-30 percent above market price, and it goes up to premium of 100-200 percent over market price. Basically, we try to do for others what no one else would do for us when we started.

The idea is to bring amazing coffees from all over the country to our customers here in our shop. And bring exceptional coffee to our roasters in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

How did you set out to bring an elevated experience to Pergamino?

We try to learn a lot from our clients outside of Colombia, but we also attempt to do our own things, as our market is different. The clients in the U.S. oftentimes have a more sophisticated perspective on food in general, and Medellin is just starting to get into that wave.

Basically, we wanted to offer something not just for coffee snobs. We don’t want that store where only people who know about coffee can come in and enjoy a cup of coffee that’s extremely expensive.

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Coffee is one of those affordable luxuries – really affordable luxuries, if you consider the exchange rate – you can have an exceptional cup of coffee for about $1.25. We wanted something affordable and easy to grasp for lots of people.

Even if we have our best coffees prepared in a Chemex or a pour over or our baristas over obsess about dialing the grinder of the espresso machine and they make sure every shot is poured correctly – we still sell iced lattes that are great, caramel frappes that are amazing. We create these things for people as an experience and as a product they can relate to more easily.

We want anyone who wants to drink a great cup of coffee to come here. It’s not necessarily about specific notes or specific origins. We want the interactions with our baristas to be great, we want our baristas to be engaged with the customers. We do public cuppings, as well, and a lot of people come every time.

What’s coming down the line for Pergamino and the craft movement?

Craft is a movement about food, about the ethics, sustainability, the environmental impact of every product you’re eating, drinking, wearing – and coffee is real part of that. Craft coffee is a 10-15 year movement, but the last five years have been explosive. We started six years ago and thought we were coming in late, but it was really just starting when we came in.

You see people migrating away from the corporate and the standardized. They’re wanting something that’s dramatically different and dramatically better, while also understanding the process behind it.

There are numerous small companies here in Colombia that are doing well in the craft movement, which is moving along and changing. We don’t have this expectation for growing, but we want to take our niche and ride the wave and do what we do best in the roasting and retail aspect.

What type of coffee do you drink?

I’m definitely a big coffee fan. I drink many of cups of coffee a day, though I’m actually not a big espresso fan. I like my coffee in a pour over or a Chemex.

Chemex is the the best way for me: simple, straightforward and beautiful in all it’s ways. It’s how I make coffee at home, our office, our warehouse, even when we’re having a cupping here, we keep a chemex.

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Which of your origins do you like to drink?

I specifically like our micro-lots with great sweetness, complexity, which are high in brightness and balanced in sweetness. Different types of coffee trees produce different kinds of beans. Right now we have three different origins and each type has different varietals.

We have La Plata farmed in the southern state of Huila, which is known for it’s high altitude coffees. This origin has green tea, melon and sugary note that’s really nice.

A recent addition is La Primavera, a blend of three different growers, from Caturrachirosa in Urrao municipality. If you’re doing tours of Antioquia, you have to go to Urrao. We buy coffee from growers there. It’s not touristy, but the views are amazing, and it, obviousl,y has great coffee. If you want to see a part of Antioquia that nobody sees, go to Urrao. This type has a subtle, flowery, citrus note.

And we have Lomaverde, which we grow year round at our farms. It’s your typical great Colombian coffee, chocolatey, very balanced for-your-all-day-everyday coffee. It’s also a little bit stronger than the others.

You said you drink a lot of coffee – what does that mean for you?

I know I have a conflict of interest, but coffee’s actually very good for you. There’s a point at where you might have your heart run a little faster than it should, but coffee is very high in antioxidants, and so it’s good for your diet. A highly roasted coffee might give you heartburn but lightly roasted coffee, like the ones we do, are a lot easier on the stomach.

Americans drink more coffee than anyone else per capita. People in the U.S. are accustomed to their big mugs. But I drink about 5-6 cups of coffee a day. Not big mugs, smaller cups. But yeah, I need to keep caffeinated.

When you go out in Medellin, where do you like to eat and unwind?

The area around Pergamino, called Provenza, is becoming the most interesting in terms of design and food in the city. It’s less hipster, but it would be the equivalent to The Mission in San Francisco or Williamsburg in New York City.

Restaurants here aren’t pretentious. The best restaurant around here… I really like Indian food, so I like Na’an. Though it’s actually not that well known, I love Espresso Sanducheria, a sandwich shop. It’s one of the hidden gems and only few blocks away, easily one of my top places.

El Social is probably my favorite bar, which is your little Colombian pub; less touristy and pretty much local.

Medellín has many beautiful areas. La Calle la Buena Mesa in Envigado comes to mind. Lucio is a great for a great piece of meat here.

El Che, only a few blocks away from the cafe, is also a great place to get a nice cut of meat. An old Argentinian guy founded it 50 years ago. Ask for churrasco when you go.

Cafe Zorba is another favorite of mine, and my wife’s favorite, too; she’s a vegetarian and this is great vegetarian pizza place. Verdeo always does great vegetarian too.

Perfect. Anything else you’d like to share before we go?

You’re all welcome here anytime you come to visit Medellin. If you don’t have the pleasure of visiting us yet, you can order our coffee, freshly roasted to your home in the U.S. or Canada, arriving via Fedex. Find us at www.pergamino.co.

And enjoy your trip when you eventually come down for a visit!

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An Exclusive Interview with the Man Behind Medellin's Best Cafe and Coffee Scene

Ian Heinig

Ian Heing is a recreational thinker and a burrito analyst. He loves spreading good ideas and solving other people’s word problems. These days you’ll find him in Medellin, printing T shirts and writing about travel, fitness or marketing. Reach Ian at ian@radicalartsdepartment.com or read his stories on Medium.