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Grower Interview: Elias Bayter of El Vergel

Brothers Elias and Shady Bayter of El Vergel first came to Little City while visiting Austin after taking a Q Grader class in Houston. Their instructor, mutual friend and colleague Tim Heinze, recommended that we meet and that we might enjoy some of the unique profiles they were offering. And boy, was he right! 

We were instantly impressed by the brothers’ coffees and even more by their approach to and passion for post-harvest processing. Through diverse plant genetics and progressive processing experiments, including early advocacy for the now popular Koji process, the Bayters, along with their business partner Santiago Carvajal, have developed a deep portfolio of offerings from their family farm, El Vegel, in Tolima, as well as from partner growers across various other regions of Colombia.

Though they’ve been on our radar for a few years now, we recently purchased our first microlot from El Vergel, and I sat down with Elias to discuss the farm, their coffees, and their approach to producing and marketing green coffee. 

LC: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your history with coffee? How did you get into the business and what drove you to start your company, Forest Green Coffee?

EB: My family has always been involved with agriculture, and therefore my brother Shady and I were also involved, since we remember. Our coffee story began actually not so long ago. We started back in 2010, when we were thinking about changing from producing avocados (we had been producing for almost 20 years) to another kind of crop, which led us to start growing coffee trees of red and yellow Caturra between the rows of the avocado (this is our current lot, called Guava Banana). This was all done on our farm, El Vergel, that is located in Fresno-Tolima, on the way up to the snowy mountain el Ruiz, which makes it an amazing soil for this type of crop. After three years of producing coffees, we began to get more and more passionate about it. We began roasting for local use and basically fell in love with it, so in 2013/2014 we decided to begin building the project to plant our highest farm lots (1,400 to 1,550 meters) with different varietals like Gesha, Java, Pacamara, Red Borbon, Laurina, and more red and yellow Caturra, which we planted in 2016. After the first harvest, we realized that the market for these coffees was actually outside of Colombia, so we decided to start researching it. We were very surprised to realize that the chain from a coffee grower to a coffee roaster was about seven different points, so we decided to build Forest Coffee to be able to join growers (like us at el Vergel) with Coffee Roasters, focusing on traceability and quality!

El Vergel Farm, Fresno-Tolima, Colombia

LC: How was this last harvest at El Vergel, both in terms of volume and quality, and how did it compare to recent harvests?

EB: This last harvest was 40 percent less due to the excess of rain in Colombia. For quality it was actually a little higher because we were able to concentrate on less quantity and more on improving our processes and installations.

LC: You mentioned recently that the harvest seasons had flipped in your region, that the main harvest now takes place when the Mitaca used to and vice versa. Can you talk a little about the multiple yearly harvests in Colombia, why it is different from other origins, and what changes and challenges your environment has presented in recent years?

EB: Yes! Our harvest seasons have changed and we think it is because of the many changes that are happening globally with the climate—global warming, etc. On the other hand, the multiple harvests in Colombia are due to the various altitudes, latitudes, and climates, which makes it possible to produce coffee all year round. To give you an example, in our region, we produce coffee 50 of the 52 weeks of the year, which makes it a constant way to offer coffees and also a way to have more controlled processes with all of our coffees due to the spread of the production. The challenge I would say is the labor. very year it is more and more difficult to find coffee pickers, but it is something we handle by doing special programs with benefits and higher pay. 

LC: In addition to the coffees from your farm, El Vergel, you purchase and export coffees from other growers throughout Colombia via your Partner Series. How many growers do you work with and in what regions? Outside of Tolima, your region, do you have a favorite?

Yes, we have developed projects in Huila, Nariño, Caldas, Santander, Cundinamarca, Antioquia, and of course Tolima. Counting all of our partners, we can proudly say that we offer coffee from around 160 families. It is difficult to choose a favorite one—each region has its jewels—but if I definitely had to choose one it would be Huila because of the different profiles you can find, from very solid community lots to high end microlots.  

LC: You have become well known for your experimental and rare lots over the past few years, and it seems you are always on the cutting edge of industry trends, introducing new profiles each season and constantly adding to your diverse portfolio of flavors. How and when did you decide to make genetics and post-harvest processing the cornerstones of your business, and do you think we will continue to see the specialty coffee industry trending in this direction?

EB: This is I think one of the main pillars at our farm, El Vergel. We are always looking for new ways of processing coffees and this is basically our main passion. We found that post-harvest processing was and is one of the most underdeveloped parts of the chain and therefore the one with the most opportunities. We for sure will continue to push the boundaries, and I think there are still centuries for this to continue as there is still so much about it to dig into and so much to learn!

Elias (center) discussing post-harvest processing with guests of the farm while showing off a beautiful nanolot of koji natural.

LC: Can you talk a little about the coffees that Little City is offering this year?

We are fortunate to see two amazing coffees this year featured at Little City. One is a community lot from Gaitania Tolima, our Black Condor, and the second is a natural anaerobic red and yellow Caturra, Guavabanana. 

The Black Condor has become the biggest project at Forest Coffee. We started in 2019, working only with coffees from La Roma, and at some point we saw the necessity to grow the project because of the coffee’s amazing profile and the demand from roasters. It has grown year-by-year to a total of 82 families. We educate them on how to process a cleaner profile with fewer defects, and we pay them 30 percent above the market price if they deliver the quality we are looking for. We receive the coffees with high humidity and finish the drying on our patios in La Roma. Thanks to the commitments on both sides with Little City and the Black Condor project, we were able to add five families to the project this year.    

The Guavabanana is one of our flagship coffees at El Vergel. It is our Natural Anaerobic Caturra, which is the most adapted variety at our farm because it was the first we planted. 

This coffee was processed through an anaerobic, controlled temperature fermentation for 48 to 60 hours while closely monitoring the ph levels. This was followed by an intermittent drying process in a series of stalls with different moisture levels to enhance the coffee’scomplexity. Then it was finished in silos to obtain correct moisture of the beans and stabilized for 45 days to homogenize the beans and promote complexity in the profile. 

Eric with brothers Elias and Shady Bayter (left and right) and mom, Marta at El Vergel in 2022.

LC: What’s next for El Vergel and Forest Green Coffee? Any new projects that you are particularly excited about?

We want to keep pushing the boundaries of processing. You know me, I’m super passionate about processes and creating new profiles. Our latest processing method is something that gets me super excited because of the extra value we can add to the coffee and because of the crazy profiles we are tasting on the table. It is our Colors and Flavors project, in which we use dehydrated fruits in the fermentation tanks for five days. 

Also, at Forest Coffee we are always looking to develop new projects, and we are really excited to see what the harvest in the south of the country has to offer us in the next months.  

Products mentioned in this post

Colombia El Vergel | Natural Anaerobic

$18.99
Microlots

Colombia El Vergel | Natural Anaerobic

$18.99
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